Traditional American barbecue sauces have always had an air of mystery. The lengthy ingredient lists. The complex flavors. The secrecy surrounding the recipe. The mythical pit masters who vow to take their formulas to the grave.
So the notion of a barbecue sauce that contains only three ingredients smacks of heresy — even more so when you can assemble it in a matter of minutes. But there are precedents in regional American barbecue. Each of these recipes requires just three ingredients (not counting salt and pepper), and all will take your barbecue far beyond the sweet tomato-based condiment most of us call barbecue sauce.
“Vinegar sauce is the original American barbecue sauce,” said John Shelton Reed, author of “On Barbecue.” While a watery mix of cider vinegar, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper may not seem like barbecue sauce to most Americans, North Carolina-style pulled pork just wouldn’t taste right without it.
The vinegar counterpoints the fatty pork, while the black and hot peppers crank up the heat. In western North Carolina, ketchup is added for sweetness. The debate as to which is superior remains fiercely fought. Personally, I prefer the ketchup-free version, agreeing with Wilber Shirley, the founder of Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro, N.C., who once said, “You don’t put vinegar on beef, and you don’t put ketchup on pork.”
Try North Carolina vinegar sauce with pulled pork, shredded barbecued chicken or lamb.
South Carolina’s contribution to regional American barbecue is mustard sauce. Barbecue buffs — from Columbia, S.C., through Georgia, and in parts of Kentucky and Florida — understand the wonders that mustard can work on pork; how the spice enhances the meat’s sweetness, while the acidity cuts through the fat.
Mustard may be the addition of the German immigrants who settled in South Carolina in the 18th century and whose descendants opened barbecue restaurants still revered in the state, such as Bessingers in Charleston, Sweatman’s in Holly Hill and Hite’s in West Columbia.
A good mustard sauce is a study in balance: the bite of mustard and mouth-pucker of vinegar offset by the sweetness of honey or brown sugar. Tradition calls for using ballpark-style mustard, but try the suaveness of Dijon-style mustard or a grainy mustard from Meaux in France.
There’s no mystery about the origin of this third sauce: Alabama’s unique white barbecue sauce. The place was Decatur, Ala., where “Big” Bob Gibson, a railroad man and barbecue buff, began selling barbecued chicken from his backyard in the 1920s. Legend has it that Mr. Gibson created the sauce for a customer who hated tomatoes.
This piquant mixture of mayonnaise, vinegar and black pepper has accompanied barbecued chicken through five generations of pit masters at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q. The mayo thing may sound strange, but it’s awesome.
Pair this white barbecue sauce with smoked chicken, pulled pork or roast beef.
According to Robert F. Moss, the author of “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution,” a new generation of Southern chefs is upscaling the recipe, using homemade mayonnaise, uncommon mustards and designer vinegars.