The BBQ Sauces of Memphis

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Compliment, coordinate, complete

It’s time to put together the components of a barbecue feast Memphis style. The pork shoulder has been slow smoking all day, the ribs hit the smoker more recently bit are getting a decent bark. You built a killer rub that opens up all the flavors of the smoke and the meat. Depending on who you talk to, many will say the sauce is the most important part of BBQ. They’re not entirely wrong, it’s a hard race to call because the rub is so packed with flavor. We’re going with the dead heat mentality here; they both need to finish well.

Bit of Memphis background

 smoking hog on the spit

With roots that run deep into colonial America, the traditions of barbecue cooking and saucing have evolved over centuries. The early smoking of a whole hog on the spit, slow roasting for hours and hours, being basted with vinegar to keep it moist, is the best origin story. Those crafty early cooks likely knew that the vinegar was also going to help them in the tenderization process, and it added a complimentary tanginess to the meat. We’re much luckier today because we have access to pork raised with more consistent farm practices giving us a better starting product.

You add that history to the nexus that was Memphis in its early days, and you begin to see the foundation for today’s barbecue. As a transport hub on the Mississippi they had access to many commodities, but most importantly for BBQ, molasses was plentiful.  There was another discovery attributed to the Americas, the tomato. Between the high acid content of the tomato that discolored pewter dishes and flatware, and the fact that it is in the nightshade family of vegetables, they were considered toxic at first. Fortunately that attitude diminished and the tomato became a staple in the early 1800s.

Throw in the explosion of a black population during and after the Civil War, and you have the perfect storm of components. The exotic population added their use of unique and intensely flavorful spicing, added to molasses, the appreciation of the tomato, and the historic use of vinegar were all parts of creating the unique tang, heat and sweetness in Memphis BBQ sauce.

The basics

We need tomato, vinegar and molasses. And spicing, which we will come back to. Many really good recipes use catsup as their base. There’s no real issue with this, it is quick and effective, and allows a sauce that doesn’t even require cooking. That being said, a quick simmer goes a long way to fully meld flavors, eliminating out of balance components and insuring better blending. The minor negative to a catsup base is the variation of sweetness and vinegar content that exists between differing brands. So, make certain that you choose a ketchup brand that you like as a standalone sauce. Or, use our recipes below that are still easy to execute and allow you full control of the sweet and tangy components of your end result.

ingredients for Memphis bbq sauce

We will use spices almost exclusively in sauce preparation. Spices are the ground flesh, seeds, bark, roots and other plant components. The contrast is with herbs, which are typically the dried and ground leaves of what are, not surprisingly, referred to as herbaceous plants. Spices deliver more concentrated flavor profiles bringing more to the table when we want to build an intense sauce.

Getting the right tang

Vinegars require some of our conversation about building a sauce. Commercial vinegars require an acetic acid level of 4% minimum, with 5% the common working level and wine vinegars pushing into the 6-7% range. Be aware if you get to the ‘strong’ vinegars in the 10% or better range. They are actually caustic and you should glove up for safety. Balsamic vinegars are a current darling of food, for good reasons… reasons that don’t work well in BBQ sauce. Characterized by dominant flavors, further intensified through the aging process, Balsamic will take over your sauce.

Apple cider vinegar is the first choice in most sauce recipes for its very pleasant tastes, so we list that in our recipes. White vinegar will get you the acid without adding flavor. Malt vinegar gets a more intense taste in the distillation process, but it still blends well with BBQ sauce flavor profiles. Red wine vinegar brings the tannins and some citric acid with the grapes, so be a little judicious with using it and you can get some fun results.

1. Our Favorite Memphis Style BBQ Sauce

In a saucepan combine;

  • 1 fifteen ounce can of plain tomato sauce
  • 1 six ounce can of tomato paste
  • ½ cup dark brown sugar
  • ½ cup molasses
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup brown deli mustard
  • ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce

Whisk until smooth, put over low heat with a lid. Stir occasionally, keeping the sauce on a low simmer for about 30 minutes. Serve immediately, or store refrigerated for seven days.

2. A No-cook Memphis sauce

Sometimes we need it now! A brief simmer wouldn’t hurt, but this will serve you well without cooking it.

In a bowl combine:

  • 2 cups ketchup
  • ½ cup honey or dark corn syrup
  • ¼ cup molasses
  • ¼ cup yellow prepared mustard
  • ¼ cup cider vinegar
  • I tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Whisk until smooth and serve.

3. Chunky sauce

This sauce will be best as a topper, you generally want a smooth sauce as a basting sauce. You could run this through a strainer if you want it to pull dual duties.


  • 1 medium yellow or sweet onion
  • 4 cloves garlic

In a sauce pan over medium heat;

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Add diced onion. When the onions begin to get translucent, add the garlic. Continue cooking until the garlic is soft.


  • ½ cup dark beer

When simmering, add;

  • 1 fifteen ounce can of plain tomato sauce
  • 1 six ounce can of tomato paste
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup molasses
  • 2 tablespoons hot paprika
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 2 teaspoons celery salt

Bring to a soft boil with a lid on. Continue to simmer until onions are very tender, 30-45 minutes. Serve immediately or store up to seven days in the refrigerator.

To the table and beyond

The beauty of barbecue is that you can customize all the components to meet your personal tastes. These recipes will give you excellent results, along with a strong starting point. You can become the driver of your own destiny, legitimately impressing friends and family by making these core recipes your own with small variations. Watch your flames, keep it low and slow, and enjoy!


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