North Carolina Barbecue Sauce

To many Americans, barbecue sauce is red, sweet, and smoky—end of story. But there’s a whole barbecue culture out there that knows that is just the tip of the barbecue iceberg. Sauces vary by region, and this one is from the eastern reaches of North Carolina. It’s a vinegar-based sauce, nicely acidic and seasoned with red flecks of ancho and cayenne chile powders. Those North Carolinians are up to something; I just love how the tangy sauce complements smoky pulled pork.–Bobby Flay

LC Not By Barbecue Sauce Alone Note

Just to reiterate what’s said above, we want to be clear about one sorta crucial thing: this isn’t your typical gloppy barbecue sauce to squirt onto burgers or dogs. Thinner and tangier than most barbecue sauces, it’s designed to be used as a mop—that is to say, something that you use to baste a rich, unctuous, fatty fat fat shoulder cut of pork that’s left to sloooooowly cook on a grill or in a smoker until it’s imbued with flavor and coaxed into falling-apart submissiveness. It’s also what you dribble over the pulled or chopped pork after it’s heaped on a sturdy bun. That’s not to say it doesn’t also work terrifically on grilled chicken and burgers and so forth. It’s just an explanation so that you can adjust your expectations accordingly.

North Carolina Barbecue Sauce Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 30 M
  • 30 M
  • Makes about 3 1/2 cups

Ingredients

  • 3 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons ancho chile powder
  • 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon chile de arbol powder or cayenne pepper

Directions

  • 1. Combine the vinegar, ketchup, ancho chile powder, brown sugar, salt, black pepper, and chile de arbol powder or cayenne pepper in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. (The sauce is best when you cover and refrigerate it overnight to allow the flavors to meld. You can, of course, stash it in the fridge for up to a week or so. Bring to room temperature before using.)
  • 2. Rely on the sauce both for mopping pork butt, chicken, or burgers on the grill and for slathering over just about any grilled item just before serving—just be mindful to keep your mopping sauce separate from your slathering sauce, lest you contaminate the latter with cooties from raw meat from the former.
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Comments
Comments
  1. [Melissa Maedgen] This is an interesting sauce that’s not exactly representative of the most traditional and common North Carolina barbecue sauces. If it were a traditional eastern North Carolina sauce, it’d have no tomato product in it at all. If it were a traditional Lexington-style “dip,” which is what’s usually found not just in Lexington but throughout the Piedmont region, it’d have a bit more sugar. So this sauce falls somewhere in between the two. There are some spots here and there in North Carolina, especially in the Piedmont, that do serve a “hybrid” sauce much like this one. So while not your standard North Carolina sauce, it’s certainly a variation that you might run across. The ancho chile powder is a bit different, but then personalization is a hallmark of barbecue sauces everywhere.

    Whatever you want to call it, it’s a very good sauce that I might actually prefer to the more canonical versions. It has great acidity, which is a very desirable characteristic when pairing it with pork shoulder. I might prefer to see more hot chile and less (or no) ancho chile, but it’s good the way it is, and not everyone likes a flaming hot barbecue sauce. This one should appeal to a wide range of palates.

    If you aren’t familiar with Carolina vinegar-based sauces, you need to be prepared for a sauce that’s much thinner than what most Americans think of as barbecue sauce, and far more acidic. When you are eating pork barbecue that’s “pulled” (shredded) or finely chopped, a thin sauce like this permeates the meat, and the acidity works as a counterpoint to the fatty pork, especially if it’s shoulder meat. While the author suggests other uses for this sauce, it’s worthwhile to remember that this style of sauce was created specifically for pork barbecue, and that’ll be the use that shows it to its best advantage. Put into clean jars or bottles, this sauce should keep indefinitely.

  2. [Karen Depp] I’m a complete sucker for barbecue sauce—especially what I consider “North Carolina” sauce. I had no clue that there was even a difference until a few years ago. And then BLAM! Here it is! Now, from what I learned, a North Carolina sauce has NO tomato. That’s right, NO tomato. And yes, ketchup does count as tomato. This recipe would qualify without the ketchup and maybe some added raw onions. But I digress.

