North Carolina Barbecue Sauce

A small pot filled with North Carolina barbecue sauce with a brush resting inside.

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

  • Quick Glance
  • (1)
  • 30 M
  • 30 M
  • Makes about 3 1/2 cups
5/5 - 1 reviews
Print RecipeBuy the Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Addiction cookbook

Want it? Click it.



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.)

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.

Print RecipeBuy the Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Addiction cookbook

Want it? Click it.

Recipe Testers' Reviews

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.

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.

#leitesculinaria on Instagram If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We'd love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Back to North Carolina Barbecue Sauce on Leite's Culinaria