North Carolina Vinegar BBQ Sauces of the “Eastern Carolina” style may vary in nuanced or minor ways, but true to form, they must share the following flavor profile: watery thin, tangy, with a little spicy vinegar kick.
No ketchup in this sauce, folks. In fact, if you see any hint of “red,” it’s likely from cayenne or Tabasco. In the early days of whole pig roasting along the Eastern Carolina coastline and even down into the northeast portion of South Carolina, Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce was meant to cut through the rich and fatty pork, impart some flavor and a little zing, and cleanse the palate.
I really like Eastern Carolina style barbecue. Being here in Central Florida, it’s not an option to get it pre-made, at least not in any form I consider high quality. My only option is to try to replicate it as best I can at home using one of the Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce recipes you see below.
As I don’t operate a traditional brick fire pit, my pitiful recreations are but shadows of what the folks mentioned in this post create.
I will, however, be heading up to North Carolina again soon. Most likely, I’ll be hitting just the Lexington area – but I’ll take a tomato-infused North Carolina vinegar-based BBQ over none at all!
Best Carolina Vinegar BBQ Sauce Recipes: A History
Being a history teacher, I love reading about the backstory behind the early Eastern Carolina BBQ sauce recipes.
One of the best, if not the very best resource you can pick up if you are interested in the history of North Carolina BBQ is a book entitled Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed.
You may remember me talking about John Shelton Reed and his efforts over at TrueCue.org – a site dedicated to preserving the history of true wood-smoked NC style BBQ and heralding the BBQ establishments in North Carolina that still cook using traditional methods vs. gas or electric smokers. (See my post on TrueCue.org here.)
Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipes Defined
The origins of North Carolina BBQ sauce recipes derive from a history of basting meats with salted acidic marinades and mops dating back long through the ages. In the US – and specifically in the early years of British colonization along the North and South Carolina coastlines – this basting or mopping liquid was known as katchup (ketchup).
Not to be confused with the tomato version we think of today, the first printed ketchup recipe dates back to Eliza Smith’s 1727 recipe found in The Compleat Housewife, or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion – shown as follows:
Take a wide mouth’d bottle, put therein a pint of the best white-wine vinegar; then put in ten or twelve cloves of eschalot peeled and just bruised; then take a quarter of a pint of the best Langoon white wine, boil it a little, and put to it twelve or fourteen anchovies washed and shred, and dissolve them in the wine, and when cold put them in the bottle.
Then take a quarter of a pint more of white-wine, and put in it mace, ginger sliced, a few cloves, a spoonful of whole pepper just bruised, let them boil all a little; when near cold, slice in almost a whole nutmeg, and some lemon peel, and likewise put in two or three spoonfuls of horse-radish; then stop it close, and for a week shake it once or twice a day; then use it: ‘Tis good to put into fish sauce, or any savoury dish of meat; you may add to it the clear liquor that comes from mushrooms. — Eliza Smith (1727)
Today’s Eastern Carolina Vinegar BBQ Sauce recipes remain virtually unchanged from the one you see from Smith above. No matter what variations you see in the two recipes I share below, you’ll note that salt and acid play a key role.
Authentic Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipes
I want to preface this list of Eastern Carolina Vinegar BBQ sauce recipes by stating that we all have our preferences. Though you may have favorite combinations that remain staples in your pork prep, I hope you will give one of these a try. I think you’ll like them.
Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipe #1 – Old-Time Eastern North Carolina BBQ Sauce
This recipe comes directly from the Reeds’ Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, and I again urge you to check out this book either in Kindle or Hardback form, as it’s an amazing read.
- 1 Gallon Cider Vinegar
- 1 1/3 Cups Crush Red Pepper
- 2 Tablespoons Black Pepper
- 1/4 Cup Salt
Mix the ingredients and let stand for at least 4 hours. This one requires no refrigeration.
Reed then goes on to explain that the Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce recipe used at the the famous Skylight Inn – Ayden, NC – makes things even simpler by using Texas Pete instead of crushed red pepper.
Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipe #2 – Dennis Rogers’ Holy Grub
Reed then goes on to reference a sweet and sour version of Eastern Carolina BBQ sauce – referencing Dennis Rogers’s “Holy Grub Sauce.”
- 1 Gallon Cider Vinegar
- 1 Cup Firmly Packed Brown Sugar or 1/2 Cup Molasses
- 3 Tablespoons Crushed Red Pepper
- 2 Tablespoons Cayenne
- 1/4 Cup Salt
Again, mix the ingredients and let stand for at least 4 hours.
Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipe #3 – Draper’s Carolina Pig Dip
Shane Draper over at Draper’s BBQ has been a good friend of mine for a long time. An expert pitmaster who crafts some amazing rubs and sauces, he sent me his favorite Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipe:
- 1 gal Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1 cup Paprika
- 1 cup Brown Sugar
- 1 and 1/2 cup White Sugar
- 1/3 cup Salt
- 2 tbsp Cayenne
- 2 tsp Cayenne
- 2 tbsp Black Pepper
- 2 tsp Black Pepper
- 1 cup water
- 1 pck xanthan gum (.32 oz — or 9 grams)
Blend well and let sit refrigerated overnight so the flavors can meld together nicely.
Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipe #4 – Barn Goddess Carolina Q Sauce
I reached out to my good friend Lori Frazee (AKA the Barn Goddess) for her “go to” Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipe. She’s an amazing pitmaster, and I really respect her culinary skills. You’ll notice she kicks up the spice a bit with this one!
- 3 Cups Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1 Cups Brown Sugar
- 1/4 Cup Hot sauce
- 2 Tablespoons Red pepper flake
- 2 Tablespoon Cayenne Pepper
- 1/8 Cup salt
Mix together and heat until sugar and salt is dissolved. This sauce can be served hot or cold. Shake well before using.
Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipe #5 – Vince’s Carolina Sweet Heat
I put an all call out for a good Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce recipe via a video on my Facebook Page. Gotta love my readers! Vince Collier offered up this one, so I’m sharing it here.
- 1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup apple juice or white grape juice
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
- Dash of salt
1. Combine ingredients in a non-reactive bowl
2. Wisk until sugar dissolves and pepper flakes begin to settle
3. It is best when left to sit a day or two.
Looking for a Ready-Made Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce?
Looking for a ready-made, yet authentic sauce that stands true to a trusted Eastern Carolina BBQ sauce recipe? Try Scott’s Carolina Barbecue Sauce (16 oz). Though Scott’s BBQ in Goldsboro, NC stopped cooking in wood only pits long ago, the sauce developed by Reverend Adam Scott and tweaked by his son in 1940 remains true to its Eastern North Carolina roots.
This stuff is thin… but it packs a PUNCH! So much so that there’s a story of a burglar who hid in a barrel of the stuff waiting out the cops and stayed in the sauce for as long as he could stand it prior to having to flee. The story goes that Scott’s didn’t press charges – figuring that the burglar had suffered enough!
Great Video on Eastern Carolina BBQ
To round out this post on Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipes, I wanted to share the following two videos. The first features Michael and Bryan Voltaggio as they visit Wilber’s BBQ in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The second is a video from Munchies.tv featuring the history of Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC.
Wilber’s BBQ – Goldsboro, NC
Skylight Inn – Ayden, NC
For the record: The first public sale of Whole Hog BBQ took place in Ayden, North Carolina, in the 1930’s.
184 years later, Sam Jones is carrying on the family tradition of cooking Whole Hog BBQ as the 7th Generation pitmaster of his family’s BBQ restaurant, The Skylight Inn. Since 1947, The Skylight Inn has become an icon in the BBQ world for selling one thing and one thing only: chopped Eastern Style North Carolina Whole Hog Pork–served on a bun or in a tray with cornbread.
As Sam Jones says, when the customers arrive at Skylight Inn, “they’ve already made the decision of what they’re gonna be eating for lunch, it’s just a matter of how much of it they’re gonna have. — Munchies.Tv
Wilber’s BBQ and the Skylight Inn both meet the TrueCue.org test for making authentic North Carolina BBQ. To qualify for True ‘Cue NC certification, a restaurant must meet the following criteria:
- Be located in North Carolina.
- Cook the barbecue using wood coals or charcoal as the sole heat source.
- Avoid electricity, gas or any other non-wood heat source for the barbecue other than to ignite the wood, to keep the finished barbecue warm, or to re-heat the finished barbecue.
- Serve the barbecue on site at the location where it is cooked (exceptions may exist for food trucks and other mobile purveyors, but a restaurant that serves barbecue cooked by another business does not qualify).
- Offer regular business hours, with barbecue available on the menu regularly (at least monthly).
- Serve chopped or pulled pork shoulder, Boston butt, hams, or whole hog on the regular menu. Offering additional meats is acceptable — and irrelevant.
- Provide a sauce or dip that is regionally appropriate.
At present, the folks at TrueCue.org believe there are no more than fifty or so restaurants in North Carolina that serve True ‘Cue (out of many hundreds of barbecue restaurants across the state’s 100 counties).
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