Tangy, lip-smacking vinegar BBQ sauce is the star of the show in this play. The pulled pork acts as best supporting actress, bringing forward all the spice and flavor in the sauce while keeping the sauce in check to make sure it doesn't claim all the fame. Look no further, this is the duo you've been hunting for.
Have you ever been to a BBQ restaurant in the Carolinas? Let me tell you - those people take their BBQ very seriously. And if there's one thing I've learned living in South Carolina for over a decade now, it's that the secret is in the sauce.
Now, when I say 'bbq sauce,' what first comes to mind is probably a brownish-red, thick like ketchup, slightly tangy but mostly sweet sauce. This is the most commercialized type of sauce, and is what you'll find lining the grocery store shelves for the most part.
Buuuuut. When you get out of the store and into the restaurants, into the kitchens of the people who have been doing this since their grandfather's grandfather, you get into a bit different territory. There are many different types of BBQ sauce that make an appearance, depending on which Carolina you are in and, additionally, what region of that state you are in.
So, before we dive into the best Carolina vinegar bbq sauce recipe, a bit of clarification is needed: in regards to the different types of Carolina bbq sauces out there, as there seems to be quite a bit of contradicting information out there on the interwebs.
But how does one prove that their sauce is the best kind? The 'best' is kind of arbitrary - more of a matter of opinion and taste buds.
So first, while we all like to say the North and the South are no longer divided, let's be honest about our BBQ. Let's separate South Carolina BBQ sauce from North Carolina BBQ sauce, as they each have their own regional barbecue sauces.
South Carolina uses two different versions of barbecue sauce regularly - a more traditional, ketchup based sweet style of sauce (that one we just saw on our grocery store shelf) as well as what's often referred to as Carolina Gold, which is a mustard based bbq sauce and is typically yellow in color and uses either yellow mustard or dijon mustard.
However, we're going to leave South Carolina's sauces in SC for today, and head to North Carolina. In North Carolina, BBQ is divided into two regions - eastern NC and western NC. It's just my opinion, but I think North Carolinians have a much stronger opinion about their North Carolina BBQ sauce than their southern counterparts.
Western Carolina barbecue sauce is a tangy sauce that is still ketchup based, while eastern NC sauce is a thinner, vinegar based bbq sauce. Western NC versions sometimes also contain Worcestershire sauce, tomato sauce, or tomato paste.
While both contain large amounts of vinegar, for today's purposes we are focusing on the eastern North Carolina versions of a true vinegar bbq sauce.
So what goes in a traditional Eastern Carolina BBQ sauce? The most common ingredients are pretty simple, actually -
Brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, kosher salt, black pepper, hot sauce, and red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper.
For our sauce, we're going to change up a couple of different things. We're going to sweeten with coconut sugar (doesn't taste like coconut, I promise), and we're going to use a combination of hot sauce and red pepper flakes to achieve just the right amount of heat in our eastern NC sauce.
We're also going to add a couple of non-traditional spices that will add depth of flavor.
For some of your ingredients, you'll want to make sure you're using high quality products- there are places where it's noticeable in the flavor and places it isn't. Everything you need should be able to be found at your local grocery store.
I like Texas Pete or another 'sour' type hot sauce for this recipe.
Making Carolina vinegar sauce couldn't be easier, honestly. Your prep time is pretty much non-existent. You're going to combine the base of vinegar with all ingredients EXCEPT the hot sauce and red pepper flakes. (Heating those intensifies the heat, so we're going to add those at the end.)
Combine your ingredients in a small saucepan over low heat. Once your sugar and all the spices have dissolved, remove the pan from the heat. Whisk in your hot sauce.
Now, we're going to add your RPF. If this is your first time, add a smaller amount of red pepper flakes a little bit at a time. The most important thing is to do sauce taste tests.
My #1 kitchen rule is that you can always put more in, but you can't take it out. Just like everyone's opinions on the best BBQ sauce differ, everyone's preferences on spice level also differ. If you don't like much heat, you may want to lessen the amount of hot sauce or pepper flakes you're including.
This tasty sauce goes perfect with a pulled pork shoulder. I like to smoke ours on our Traeger pellet grill (grab the recipe here!) You can also make it in the crock pot or slow cooker if you don't have a smoker.
If you're hosting a picnic, try serving this sauce on a pulled pork sandwich with a side of the best coleslaw ever, some Sweet Potato Salad with Bacon and Chives, and some Apple Crisp for dessert.
Or, if you're hosting a whole hog barbecue, first make sure my invitation is in the mail, and then you can use this as a mop sauce or finishing sauce on that beautiful roasted hog.
Once it's done, allow it to cool to room temperature and then store it in a mason jar or other airtight container in the fridge. The sauce will keep for a few weeks- the vinegar content helps keep bacteria at bay. It can also be frozen and defrosted for later use. If you don't want to defrost the entire container every time, one of my favorite hacks is to freeze it into silicone large cube trays, then just pop out however many cubes you need for that meal.
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