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All About BBQ Sauces: Types, Origins, and Pairings

All About BBQ Sauces: Types, Origins, and Pairings

Get to know the 4 classic bases and make your own

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Dasom Yang

Dasom Yang

Food Editor at Kitchen Stories

While the warm weather and the robust grill do half of your work, the crowning jewel of your successful barbecue experience comes from the sauces and dips you match with your perfectly grilled meats, veggies, and fruits. Whether you like the tantalizing bite of vinegar- or mustard-base sauces or want to inject extra richness with yogurt and butter dips, we have compiled a full list in this article to get you inspired, starting from the types of grilling sauces, where they come from, and how to make your own. Got your grill on? Let's go!

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Tomato, Vinegar, Mustard, and Dairy: The Four Bases And Their Matches

There are many ways to categorize grill sauces, depending on their region of origin, their consistencies, or the types of meats or veggies they're best matched with. One of the easiest ways to distinguish them, especially in the American and European traditions, is to look at what base they're made from, namely: tomato, vinegar, mustard, and dairy (including mayonnaise, butter, and yogurt).

1. Tomato-based BBQ sauces

Think ketchup but better. Naturally tangy and sweet, tomato-based sauces are usually enhanced with other sweet ingredients like sugar, molasses, and honey, and spiced with garlic, paprika, and of course chili powder for that extra kick. They're also the most popular and commonly used sauce base here in Germany!

Because of their universal appeal, tomato-based sauces compliment almost all grilled meats and veggies, but we particularly like to spread them over nicely grilled burgers and sausages, as well as rub them on chicken wings before grilling, to add the scrumptious tang. Try them with:

Classic hamburger

Classic hamburger

The best vegan burger
BBQ chicken wings
Balkan cevapi with roasted vegetables

2. Vinegar-based BBQ sauces

Want the tang but not the syrupy texture? Vinegar answers your call. The thinner consistency of vinegar-based sauces makes them lighter and more easily absorbed into the protein and veggies, while the astringent bite from the fermentation process delivers full, umami-rich flavor.

A famous use of vinegar in a lighter, fresher BBQ sauce can be found in the fresh, tangy chimichurri, originating from Argentina and Uruguay, made with parsley, red wine vinegar, garlic, and olive oil. Or think of Carolina style sauces: made predominantly with malted vinegar and spices, they are known for their lighter consistency with full tangy, spicy kick.

Whatever they may be mixed with or however they may be named, the vinegar-based sauces make for a great addition to fattier cuts of pork and beef to counteract the overwhelming richness, but also match surprisingly well with sweet grilled fruits and veggies. Try them on these recipes:

Grilled prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe with chimichurri

Grilled prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe with chimichurri

Grilled sweet and sour pork skewers
The best BBQ ribs
Grilled caesar salad

3. Mustard-based BBQ sauces

Famously well-loved in Western Europe as well as in the Carolinas and Georgia in the U.S., mustard combines the pungent bite of vinegar-based sauces with the rich, creamy texture of the dairy-based ones. The best of both worlds!

Honey and mustard are already a household match, but mustard also mixes well with herbs like thyme, oregano, cumin, and even nutmeg (try it, you might be surprised by the pleasing result!). It also complements most meat and veggies, as well as fish and seafood. Have fun trying out mustard combinations in these recipes:

Make grilled lemony salmon with Christian

Make grilled lemony salmon with Christian

Halloumi burger with honey mustard sauce
Calamari skewers
German pork belly skewers

4. Dairy-based BBQ sauces

While the other three bases focus on the tang and bite that can punctuate your BBQ experience, dairy-based (mayonnaise-, yogurt-, or butter-) sauces focus on adding the richness that can either mellow out the spices in the protein or bring out the creaminess even more.

A great example would be tzatziki, made simply with yogurt, cucumber, olive oil, salt, sometimes with lemon juice and other herbs. It is used widely in the Mediterranean region and beyond as a dip that can greatly complement the sharpness of the smokey grill flavor.

Dairy-based sauces mix well with all kinds of herbs (i.e. homemade herb butters–the possibilities are endless!) and are also a great way to add fullness to grilled veggies and fruits that can otherwise feel a bit bland. Try using them with these recipes:

Kebab with homemade tzatziki

Kebab with homemade tzatziki

Grilled corn with miso butter
Homemade herb butter
Homemade tomato butter with Parmesan
Grilled chorizo and shrimp cheeseburger

But Where Do They Come From?

