The Secret to North Carolina BBQ Sauce

North Carolina BBQ Sauce

In North Carolina, the term “barbecue” speaks exclusively about barbecued pork. Barbecue is defined as meat that is cooked over a flame to achieve a crispy edge and a juicy center. The pork meat will literally fall of the bone once it has reached the point of barbecued perfection. Traditionally, barbecued pork is important in North Carolina, but equally important is the barbecue sauce that is added. The flavor of the pork may be enhanced by a rub or sauce that is put on the meat. Rubs are added to the meat before cooking. The rub is a mixture of sugar, salt, pepper, chili pepper and other spices that are patted onto the meat. Rubs create a crisp barbecue “crust” on the pork and the flavor profile infuses the meat. During the cooking process, a sauce might be used to baste the meat. North Carolina BBQ sauce is also slathered on the meat when it has finished cooking. The texture of barbecued pork is pretty standard, but the flavor is going to be drastically changed by the type of sauce you put on your meat – North, South, Eastern or Western Carolina bbq sauce to be exact.

Barbecue in North Carolina has a history that runs deep. The Spanish brought pigs to America in the 1500s and they thrived in North Carolina. Abundant pork in North Carolina caused the locals to use and eat the whole pig in true villager fashion. The staple of roasting a pig over a fire holds to this day in the Carolinas. Pork may be cooked in many ways ranging from wood smoked to cooked in an oven. Regardless of how the pork is cooked, it is important to have the right barbecue sauce to accompany it.

Here’s the nitty gritty of North Carolina barbecue sauce. Vinegar and pepper barbecue sauce has been used for hundreds of years in North Carolina, possibly even before the 1700s. The use of vinegar and spices helped flavor the meat and enhance the eating experience. The vinegar based BBQ sauce made North Carolina barbecue stand out. In the 1900s, ketchup was first produced. Ketchup became a quick and flavorful addition to the vinegar and pepper BBQ base. Then, North Carolinians had two flavors of barbecue sauce from which to choose.

These two types of barbecue sauce define and divide North Carolina barbecue. Eastern North Carolina BBQ sauce is vinegar based. Whereas, Western North Carolinians add tomato ketchup to their vinegar based sauce. Eastern Carolina BBQ sauce cuts through the rich and fatty meat with a zing from the vinegar. As you finish your bite of pork, you will notice that your palate feels cleansed and not overwhelmed by the rich meat. Western North Carolina-style BBQ sauce adds an acidic bite from the tomato ketchup.

The amount of sweet, spicy and tangy you experience in your Carolina BBQ sauce are determined by the combination of ingredients used. All North Carolina barbecue sauces begin with vinegar. White vinegar can be used, but apple cider vinegar is preferred for the apple flavor it adds to the end result. Salt and pepper are a staple to enhance the flavor of the sauce. Crushed red pepper, cayenne or a pepper sauce may be used to add extra heat to the mix. Brown sugar or apple juice is found in some recipes to sweeten the taste. Eastern North Carolina sauce can be found with fresh garlic as an ingredient as well. Only Western North Carolina barbecue sauce will boast ketchup as part of the recipe.

Both these North Carolina-style BBQ traditions started in someone’s kitchen to bring family and friends together over a meal. Someone had to experiment with ingredients in the kitchen to test what would taste best on barbecued pork. Here are some recipes that have been held together by taste and tradition. Make these recipes for yourself and discover whether you like straight vinegar barbecue sauce or vinegar and ketchup barbecue sauce. These Carolina-style BBQ sauce recipes are worth mastering. With a few simple ingredients and in a few short minutes, you will have your own homemade North Carolina BBQ sauce.

Western Carolina BBQ Sauce


  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon ketchup
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon of ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt


  • Mix all of the ingredients together in a saucepan.
  • Continuously stir the mixture over medium low heat until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Be careful not to boil or let the sugar burn.
  • Once the sugar is dissolved, remove the saucepan and allow the barbecue sauce to cool.
  • Refrigerate in an air-tight container for at least 24 hours before serving.
  • Mix well with a spoon before serving.
  • The barbecue sauce should be reheated before serving or served at room temperature.

Pro Tip: Low and slow is the best method for cooking this recipe.

Barbecue sauce

Western Style Barbecue Sauce Variation, “Lexington Style”


  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • ¼ cup apple juice
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 3 Tablespoons brown sugar
  • ½ Tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper


  • No cooking required for this recipe.
  • Whisk all the ingredients together.
  • Prepare this sauce ahead of time and let it sit for at least 3 hours to overnight to allow the flavors to meld together.
  • Serve at room temperature.


Pro Tip: The flavor of the sauce will be best if you make it and refrigerate it for one week before serving.

Eastern Carolina Barbecue Sauce


  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons crushed red pepper
  • ½ Tablespoon chopped fresh garlic
  • ½ Tablespoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon black pepper


  • Mix all ingredients together.
  • Refrigerate in an airtight container overnight.
  • Serve at room temperature. If you want the sauce warm, heat it in a saucepan on low until warm.

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce (Slightly Spicy Variation)


  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon hot pepper sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper


  • Thoroughly combine all the ingredients listed above.
  • Store in the refrigerator for two days prior to serving.
  • During the 2 days, shake the container often to encourage the ingredients to fuse together.
  • Baste the sauce on the pork while it is cooking.
  • Serve with your barbecued pork.

Extra Pro Tips:

* All these barbecue sauces can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.

* To create a baste with your North Carolina BBQ sauce, mix equal parts apple juice and barbecue sauce. This diluted sauce will keep your meat from drying out while cooking.

Enhance the flavor with the sauce

These recipes will help you bring the flavors of North Carolina barbecue into your own home. Try these recipes and discover whether you prefer Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce (vinegar based barbecue sauce) or Western Carolina BBQ Sauce (vinegar and tomato barbecue sauce). If you want your barbecue sauce sweet, add more brown sugar or apple juice. If you are looking for something with a little heat, mix in some cayenne pepper or hot sauce. Whichever barbecue sauce you choose, join the tradition of North Carolina barbecue by sharing it with your friends and family. Get creative with these staple sauces and add a secret ingredient of your own. Enjoy!

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