    This sauce is good, and it couldn’t be easier to make. Just look at those directions—just throw everything into a pot and go for it. Easy enough? I thought so. This recipe makes about 28 ounces worth of saucy goodness. If you are a purist, this isn’t a NC sauce. But then, some even put mustard in their sauce and call it a North Carolina sauce. So I’m willing to let a few ounces of tomato ketchup slide through the funnel. If I have any left over I’ll see how long it’ll last in the fridge. One week seems pretty short—there’s nothing in there that doesn’t sit in the fridge or on a shelf in the pantry longer than that.

    • Kenneth W. Smith says:

      There is a commercial sauce called “Bone Suckin’ Sauce” in plain or hot if you can find it on a store shelf. Also has a web site. This is my fave off the shelf sauce.

  3. [Martha T.] Disclaimers first: I grew up in Durham, North Carolina. Summer holidays consisted of pig pickin’s and BBQs. I’m a barbecue addict, and I want to admit my biases up front. Also, I want to admit my mistake with this up front as well. I waited to test it until Sunday, forgetting that (despite what the recipe says) the spices still need to rest together for at least a couple of days. Also, the week in the fridge is an underestimate—usually cackalacky sauces last a couple of weeks at least.

    As a beginner cook, I’m always on the lookout for a NC-style BBQ sauce that even I cannot mess up; you know, my foolproof showstopper of BBQ superiority now that I live in Alaska. I really only have one complaint about this: It made me homesick. However, I can imagine some folks sayin’ that it isn’t quite spicy enough. To fix that problem, I suggest using the base amount of cayenne and then employing the taste test method, adding more cayenne until your mouth starts to get a little pouty. I should warn you though, I’m pretty sure mine got hotter the longer it sat cooling off on the counter, so go easy.

  4. [Linda M.] Great twang with some peppery heat. This made about 3 1/2 cups of great basting sauce. I used this to mop a few racks of smoked ribs and the sauce added a peppery vinegar flavor to the finished ribs. Easy to throw together. I’ll definitely make this one again.

  5. [Colleen Bloxham] If you’re looking for a BBQ sauce with some kick, this little baby is the answer. Between the ancho chile powder and cayenne it had a little heat. Not blow-your-head-off heat, but some good old-fashioned sweet and hot like they like it in North Carolina. The great thing about North Carolina BBQ is the consistency of the sauce. It’s much thinner than that thick bottled stuff you buy and the flavor is much, much better. I love the spicy without all the sticky. We did a gorgeous pork butt with this and slow-cooked it all day while mopping with this delightful sauce. Add some coleslaw, buns, and salad, and Bob’s your uncle! Enjoy.

  6. [Shannon P.] Spending the better part of my younger years growing up in Texas, I was exposed to a great deal of Texas barbecue. A tomato-based sauce with a spicy kick, I’ve always favored this Texas variety. The age-old question: Which region’s barbecue reigns supreme? Well, I never questioned my commitment to my beloved Texas-style, however, I now realize that not only have I led a sheltered barbecue life, but I’ve missed out on an amazing barbecue sauce! This sauce is a tangy vinegary delight! I spent the week mopping it on chicken, sausage, etc., basically anything I could get my hands on. It disagreed with not a one. It came together quickly, stored well, and filled the house with the smells of a true smokehouse! Sorry Texas, but while I still love you, I’ll be making this sauce again and again.

    • Kenneth W. Smith says:

      The secret to BBQ sauce is, there AIN’T no bad BBQ sauce, just different and different is good.

      • Beth Price says:

        Couldn’t agree more, Kenneth. It’s all good. And I love the “Bone Suckin Sauce”, I’ve used it in a pinch when I was pressed for time.

  7. [Ayanna Fews] My grandfather made a vinegar-based barbecue sauce that I always loved, but unfortunately never received the recipe for. This recipe, although not as good as his, was still really good. It was a breeze to throw together and works well on chicken and pork. I made a slight adjustment to the amount of ketchup and brown sugar—I thought that it was a little too vinegary and figured that adjusting these two ingredients would provide the fix. I’ll say that this sauce was even better the next day.

