American barbecue does not always take well to anything new, according to Paul Kirk, often called the “Baron of Barbecue”. He’s an expert in the “sweetest culinary science,” and has written 10 books on the subject, including the boldly titled, Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue Sauces: 175 Make-Your-Own Sauces, Marinades, Dry Rubs, Wet Rubs, Mops and Salsas.

“Barbecue is the most tradition-bound of the American culinary arts,” Kirk claims. “It’s ‘low and slow’ and wood smoke, a long time grilling in the back yard, so the experts can have plenty of time to enjoy a beer or two while the pork butt slowly reaches gustatory nirvana.”

Going against that attitude is Ardie Davis, one of the best-known judges on the competitive barbecue circuit, and a co-founder of the prestigious Kansas City Barbeque Society. He’s a latter-day modernist who readily accepts new techniques.

“Grilling hot and fast, or smoking slow and low—both are barbecue, but the dogma that it is only slow and low persists. A few old-timers and newbies defend it with vigor, as if it is proof of real barbecue,” Davis asserts.

The challenge for processors is to recreate all these emotions into ready-to-eat products that encompass the flavors, textures and rugged individualism of a backyard or competition barbecue dish.

“Barbecue at home or in a competition is different from a restaurant is different from production,” acknowledges Andy Husbands, restaurateur, chef and co-author of Wicked Good Barbecue (2012), with pit master, Chris Hart.

“These barbecue formats all are entirely different, but really, they also are all the same—they’re all about the meat and the flavor. A processor can get championship-level barbecue by keeping that just-from-the-smoker

flavor at its peak. The same way you would not order barbecue in a restaurant and wait four hours, you want to have the authenticity of flavor and texture when you buy a ready-to-eat product.”

Sauces, Mops and Rubs

While some barbecue masters are divided over the “to sauce or not to sauce” question, for most manufactured barbecue products, the sauce is integral. Three basic ingredients—tomatoes, vinegar or mustard—still dominate. But variations on those themes are enough to fill a good-sized supermarket (and do). A visit to any barbecue sauce supermarket shelf can turn up as many as several hundred different products.

Davis, who also was one of the founders of the American Royal International BBQ Sauce, Rub, & Baste Contest, estimates there are as many as 1,200 variations of barbecue sauce available in US stores. No matter how many variations, though, each can be placed into one of five main categories:

  1. Super Sweet and Thick (the best example would be Memphis-style, which also is the most popular category of purchased barbecue sauce)
  2. Sweet and Smoky (classic KC-style and typically with liquid smoke flavor added)
  3. Tangy Sauces (these are vinegar-based, commonly referred to as North Carolina-style and most often are used with pork)
  4. Mustard-based (German-influenced sauces that originated in South Carolina)
  5. Hot and Spicy Sauces (can include any of above categories augmented with hot chili peppers)

Barbecue has been called a “regional sport,” a sectional thing with adherents willing to take up dueling pistols to defend the righteousness of their culinary religion. North Carolinian pit masters love to douse their pulled pork in vinegar; South Carolinians shudder in disgust while they pick up their mustard jars; and both see pig as the only proper meat.

Texas barbecue makers, on the other hand, love their brisket, often slathered in a sweet, smoky tomato-based sauce. In fact, they’ve driven the price of this lesser cut of beef so high that rustlers don’t bother stealing cattle anymore.  That one small chunk of meat is all they want. New York strips and filets are a waste of time in locales like Harlingen and Amarillo.

Kraft Brands Inc.’s Bullseye KC Style and Sweet Baby Ray’s by Ken’s Foods Inc. are the best-selling store brands in the Super Sweet and Thick sauce categories. Kraft’s Bullseye Hickory Smoke leads the Sweet and Smoky group. Stubbs Legendary Kitchens LLC and Pinnacle Foods Group LLC’s Open Pit brand are the most often purchased of the Tangy Sauces.

Mustard-based sauces are harder to find outside of the Carolinas, where the leading seller is Maurice Piggy Park’s BBQ LLC’s Southern Gold sauce. Store-bought heat tends to be too mild for avowed chili-heads, but Sweet Baby Ray’s still sugary-sweet Honey Chipotle and KC Masterpiece’s more purist Hot & Spicy are good examples of popular versions of the Hot and Spicy category.

When chef Myron Mixon, on record as having won more barbecue competitions than anyone, was asked about the perfect sauce, the three-time barbecue world champion and judge on the reality show BBQ Pitmasters says, “What you’re looking for are flavor profiles; how the sauce works. Is the sauce a combination of Memphis-style with a sweet, hickory tomato base, and Kansas City-style—basically the same thing but with a little more smoke? If you go into any supermarket nationwide and walk down the sauce aisles, most sauces are based on a Kansas City-/Memphis-style barbeque sauce. Tomato-based, hickory-flavored, sweet—that’s pretty much what everybody associates with barbeque, and that’s what you see in competitions.”

