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Barbecue Sauce: which will it be - sweet, sour, or spicy?

Proper barbecue sauce is debated from state to state, region to region, and often from cook to cook

The history of barbecue is long and well-debated if not downright fought over. There are as many recipes as there are cooks and true aficionados will swear mightily by their individual favorites.

Commercial and gourmet sauces abound with new (i.e., the latest and greatest) products reaching the shelves almost every day. It's mind-boggling, especially for those who are just stepping into the sauce-infested waters of good barbecue. (Note: the very meaning of the word "barbecue" is another fiery subject.)

A good sauce will serve to enhance foods without overpowering the taste, whether it's used as a marinade, a dipping sauce, or combined with foods like baked beans or a delicious meatloaf. While it boils down to a matter of taste (and sometimes budget), the region in which you live, were born, grew up in, or were ever exposed to, will certainly influence the type of sauce you can eat in public. At home, you may be able to sneak in those from other, faraway places.

Sauces break down into three categories: spicy, sweet, sour. From this point, you may find many variations thereof. Labels will confound with: original, mild, hot, honey, smoky, thin, and thick. And it is here that the friendliness ends and the competition for "best" begins.

Historically, the first barbecue sauce was made with straight vinegar. The coast of North Carolina and Virginia lay claim to the very first. At some point, people began adding flavorings and the sauce began marching westward, acquiring new ingredients along the way. Mustard, mayonnaise, and tomatoes soon surfaced and as sauce popularity passed through Texas, it picked up some peppery heat. Alas, when it blew beyond New Mexico (i.e., California and Hawaii), fruits were added to the mix.

The forces behind each "best" sauce are easily defined by state, although regions have an influence.

Alabama (northern region): Mayonnaise is the state's claim to fame, but it has not achieved legendary status elsewhere.
Arkansas: These folks believe in a vinegar-tomato base with a touch of sweetness. No thick stuff here - it's all pretty thin.
Kansas City: The Midwest is seated in Kansas City when it comes to barbecue sauce. Famously, in fact. Sweetened by molasses with a tomato base. Nice and thick.
Kentucky: They love reductions, which include vinegar blended with Worcestershire.
North Carolina: This state is greatly divided in the spirit of good sauce. Along the eastern side, ketchup is evil. The western ridge adds a few tomatoes and sweeten it up as well.
South Carolina: Here's where the mustard kicks in - in large enough quantities to produce sauces of a matching color.
Texas and the Southwest: A good in-between sauce consistency-wise. Here, the spice takes sauce to new levels - sometimes too high with the addition of habaneros (the hottest of the hot).
West Coast and into Hawaii: They've figured out how to blend sweet and sour with a nice fruity overtone.

Now, to the eternal question of which is best. We won't address that here. However, in the spirit of neutrality, we can offer a little guidance as to what might work "best" with certain foods. That's not to say you can't use an all-purpose favorite.

Vinegar: These sauces tend toward thinness and are terrific for marinades and glazing while on the grill. First, the vinegar works to tenderize the meat while it's sitting in the fridge for a few hours. Second, it can be applied directly to hot foods on the grill at the beginning of the process.
Tomato - These are all-around sauces that can be brushed on brisket, chicken, ribs, you name it. If you're making your own, however, be cautious with overcooking - tomatoes can become bitter. Cook it long and slow.
Mustard - This is a superior match for pork products. It is multi-purpose as a marinade, baste, and dip.
Mayonnaise - Limited use. Suggested with white meats, and equally limited in cooking time as it tends to separate.

Always use "sweet" sauces with caution. They're best added toward the end of cooking as the sugars can caramelize and burn. This isn't a bad thing if that's your preference.

This great debate over barbecue sauce will probably continue anywhere cooks gather. If you're the non-confrontational sort, just enjoy each type for its unique tastes.

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