Friday, January 25, 2013

A Carolina Barbecue Sauce Tasting

A few days before Christmas, a present from Elizabeth arrived in the mail and she let me open it: two kinds of Carolina barbecue sauce. Coincidentally, that evening we had gone to Rockefeller Center and 34th Street to look at Christmas stuff and, while I was killing time waiting for Elizabeth to get done with work, I had ducked into Dean & Deluca and purchased for myself a bottle of their "Carolina Style" sauce.

Some background (this is oversimplified out of necessity; Carolina barbecue can be divided into many, many different regions): when a sauce is referred to as Carolina-style, it usually means one of three things. South Carolina barbecue sauce almost always contains mustard. North Carolina barbecue sauce can be two different styles: in the east, it is vinegar-based. (Sometimes it is only vinegar with chili flakes mixed in, which goes wonderfully with fresh pork.) In the western part of North Carolina, sauce still contains a fair amount of vinegar, but it also has tomato added and other things like brown sugar.

I like all of the types of Carolina sauce. And since I had just acquired three bottles in one evening, I had an idea, one of those ideas that makes this blog beloved by millions dozens of people from coast to coast: get some more bottles and do a tasting with pork.

Now, I don't mean go crazy online and order 50 different kinds of Carolina barbecue sauce (though I won't lie: I considered doing that). I just mean go around my neighborhood - perhaps a little farther afield - and pick up a few different styles. A Christmas present to myself. I ended up with a total of 10 bottles.

The pork I cooked isn't barbecue, it's just tender, slow-cooked pork with some spices. It was still delicious, but no comparison to a pork butt that has been smoked for hours over apple wood. And pork like that, with the delicate, sweet flavor of apple wood smoke, is perfectly complemented by a tangy, slightly spicy sauce. It's why I love the Eastern Carolina-style sauces.

This one, with vinegar, cayenne and mustard, is simple yet intensely vinegar. I mean, it tastes of almost nothing but vinegar up front, and then the unmistakable burn of cayenne pepper on the back end. It's not really fair to judge it on this kind of pork - it was almost too tangy. With the sweet smoke of apple or peach wood, this sauce would be a nice foil. But it was just too much here.

This one belongs here in name only. Bull's Eye regional varities of sauce (in addition to this "Carolina" version they also offer Texas, Memphis and Kansas City editions) is really more of a marketing gimmick. All of Bulls Eye's sauces are extremely sweet (they are all loaded with sugar). They are basically doctored-up ketchups. 

Now, that being said, this sauce isn't bad at all. But it tastes like more of a honey-mustard than a Carolina-style barbecue sauce. In the past it has been seen on this blog topping things like fried chicken sandwiches and hot dogs, and that's what I will continue to use it for. But I will never again add it to chopped pork.

The gold standard, no pun intended. I have eaten mustard-spiked barbecue sauces all over the country, but I cannot think of one that I like more than this. The mustard flavor in this is pronounced, balanced by a brown sugar sweetness and the tang of apple and Worcestershire. I am going to get myself some authentic barbecue soon and try it with this sauce.

Most of the ten bottles that appear here are sitting on my counter (a couple are in the fridge) with only a tablespoon or so missing. This Lillie's Q bottle is almost empty; I've been adding it to homemade potato chips, reheated White Castle burgers, grilled chicken, etc. I should order another bottle or two immediately.

I'll admit something right now: I did not notice, until I just uploaded and enlarged the above photos, the words "Made in Maine." It gave me pause. But after a moment of consideration, I realized I don't care. As long as the ingredients are correct, that's all that matters. (And then I looked at the location of all of the sauces. Not a single one was made in the Carolinas.)

I like the label of this sauce more than the actual sauce. It went to both extremes: at first was a mouth-puckering blast of vinegar, followed shortly by an intense sweetness. I checked the label: each one-tablespoon serving contains 5 grams of sugar, more than twice that of any of the other vinegar sauces - it's the same sugar content as the Bull's Eye, which as I mentioned is pretty much a ketchup. (The Blue Smoke sauce, for example, which comes closest to resembling this one, only contains 4 grams of sugar per each two-tablespoon serving.)

The label mentions using this sauce as a marinade, and that seems to me like a better use of it. I am saving this (there is only one of these sauces that I discarded after trying) for a couple of other ideas I have.