  8. [Alexander Cowan] To be honest, while I’m a huge BBQ fan, I’m more of the type who lets the smoke and meat for speak for themselves. However, there are loads of regional variants and who am I to deny wanting to try all of them? With that said, I’m loving this sauce. Super vinegary and slightly sweet with a small spice kick; I’m all about nuances. My only tweak would be to add just a little more brown sugar, but that’s totally a personal preference. My yield was around 3 1/2 cups, which was plenty for the whole smoked chicken I made. With this recipe in hand, why buy bottled BBQ sauce anymore?

  9. [Robert M.] I was pleasantly surprised by this sauce. This has a good balance between the vinegar, the ketchup, and the brown sugar. This is my first try with a North Carolina sauce. We used this on spareribs and grilled chicken the first time. I was so carried away by mopping and slathering that I forgot to take an accurate measurement of the number of cups the recipe made. Next we tried it on some turkey and veggie burgers. I must say that it boosted the flavor of both a great deal. I used cayenne because it was what I had on hand; next time, I may increase the amount slightly. Everyone that tasted this agreed that it’s a nice change from the very thick and too-sweet barbecue sauces that are common in our area.

  10. Mrs E says:

    Once again LC came through and inspired me for a delicious and new evening meal! I read the recipe, picked up the ingredients along with a nice sized pork shoulder, and crossed my fingers for a decent dinner. This was my first time making a NC BBQ Sauce and it was a success!

    SAUCE ASSEMBLY
    The sauce came together quickly, as anticipated. I followed the directions exactly, with the addition of a tablespoon of honey and a few tablespoons fresh pineapple juice. I was afraid the sauce would be spicy but the sauce is not spicy AT ALL!

    CROCK POT PULLED PORK METHOD
    I chose to reserve 1 1/2 cups for the crock pot and the other 2 cups went right back into my empty Trader Joe’s Organic Apple Cider Vinegar bottle and into the fridge for a later use.

    As I was out of the house all day I was hoping that my one cup vinegar with the pork shoulder was not going to be too much acid for the shoulder. Even though I love Bobby Flay and LC recipes, there was a small part of me that was nervous and wondered if this would turn out alright. When I got home after 6 hrs with the crock pot on high temp, the house smelled amazing. I tested a small piece of the pork and it was so delicious. The flavor of the sauce went into the pork and left it moist and lip-smacking good.

    I proceeded to remove the pork from the crock pot, strain the remaining liquid, and skim the fat. I then shredded the pork and placed it back into the crock pot with only about a half cup of the marinade to keep it moist. I reserved the remaining strained crock pot sauce for those who would like to add it to their pulled pork. I turned the crock pot on low for another hour until dinner time…which I could hardly wait for.

    VERDICT
    My family likes a thick BBQ sauce (we have never eaten NC Sauce liquid style sauce) so I bought a bottle of the thicker stuff from my local BBQ restaurant which serves Texas-style BBQ. I personally do not think the pork needs additional sauce, but I will keep in on the side for those that wish to have a thicker sauce for dipping.

    LC, you saved the day, I was not inspired to cook today until I saw your post, tonight would have been a takeout night. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!

    I WILL make this sauce again, and am now thinking about how I can use my leftover unused sauce on Memorial Day :)

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Mrs. E, we’ve missed you, and we were wondering which recipe you would comment on next…perhaps in the future we’ll take bets! Seriously, though, nothing pleases us more than hearing from satiated readers. Love that. Thanks so much, not just for letting us know how swell this recipe turned out, but for sharing your honey and pineapple juice trick (which I’m going to try this weekend, as that sounds just like how me and my husband like our ‘cue). My turn to thank you!

  11. Mrs E says:

    Start the betting Renee because I am sure to make another recipe soon! By the way, no one needed another style of BBQ sauce last night, they all liked this sauce just the way it was.

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