David White, a competition judge in the Ohio circuit, agrees that judges favor sweet tastes. But when he evaluates a barbecue formulation, one of the strict criteria he holds to concerns the other white meat.

“Sweet is not for pork,” White says. “It tends to be a naturally sweet-tasting meat, so Carolina-style mustard- or vinegar-based sauces work better.”

White also notes spicy and bourbon-flavored sauces are gaining in popularity. “It might have to do with bourbon sales being especially strong. More bourbon-flavored sauces are showing up on store shelves.” Examples include Devil John Moonshine BBQ Sauce by KD’s Manufacturing Inc.; a hickory-bourbon sauce from Stubbs; one with Tennessee whiskey by Sticky Fingers Smokehouse LLC; and a brown sugar-and-bourbon sauce in Pinnacle Foods’ Open Pit line.

Knowing the regional differences of barbecue does not mean developers of barbecue sauces or meat-and-sauce RTE products or kits are limited in creativity. But, as with any culinary endeavor, before a formulator can develop a variation on a theme, it’s critical to know the themes themselves; that is, the “mother” flavors that make up the basics.

This is especially true of the current trend of incorporating ethnic tones to familiar sauces, such as using African spices in a rub for barbecued poultry (peri-peri currently is trending up), or incorporating a hint of Southeast Asia via  sriracha in a tomato-based barbecue sauce.

All About the Meat

Not surprisingly, the pursuit of the perfectly done brisket has reached university-level intensity in Texas. Jeff Savell, PhD, a university distinguished professor of meat science and holder of the E. M. “Manny” Rosenthal chair in animal science at Texas A&M University, heads up a two-day tutorial in the “art and science behind barbecuing brisket.”

Called Camp Brisket, the program is limited to only the most serious barbecue fanatics. Co-sponsored by a surprisingly friendly union between Texas A&M and the University of Texas (specifically, the Foodways Texas
program)—two of the most heated rivals in a state loaded with such—it actually qualifies as a graduate-level course in barbecue.

Savell notes that even he picks up pointers at Camp Brisket. “Several years ago, we had someone presenting at the camp on sauces. He recommended adding a touch of vanilla to the sauce. He explained that it brings out some of the other flavors, and it does seem to work. Think about red wine and the touch of vanillin it has naturally, and then think about the use of oak to cook with, and the impact those similar components have on flavors.”

In discussing first what is best applied to a Texas brisket, Savell describes specifics of a rub. “Central Texas rubs are most known for being simply a mix of salt and pepper,” he says. “This likely originates from when 19th century German/Czech meat markets slow-cooked meat to extend the shelflife. Salt and black pepper would be the primary seasonings that would have been available.”

Savell cites two examples from chefs considered legends of the barbecue business. “Aaron Franklin, of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, uses a 50-50 mix of salt and pepper, while Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, uses a pepper-to-salt ratio that is closer to a 5 to 1 or greater for his rub. It is not uncommon for some of the pit masters to include a little cayenne pepper to color the rub and add just a kick of hotness to the mix.”

Using such a simple, Old World formula can allow a formulator to focus on subtleties of meat and smoke and the inherent flavors therein. A salt-and-pepper meat rub also can allow for creativity where the new trend of herb-, spice- and smoke-infused salts, such as from alder, mesquite or cherry, can come into play. Or, use a more exotic pepper, such as the single estate, organic, fully ripened Wynad black peppercorn or even a Muntok white peppercorn.

That’s the Spirit

According to Datassential MenuTrends, the use of premium bourbon as a barbecue sauce ingredient is showing up on a third more restaurant menus than four years ago. It’s most popular in the Midwest and the South, but it’s slowly gaining ground in the rest of the  country, too.

Bourbon is a spirit with distinct notes of vanilla, and Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey and Pendleton brands all use their well-aged-in-a-toasted- barrel, distilled spirits to lend natural caramel and smoky flavor notes to their  branded sauces.

Historic Lynchburg Tennessee Whiskey Barbecue Sauce, which uses Jack Daniels Black Label as a starter, combines two trends—whiskey, and hot & spicy—for its 86 and 100 POOF! sauces. (Yes, that’s “poof!” without an “r.”)

Chefs who create their own house- made sauces typically favor premium pours, like Jim Beam’s Jacob’s Ghost, a “white” whisky. One Boston-area chef uses Louisville Distilling Co.’s Angel’s Envy (recently acquired by Bacardi USA Inc.) to make a smoky, tangy reduction flavored with garlic, spices, sriracha sauce and maple syrup as a glaze for chicken wings.

