Barbecue sauce is a popular condiment used for basting, marinating, and serving with various barbecued foods, especially meats. The tomato is a key ingredient found in many classic barbecue sauce recipes, leading some to believe that all barbecue sauces contain tomato. However, there are actually a wide variety of barbecue sauce styles that use different ingredient combinations. While tomato-based sauces are very common, there are also popular tomato-free white sauces, mustard-based sauces, vinegar-based sauces, and more.
Popular Tomato-Based Barbecue Sauces
Tomato-based barbecue sauces are characterized by the use of tomatoes as a key ingredient, providing a red or reddish-brown color, rich umami flavor, and thick texture. Tomatoes contain natural sugars that caramelize nicely on the grill, as well as tomato solids that add body. Common varieties of tomato-based barbecue sauce include:
- Kansas City-style: Often considered the quintessential American barbecue sauce, it combines tomato sauce, molasses or brown sugar, vinegar, spices, and sometimes ketchup or chili sauce.
- Memphis-style: Features a blend of tomato sauce, vinegar, brown sugar or molasses, spices, and sometimes mustard. Known for a tangy, sweet-tart flavor.
- Texas-style: Tomato-based with a blend of spices like black pepper, chili powder, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Often quite spicy.
- Carolina-style: A mixture of yellow mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, hot sauce, black pepper, and sometimes tomato sauce or ketchup.
- Hawaiian-style: Uses tomatoes blended with pineapple, ginger, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, and spices.
The use of tomatoes helps create the rich, clingy texture and caramelized flavor that makes these sauces great for basting meats on the grill. While recipes vary in exact ingredients and proportions, the tomato remains the key building block.
Popular Tomato-Free Barbecue Sauces
While tomato-based sauces are an American barbecue classic, there are also many popular regional barbecue sauce styles that forgo tomatoes entirely. Some key examples include:
- Alabama White Sauce: Uses mayonnaise as the base, blended with vinegar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, horseradish, and sometimes thyme. Known for its tangy, creamy flavor.
- South Carolina Mustard Sauce: Features yellow mustard blended with vinegar, spices, hot sauce, and sometimes maple syrup or honey. Delivers a bright, tangy mustard flavor.
- North Carolina Vinegar Sauce: As the name suggests, these sauces use vinegar as the starring ingredient, flavored with black pepper, hot peppers, and sometimes tomato paste.
- Kentucky Black Sauce: Uses Worcestershire sauce as the base, along with black pepper, vinegar, lemon juice, and spices. Inky black in color.
These sauces forgo the tomato, allowing other ingredients like mustard, vinegar, mayonnaise or Worcestershire sauce to take center stage. They demonstrate the wide possibilities for creating distinctive barbecue sauces without tomatoes.
Other Tomato-Free Barbecue Sauce Styles
In addition to the regional tomato-free sauces above, there are many other barbecue sauce styles that leave out the tomato:
- Fruit-Based: Using mashed or pureed fruits like mango, pineapple, peach, plum, apricot, or cherry to bring sweetness and flavor.
- Whiskey: Often mixing American bourbon or rye whiskey with butter, vinegar, pepper, garlic, and spices for a savory, boozy flavor.
- Asian: Featuring ingredients like hoisin, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, ginger, and garlic for an umami flavor profile.
- Jerk: Inspired by Jamaican jerk seasoning, these sauces blend Scotch bonnet peppers with allspice, thyme, garlic, onions, and more for heat.
- Herb & Olive Oil: Uses fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano, and basil blended with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and spices.
- Mediterranean: Combines ingredients like olives, capers, anchovies, olive oil, and herbs like oregano, basil, and garlic.
The possibilities for tomato-free barbecue sauces are nearly endless, with room to innovate using various oils, vinegars, herbs, spices, peppers, fruit, booze, and beyond. They provide dynamic flavor without relying on the standard tomato base.
Key Functions of Tomatoes in Barbecue Sauce
To understand why tomato-based sauces are so ubiquitous, it helps to examine the key functions tomatoes perform in barbecue sauce:
- Sweetness – Tomatoes contain natural sugars that caramelize and provide sweetness to balance out other flavors.
- Acidity – Tomatoes have a tangy acidity that helps cut through rich, fatty meats.
- Flavor & Umami – Tomatoes provide a rich, savory umami flavor and robust red color.
- Body & Texture – The pulp of tomatoes thickens sauce and makes it cling nicely to meats.
- Versatility – Tomatoes pair well with endless ingredients like vinegar, sugar, spices, etc.
When tomatoes are left out of a barbecue sauce, another ingredient typically needs to be added to perform some of these crucial functions. For example, a fruit-based sauce relies on the fruit for sweetness, while vinegar often steps in to provide acidity. But tomatoes contain this balanced suite of traits, which helps explain their ubiquitous role in barbecue sauce.
While tomato-based barbecue sauces are exceedingly popular, they do not represent the full spectrum of barbecue sauce styles. There are countless recipes for tomato-free white sauces, mustard sauces, vinegar sauces, and more that draw on ingredients like vinegar, fruit, mayonnaise, mustard, whiskey, and olive oil instead of traditional tomato puree.
However, the popularity of tomato-based sauces illustrates why this ingredient appears in so many barbecue sauce recipes. Tomatoes provide the ideal blend of sweetness, acidity, rich umami flavor, body, texture, and versatility that allows them to serve as an incredibly effective base. Tomato-free sauces can replicate some of these qualities through clever ingredient combinations, but tomatoes contain them all intrinsically.
So while not all barbecue sauces contain tomatoes, this ingredient is certainly a foundational element of many beloved recipes. America’s strong barbecue tradition has firmly cemented tomato-based sauces as a go-to condiment for grilled and smoked meats. But the regional diversity of American barbecue has also given rise to wonderful, wildly creative tomato-free sauces that highlight other ingredients. In the world of barbecue sauces, there is no need to limit oneself solely to the tomato.