Barbecue sauce 101

  • Posted: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 5:30 p.m.
Staff photo by Jennifer Miller
J.T. Handy, a champion pit master from Charleston, sauces ribs while they cook slowly in his large smoker.
Staff photo by Jennifer Miller J.T. Handy, a champion pit master from Charleston, sauces ribs while they cook slowly in his large smoker.

Barbecue is a staple in South Carolina’s food culture.

Local cooks around the CSRA use a variety of bases to cook up the mouth watering dish including vinegar and pepper; mustard; light tomato which is usually a mix of vinegar, pepper and ketchup; and heavy tomato which is the deep red, sweet sauces typically found on the shelves at any local grocer, according to the SC Barbeque Association.

There’s an art to the craft of barbecue. Each barbecuer has their favorite base and will add their own personal touch to give it a more smokey, sweet or tangy flavor.

Interestingly enough, the state itself is divided into four categories of sauces that are used specifically in those areas more so than others, according to S.C. Barbeque Association Master Judge Mike Jones.

The Pee Dee region and Lowcountry cooks like vinegar and pepper. Upstate residents like to use heavy tomato sauces.

Columbia is fond of the mustard base and this region tends to mix it up with a light tomato and mustard blend.

Dwayne Courtney has been around barbecue all his life and said that mustard base is what he grew up on. Courtney said he doesn’t mind the sweet, sticky red sauces but when he has the choice, he goes for mustard.

“Yellow is where my heart is,” Courtney said.

Courtney remembers his family’s Fourth of July tradition of strapping a pig to a couple of limbs over some coals in a pit that they dug in the ground.

Typically, they would cover it in vinegar, water, salt and pepper. With a bit of old-fashioned elbow grease, they’d cross their arms and flip the large hog throughout the evening until it was well-roasted.

These days, Courtney barbecues over a brick pit he constructed at home and has participated in a few local cook-offs.

Alan Willing makes barbecue for mostly local charities and often cooks up against Courtney. Willing uses mustard but said he’s more partial to vinegar.

“Vinegar is more of a clear liquid where as the mustard is going to be more pasty,” Willing said.

Willing said it’s all up to individual preference, but they all cook at a slow pace over low heat.

Willing added that barbecue can be personalized with wood chips like hickory or oak to mold the flavor around each cook’s own taste.

Lake High, president of the S.C. Barbeque Association, said mustard is expanding its boundaries.

The mustard base originated through the Germans here in South Carolina, and High said it sharpens the taste of pork while dulling the flavor of beef.

“Mustard is actually superior to tomato as a barbecue sauce,” High said. “It enhances the taste.”

According to High’s research, North Carolina and South Carolina share three of the four types of bases, not including mustard.

High said the common, original barbecue sauce is vinegar and pepper, which was the first to come hundreds of years ago.

Mustard followed behind and is often considered the South Carolina-styled barbecue.

Mustard bases are starting to move outside of South Carolina at a fairly rapid pace, High added.

Jones said that since he’s a judge, he really can’t have a favorite but he can say that each base has a different kick. Judging allows him to meet a lot of interesting people and gives him a chance to expand his palate.

“They’re all good,” Jones said laughing. “Let’s just say they’re all good.”

Courtney tries the barbecue in each state that he travels to and has experienced a wide spectrum of flavors.

To him, nothing compares to home.

“I eat barbecue wherever I go,” Courtney said. “I think it’s hard to beat South Carolina barbecue. Good old South Carolina pit-cooked barbecue – that’s just what I’ve grown up on.”

For more information on barbecue in South Carolina, visit www.scbarbeque.com.

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