Beer is the favored drink of the barbecue crowd, and a goodly number of barrels are either imbibed or used as a starting point for sauces and rubs—or both. Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue suggests it might be the soul of the art. “Drink beer,” is his answer when asked how to “do barbecue right,” but “not so much that you lose track of what you’re doing.”

When it comes to flavor, Franklin considers himself an “old-time traditionalist.” The main ingredients for his typical, two-ingredient meat rubs are kosher salt and pepper. Franklin doesn’t care for sweet, either; he prefers wood smoke and the meat itself to provide the dominant flavors.

Breweries of every size, from giant Anheuser-Busch/InBev NV’s Budweiser to the smallest craft brewers, are using lagers and pilsners as a base for self-branded sauces. Budweiser sells at least four concoctions based on its brews: Original BBQ, Smoked BBQ, Mild & Tangy Wing Sauce and Honey BBQ sauce. The much smaller Yuengling Brewery, D. G. Yuengling & Son Inc., offers sauces based on its porter, lager and Black & Tan. In a trendy flavor twist, the company adds a little bacon flavor to its lager sauce.

New in ‘Cue

Most barbecue experts agree that “sweeter” is the current trend. Brown and white sugars, molasses and fruit are being used more frequently and are becoming a more dominant part of many recipes.

Ken Davis, whose line of eponymous barbecue sauces are provided by Summit Foods USA Co., suspects the sweet trend is being driven by the barbecue competition circuit. “Competitors are realizing that sweet tastes appeal to the judges, so they’re using more sweetness to gain a few extra points,” he posits.

A&W Rich’n Hearty Barbeque Sauce, based on the brand’s incredibly sugary root beer, could be the ultimate sweet taste. The spiciness and sweetness of root beer has been common to many sauces by home chefs, as have Coca Cola and Dr. Pepper, the latter most especially in its native Texas.

Adding sugar, especially brown sugar or molasses, has traditionally been one of the staples of sauces, mops and rubs. Recipes found in the Caribbean Islands centuries ago—places where the word barbecue was first used—called for large quantities of molasses as a  primary ingredient, revealing a strong African influence.

Derrick Riches, a barbecuing and grilling expert with, likes to blend the sweetness of fruit with the heat of peppers, combining apricots or strawberries with habaneros, for example. He prefers to take fruit flavors and combine them with other seasonings to “create a more complex flavor.” One of his favorite approaches is also simple: “[T]ake virtually any fruit preserve and add hot sauce or hot chili peppers,” he recommends.

As another example, Riches points to the combination of the sweetness and heat of Fischer & Wieser Specialty Foods, Inc.’s raspberry and chipotle sauce, noting it is especially effective on pork. Fischer & Wieser is a small producer of fruit-based barbecue sauces, glazes and preserves that bookends the sweet sauce trend, using the natural sugars of lots of different fruits, including mangoes, plums pineapples, pomegranates, papayas, peaches and berries to create dozens of products.

Heat’s On

Another rapidly growing category can best be described as a Scoville heat unit “shooting war.” The Scoville scale is a measure of the “hotness” of a chili pepper or anything derived from chili peppers. Named after Wilbur Scoville, who developed the test in 1912, it ranges from the very mild pimento at 500 SHU and the well-known jalapeño at less than 5,000 SHU to the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion chili pepper, currently the hottest bred pepper commercially available, at up to 2 million SHU.

The Bhut jolokia (ghost pepper) currently is one of the most popular peppers used in sauce formulations at 500,000-1 million SHU, and recently shifted from use strictly in hot sauce to applications in other sauces, as well as snack products. Some sauce makers are taking heat further by using extracts of capsaicin, the volatile compound that gives chili peppers their heat.

Blair’s Sauces and Snacks Co. makes its Blair’s 16 Million Reserve with crystals of pure capsaicin. It registers a tongue-destroying, jaw-shattering 16 million SHU. (Pepper sprays used for defense typically are only about 2 million SHU).

The fad for sauces with just a little extra heat has become an all-out arms race, as hotter and hotter strains of peppers are used to create post-nuclear blast levels of heat. Brands abound with names such as West African Voodoo Sauce, Mike’s Nuclear Waste, Chile Addict Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Hot Sauce and Toxic Waste Extract. Sales of even the most powerful, straight-out-of-a-blast-furnace sauces and rubs have caught fire in the past few years.

The National Fiery Foods and BBQ show welcomed almost 150 exhibitors this year, most of them anxious to burn down the house with a devil’s brew of white-hot sauces, rubs and marinades. Sponsoring the 19th annual Scovie Awards, they accepted 790 total entries from 154 companies. Competitors came from 31 states, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Winning products stand as a great indication of what’s trending—the new and interesting in the world of sauce creation.

