The Best Barbecue Sauces

Ryan Cooper had an article recently (October 7 — kinda recently) in the Smoke Sheet about a few of his favorite barbecue sauces that you can have shipped right to your front door. Brother Cooper co-founded the Smoke Sheet newsletter and is the genius behind the BBQ Tourist, two great sources for barbecue information. I’m sure you will like some of the sauces highlighted in the article. Since he encouraged me to write a post about sauces, here you are.

I’ll start with the sauces I like best, and then talk about about why I like those sauces, and then I address how you can get them

My Favorite Sauces

Here are links to the barbecue sauces which I like best. Let’s start with sauces for

Pork

Ollie’s Bar B Q, late of Birmingham, Alabama

Ollie’s was my favorite barbecue place when I was growing up. It is vinegar-based with lots of spices. Alas, it is no more, but they continue to make the sauce. You may guess that it’s my favorite barbecue sauce.

After Ollies, my favorite sauces in no particular order are:

Morris Barbecue, Hookerton, North Carolina. This is a great sauce, tangy and complex with well-balanced seasoning. It’s an Eastern North Carolina sauce with some extras. It shows how a sauce can elevate pedestrian pork.

Dixie Pig, Blytheville, Arkansas. The Dixie Pig makes a sauce (and sandwich) for purists: vinegar, water, and peppers. Simple, blended just right, and delicious. “It’s like Amazing Grace and Loretta Lynn: utterly without pretense, without guile.” And their use of raw cabbage rather than slaw is pure genius. No wonder that guy from Demopolis, Alabama, orders 100 sandwiches at a time.

Helen’s Bar B Q, Brownsville, Tennessee. This is a mixture of vinegar, tomato, and spices, and it melds perfectly with Helen’s ultra-smoky pork. The hot sauce has a nice bite, but not so much that it conflicts with the pork.

Parker’s Barbecue, Wilson, North Carolina. Parker’s makes the classic Eastern North Carolina Sauce, one that is very similar to the Dixie Pig sauce: vinegar, water, and pepper, blended beautifully. Nothing fancy, just good.

Bum’s Restaurant, Ayden, North Carolina. Bum’s does a lot of things about as well as they can be done, and it’s sauce is excellent. It’s pure Eastern North Carolina, much like Parker’s sauce. It goes perfectly with their world class pork.

Lexington Barbecue, Lexington, North Carolina. The Honeymonk makes my favorite Western North Carolina sauce. It has less tomato and more bite than other Western sauces.

Shuler’s Bar-B-Que, Latta, South Carolina. This is easily my favorite mustard-based barbecue sauce. It doesn’t scream “Ballpark!” at you so loudly that can’t appreciate the pork. The mustard flavor is subtle and goes beautifully with their excellent meat.

UPDATE: Big T’s BBQ, Gadsden, South Carolina also has a very good mustard sauce. Note: These also is at least one location in Columbia, but they do the cooking in Gadsden. Always call to make sure they”re open.

Ramey’s Bar-B-Que, Parsons, Tennessee. The sauce and the pork at Parsons make the place a classic. Ramey’s should be a UNESCO site. The place, the pork, and the sauce are simple but great.

I would add Payne’s Bar-B-Que in Memphis to the list, but the slaw they put on the sandwich is so striking that it’s hard to separate out the sauce. It’s the sweetest of the really good sauces, but the mustardy slaw balances it, and, with some great pork, the whole thing goes together very well. I need to go back to Memphis to try them again and check out more places.

Ribs

Dreamland Bar B Q, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and nine other locations. The Dreamland sauce is great, the best rib sauce in the world.  It is relatively thin, so it doesn’t glop all over the meat like most rib sauces, and it’s spicy in a way that complements the rich pork flavor.  Dreamland sauce on white bread is one of the truly great appetizers/side dishes.

Archibald’s BBQ, Northport, Alabama. The sauce is spicy and thinned with vinegar, much like Dreamland’s sauce.  Like Dreamland’s, it does wonders with the white bread, and helps make Archibald’s the best ribs in the world. 

Ollie’s also makes a rib sauce. I haven’t tried it, but I’m sure it’s great.

Chicken

Blue Smoke, New York, New York. UPDATE: Blue Smoke has closed, a victim of the COVID lockdowns. They should bottle their white sauce. The Blue Smoke white sauce departed from the usual white sauce recipe (mayonnaise, vinegar, garlic, Lea and Perrins, salt, and lots of pepper) by adding alleppo pepper, which gave it a great taste.

My favorite traditional white sauce is at Miss Myra’s Pit Bar B-Q, in Cahaba Heights, Alabama. And note — white sauce can be good with all types of barbecue, not just chicken.

Brisket

2fifty Texs BBQ, Riverdale Park, Maryland. I should note that I don’t eat much sauce on brisket. I haven’t eaten brisket at that many places since my Texas four-month Tour de Barbecue, and that was years ago. In most places east of Texas the brisket is tough, dry, and generally lamentable; life is too short for bad brisket. At the really good places I’ve tried — 2fiftyTexas, ZZQ Texas Craft Barbecue in Richmond, and Lewis Barbecue in Charleston — the brisket doesn’t need sauce, just some onions and pickles and jalapeño slices. I don’t think I even tried the sauce at ZZQ, so taken was I by the brisket, so they’re a non-entry. I used the Lewis sauces mainly to redeem some weak collards. The sauce seemed good on white bread. Of my small recent sample, I was most impressed by the 2fifty sauce, which I got around to tasking on the second or third visit, for its well balanced blend of spices.

