Barbecue ribs next to a bowl of barbecue sauce with a brush
How America Came To Make (And Love) Sweet Barbecue Sauce
By Nick Johnson
As many cultures have their own form of barbecue, the cuisine has a lot of nuance and variation, despite its simplistic cooking style. Although nearly every region in the U.S. has its distinct barbecue style, arguably the most ubiquitous style of barbecue in the States centers around sweet sauce, which has a history almost as rich as its list of indulgent ingredients.
American barbecue likely originates from African people during the Atlantic slave trade, as the Dominican missionary, Père Labat, noticed folks in the French West Indies cooking with citrus fruit and hot peppers in 1698. The lack of access to citrus fruit in the American South led cooks to use vinegar instead, eventually inspiring the restaurateur and king of Kansas City barbecue, Henry Perry, to create a simple vinegar, lard, and cayenne concoction.
Tomato-based barbecue sauce most likely arose due to America’s obsession with the sweet condiment after a surplus of canned ketchup became available after World War II. Perhaps inspired by the surge in sweeter sauces, Arthur Bryant, the third owner of Henry Perry’s restaurant, added molasses to the recipe, creating a less acidic sauce that was popularized as Kansas City barbecue.
Today, the most popular barbecue sauces are crafted in the sweeter Kansas City style, and Sweet Baby Ray’s was the top-selling bottled barbecue sauce in America in 2017, with its recipe including tomato paste, pineapple juice, corn syrup, and sugar. Kraft Original and KC Masterpiece were tied for second place, both of which use molasses, just like Arthur Perry’s game-changing recipe.