This sauce has appeared here before; I really like it. I've tried some of Guy's other sauces and hated them: the slaw dressing was disgusting, the habanero-mustard wing sauce was not the slightest bit spicy, the salsa sucks... but this sauce is a pretty faithful representation of a North Carolina sauce. It's tangy, as a vinegar sauce almost always is, but has the right amount of spices and a little bit of sweetness from the cider vinegar.

Where I live, Guy's sauce is the most readily-available in grocery stores of the sauces seen here, and that's not a bad thing. It's not the best of the bunch, but it's certainly not the worst.

In 2005, some friends and I went to Memphis for the Memphis in May barbecue competition. After visiting the Peabody Hotel lobby to see the ducks, one of the bigger letdowns I have experienced (though to be honest, expecting excitement out of watching ducks exit an elevator and march into a fountain was perhaps an error on my part) I went to the gift shop. I noticed a book called "Peace Love & Barbecue" which I purchased after flipping through it for ten seconds.

It's a collection of recipes, stories and reviews from a champion pit master named Mike Mills, who, in addition to owning a few barbecue restaurants, consulted on the opening of Blue Smoke in New York City. A year later I was in NYC and tried to eat dinner at Blue Smoke, but the wait was long and I was hungry, so I went to another barbecue restaurant (that turned out to be one of the three worst I have ever tried in America).

All these years later I live in New York, but I still haven't been to Blue Smoke for a meal. However I did stop in the other day to buy a bottle of sauce. (The smell was amazing and I plan to return to eat one of these days.)

The vinegar blast of this sauce was intense up front but, like the Denny Mike's, after a few seconds it was too strong on the sugar. The label talks about the peppery kick and I kept waiting to experience that, but it never showed up. There is also a suggestion that this be mixed with oil to form a salad dressing and I think I will try that soon.

This was the wild card: I saw it in a local market and purchased it, though I wasn't looking for it and in fact had never heard of it. It was similar to the Denny Mike's in that it provided both vinegar and sweet flavors, but there was another flavor I could not place. And it was incredibly unpleasant. Have you ever touched your tongue to a battery or perhaps (when you were a kid, of course), put a coin in your mouth? You know that bitter metallic taste? That's what I got out of this sauce.

It was, suffice it to say, the sauce I mentioned throwing away after the tasting.


I went to Brother Jimmy's hoping to buy a jar of their "Carolina" sauce, then learned that they don't sell it that way. So I opted to get the mustard sauce instead. I ate at Brother Jimmy's once a few years back and thought it was pretty good. (Like Sticky Fingers - coming up in a minute - the sauces were more enjoyable than the food.)

The mustard sauce is certainly good, but it can't hold a candle to the Lillie's Q mustard sauce. The problem I had was the sweetness: where Lillie's dominant flavor is mustard, the Brother Jimmy's is sugar. I was not surprised to see corn syrup - both the high fructose and regular versions - on the ingredients list.

Still, it's not bad, and I plan to use it when the Lillie's Q runs out... but not until then.


Like Bull's Eye, the Dean & Deluca sauce was more of a honey-mustard than a barbecue sauce. (But it was definitely better than Bull's Eye.) The combination of mustard flavors was nice, but it was thick and sweet. It obviously contained molasses. 

This would be a good dip for chicken fingers, and I could see myself mixing this with olive oil, tossing with some veggies and grilling, but this is not a sauce that I will be using on pork again. 

I've told the story of my Sticky Fingers discovery several times - my friend Tom and I were in Tennessee and famished after having driven up from New Orleans. Sticky Fingers was the only restaurant in the shopping center without a long wait so we ate there. The food was forgettable but I really liked the mustard barbecue sauce. I have not eaten at a Sticky Fingers again since that day ten years ago, but I've purchased a bottle of their sauce many times.

This is not as good as Lillie's Q - obviously, since I called that the best mustard barbecue sauce I have ever tried - but it's still tasty. It's a little sweeter than Lillie's, it doesn't have the mustard-dominant flavor that I love so much, but considering this is available in the nearby supermarket, I am certain I will always have a bottle of it on hand.

That was intense. No more pork for me until... actually, never mind, I forgot I had planned to go out for a pork sandwich for lunch today. Cool.


Anonymous said...

another great post, pp

Bekah said...