This year, first place in the all-natural hot sauce division was Smackers Smack Me Hard Hot Smackin’ Sauce. The Fruit-Based hot sauce winner was Cherry Pomegranate Habanero Sauce from Robert Rothschild Farm. The Mustard-based hot sauce ‘best of breed’ went to Carter’s Original BBQ Sauce, and first place for Vinegar-based hot sauce was awarded to Smoky Jon’s Fiery Gourmet BBQ Sauce.

“Changes start small; for example, using super-hot peppers with sauces and rubs,” says Dave DeWitt, the show’s organizer. “[But] then the sauces get watered down as they move out into fast food and the mainstream.”

DeWitt acknowledges only a handful of people can stand to eat a fresh ghost pepper, so “it stands to reason only very small amounts of it will actually be used in a product sold to the public.” For this reason, the heat trend can be considered to be strong, but finite.

Global Q

Perhaps the biggest movement in creating barbecue products and sauces is the growing number of international entries into the mix. Cooking low and slow over aromatic woods or grilling over an open fire is not an American invention. The barbecuing methods and flavors first brought to North America from Africa in the 1500s showed influences from how local tribes were cooking their game. And the native populations, especially south of the border, brought techniques, flavors and even the word barbecue into American back yards.

Barbecue from Latin America (especially Argentina and Brazil), the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Korea, China, the Philippines and East Africa are rapidly gaining popularity. This melting pot concept is pushing American barbecue toward a mix-and-match international art form. Product developers turn to the most interesting of these global influences to create entirely new flavors.

Ready-made rubs, marinades and seasoning mixes reflect the demand for global barbecue and run the gamut from Bombay-style, yogurt-based tandoori spice marinades to hot pepper-, soy- and toasted sesame powder-laced Korean rubs. Others pepper-focused products include Peruvian aji or guajillo chilies. 

Chi’lantro, an Austin, Texas, Mobile Food Operation (a.k.a., a food truck or MoFoOp) that recently put down roots and opened a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, has taken the usual Tex/Mex and Southwest cuisines and cross-pollinated them with Korean barbecue. Rib eye or pork bulgogi are served with a side of kimchi-laced French fries. Korean barbecue tacos can be ordered, as well as K-Pops, KPops, which are Korean-style fried chicken wings (inspired by the afore named restaurant chain, KPops), served with a gangnam barbecue sauce (a chili, apple juice, honey, miso, garlic and green onion mixture).

Korean sauces are becoming more popular probably because they begin with familiar ingredients and add just enough of the exotic to appeal to the mainstream cravers of “different…but not too different.” Most of the Asian-fusion barbecue recipes start with classic ingredients, such as brown sugar, vinegar, peppers and garlic. They take a definite Far Eastern turn, with the addition of ginger, sriracha and mirin (a sweet rice wine used in many oriental Asian recipes).

Slowly coming out of Filipino communities on the West Coast and into the heartland is a taste for pinoy sauces used by street vendors to baste their barbecued meat, usually small chunks of stick-skewered pork. It’s a high-acid sweet-and-savory sauce that starts with a vinegar base and adds lemon juice, lemon soda, soy sauce and tomato ketchup.

A more recent Filipino introduction is an inasal barbecue sauce for chicken that mixes soy, coconut vinegar, lemongrass and ginger with a little pepper and sugar. It also gives poultry a peculiar, yellow-orange tint.

Coastal East African cuisine from countries such as Ethiopia, Tanzania and Somalia feature mishkaki, a Swahili word that describes skewers of barbecued or grilled boneless beef or chicken. It’s marinated in a sauce of fresh ginger root, garlic, tomato paste, tamarind paste and curry powder.

South American tastes in barbecue started making headway on North American shores when Brazilian-style churrascaria steakhouses opened up in every major American city. Brazil dominates this culinary invasion with its molho à campanha, which is more of a light salsa than a heavy sauce.

There are at least four other South American-style sauces attracting increasing attention: Argentina’s chimichurri and Chile’s pebre also are more salsa than sauce. Peru’s aji amarillo is fiery sauce made with aforementioned aji amarillo peppers. The flavor is softened with peanut butter. It’s the traditional sauce for anticuchos—pieces of beef heart marinated, skewered and barbecued over a grill. Bolivia’s high-heat
llajua starts with Rocoto or Scotch bonnet peppers but adds familiar ingredients, such as tomatoes, garlic and vinegar, making it more palatable for American barbecuers.

Developing new formulations for a category as broad, yet “personal,” as barbecue can seem daunting. Processors should see this as having a lot of leeway to be creative. More than that, a multiple of trends can be served with each new product. Good barbecue never goes out of style, and to make good barbecue, authentic ingredients—plus a little passion—go a long way.