My Sauce Philosophy

I should note that these favorite sauce places are not necessarily the best places for barbecue. The Skylight Inn in Ayden, just down the street from Bum’s, is not listed, but it has much better barbecue than, say, Parker’s or Morris. The meat is the key. Setting aside the corn sticks at Parker’s, I’d rather eat a pork tray at the Skylight Inn any day. And there are a lot of other sensational barbecue places that aren’t mentioned in this post. This is about the best sauces, not the best barbecue. And there are lots of perfectly good sauces not mentioned here.

And I probably don’t need to point out the tilt toward vinegar-based sauces. To me, the first principle is that the key to barbecue is the meat. Barbecue is about meat cooked with wood or wood coals, preferably pork cooked directly over the coals so that the pork fat drips down on wood coals to create pork fat smoke, the smoke that makes for greatness. The flavor of the sauce should never compete with the flavor of the meat, and it certainly shouldn’t dominate. The purpose of sauce is to balance and complement the rich flavor of the meat. That pretty well rules out all sauces whose first or second listed ingredient is sugar, a congery of sugars (such as corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, and the rest of the -oses), or, God forbid, molasses.

These principles are a matter not just of personal taste, but of science. Really. As I noted in discussing the barbecue at Central in Memphis,

 Dr. Bouzari, the noted biochemist, explains [in discussing the interaction of sauces with wood-cooked meats], that the goal of a sauce is to add sourness to balance the richness of the meat.  You can get that sourness many ways, from vinegar, as in North Carolina; hamburger dill pickle chips, as in Alabama; mustard, as in South Carolina; or onions, pickles, and pickled jalapeños, as on beef in Texas, NOT from sugar.  The sour element is especially vital with pork, the richest meat.

I love sugar as much as the next guy — in its place (desserts of all nations, Snickers bars and Reese’s Cups, and Liza’s Coconut Cake — not to mention the sugar in ice cream). But once you get beyond a smidgen of sugar in a sauce, it obscures rather than enhances the flavor of the meat. And then, excessive sugar consumption is very, very bad for you, especially in these plague times, while vinegar has many health benefits — and this is a very health conscious Blog.

All that said, this is America and you can use any sauce you want. Many of the thicker sauces are good on fries. The sweet sauces are best used sparingly. If the meat is so dry that it needs lot of sauce, it’s best to just get up and leave. Life is too short to eat bad barbecue.

How to Get these Sauces

This can be tricky. Many barbecue places don’t sell their sauce, and they certainly don’t ship it. Many of the truly great places — Helen’s and Ramey’s are just two examples — don’t have websites, much less the sort of complex set-up needed for permits, bottling, and shipping. A number of barbecue places with great sauces sell little bitty bottles of a sauce that I’m all but certain is not the same as the sauce with which they toss the meat they serve.

You generally can get a little in a plastic container of sauce if you place a carry out order, and you may be able to get them to fill up, say, a cleaned-out pickle or mayonnaise jar for a small price. I’ve never tried.

Some of the more commercial operations with good sauce have been set up for shipping. I keep a stock of Ollie’s Barbecue Sauce on hand, as per the photo above. As I noted above, the Ollie’s heirs and assigns no longer make barbecue, just the sauce. If you’re in Alabama, you probably can pick some up at the grocery. If not, you can order it here. Along the same lines, Morris Barbecue shifted from wood to gas for cooking, and they’re only open on Saturday, but their excellent sauce can be ordered here. Dreamland’s wonderful sauce can be ordered here. And you can order a very good white sauce from Bob Gibson’s in Decatur, Alabama, here. For now, you can pick up Shuler’s sauce at their store, and they tell me that they’re getting set up for shipping soon. Keep an eye on their website.

I well understand the problems with each of these alternatives. You may have invested in a few pork butts and invited a crowd over thinking that you had a full larder of barbecue sauce, only to discover, as did Old Mother Hubbard, that the cupboard is bare. If push comes to shove, you can improvise, and follow this simple recipe for last minute barbecue sauce.

Ultimately, though, there’s no substitute for going to one of these barbecue places and tasting their sauce in action, as it were. Different sauces taste different with different ways of cooking the meat.

Your views may differ. In fact, your views probably do differ. I welcome your thoughts, your verbal abuse, and especially your suggestions for other outstanding barbecue sauces. I’m always open to try new barbecue places and sauces.

***

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8 thoughts on “The Best Barbecue Sauces

  1. John,
    Have you ever had BBQ from any of these places?:
    Paul Gant – Port St. Joe, FL
    Fresh Air – Jackson, GA
    Finchers – Macon, GA
    Old Clinton – Gray, GA
    Best,
    Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kevin,
      I’ve been to Fincher’s a couple of times, and enjoyed it. I have a blog post on it (search “Fincher’s”). I’ve heard a lot about Fresh Air, and if I get near there I’ll definitely try it. I’m unfamiliar with the other places, but I can see catching both if I can drive down to FL again. I could detour over to the Panhandle via Gray and Macon, and have some barbecue along with my oysters. I guess I could also detour to Fresh Air.

      Thanks for the tips!

      Best,

      John

      Like

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