Pinning down the origin of the BBQ sauces is as tricky as tracing the origin of any dish, as they migrate with people and pick up characteristics throughout their journeys and evolve. We can however talk about the regional influences of each sauce and the many different kinds of history it carries. For starters, we have selected three different sauces/BBQ condiments to deep-dive into and showcase just how different sauces are enjoyed throughout the world.

Classic Carolina BBQ sauce: From Africa to the South

Vinegar-based sauces rule the U.S. South, where barbecuing has been a favorite method of dining throughout centuries. The origin of the classic Carolina BBQ sauce can be traced back to 1600's when enslaved people from Africa brought over their method of seasoning and marinating their meats with lime, peppers, and spices. The tangy and spicy bite that also helps preserve the barbecued meats longer quickly became popular throughout the South, and in the centuries that followed, vinegar replaced lime to make up for the latter's relative precarity and difficulty for preservation.

The classic sauce went through many adaptations and transformations: Throughout the South you can see either homemade or commercial versions mixed with ketchup or mustard. However, the classic spicy vinegar-based Carolina BBQ sauce is still a mainstay. Often used as a 'mopping sauce' to baste the meat before grilling, it also often appears on the table as a deliciously tart yet light and fresh dipping sauce. The tartness penetrates the meat and cuts the fat, while the vinegar's natural astringency intensifies the flavor of the meat.

Try it with this dish:

Barbecue pork chops

Barbecue pork chops

Jerk spices: The king of marinades and rubs

Smoky, fiery, and fruity: Jerk spices deliver the full irresistible flavor of the Tropical palette. To tell the history of jerk, a world-famous Jamaican/Caribbean spice mix, is to tell the history of the whole region: like in the U.S. South, it involves the history of enslaved people and the migration and merger of spices and culinary cultures.

A historical jerk seasoning recipe calls for bird peppers, pimento and pepper elder, while modern recipes often include Scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, garlic, ginger, pimento, thyme and cinnamon to recreate the full plethora of sweet and spicy flavors of jerk. Often used as a rub and marinade before grilling as well as a spice mix to add to sauces, jerk's versatility knows almost no bounds: Used on meats, fruits, and veggies, the piquant, smokey, subtly sweet flavor intensifies any barbecue experience.

Try it with this recipe:

Jerk-style chicken with pineapple and coconut rice

Jerk-style chicken with pineapple and coconut rice

Ssamjang: A fermented must-have in Korean BBQ

Grilling has been a well-loved mode of cooking all over the world for centuries, and it doesn't exclude regions across Asia. Korea in particular has been capturing grill-lovers' eyes with its culture of grilling all kinds of meat, served with various side dishes, and of course, sauces.

Ssamjang is the most common BBQ sauce that will appear at all Korean BBQ tables: traditionally made from fermented soy beans, it mixes spicy red chili paste (or Gochujang), garlic, and onion for that subtle mix of umami, spicy, and nutty-sweet. You can simply use it as a dip for your grilled meat or add a generous pinch to your wrap (or Ssam) for that perfectly savory blend of flavors upon first bite.

Try it with this recipe:

Korean barbecue with Sam Jang dip

Korean barbecue with Sam Jang dip

Make Your Own BBQ Sauce

While the wide variety of sauces enriches the whole BBQ experience, the sheer amount of choices can certainly be overwhelming. Why not, then, select what you like the most about your favorite sauces, and make the ultimate BBQ accompaniment of your own? Who knows, you might come up with a mix that will be branded with the name of your family or town and enjoyed over generations!

We already have an article that compiles recipes and tips on making some of the most beloved barbecue sauces from around the world at home. But instead of relying solely on the tried-and-tested recipes, we suggest being creative and not being afraid of mixing and matching different bases, spices, flavor profiles, and preparation methods for your grill sauces. Remember, worcestershire sauce uses both vinegar and mustard bases, as well as borrowing from the umami of anchovies; Honey mustard works because it is sweet and pungent at the same time.

If you're unsure which spices to mix with your sauces or in what ratio, we have prepared our own seasoning mixes optimized for grilling, perfect as a pre-grill rub or for your sauces and dips.

We hope that the tips we shared in this article, as well as the origins of some of the well-loved sauces, will help expand your BBQ experience to the maximum.

Tell us in the comments what your favorite BBQ sauces are and how you use them!

Published on August 26, 2023

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