Vinegar, tomato, or mustard: Which BBQ sauce reigns supreme?

Buxton Hall BBQ. Asheville, N.C. Photo by @rauljgarrido
Buxton Hall BBQ. Asheville, N.C. Photo by @rauljgarrido

Whether you know it or not, the battle for who has the best BBQ sauce in the Carolinas is a fierce and long-standing one. Rivalries run deep across state lines (and even within the same state), and connoisseurs argue over who invented which sauce.

Even if you don’t have a horse in the race, chances are you’ll be faced with a choice between them at some point. So whether you have a go-to style or you’re overwhelmed by the sauce bar options at your local ’cue joint, here’s what you need to know about Carolina BBQ –

🔥 The tradition of slow-roasting meat over a pit fire likely came from the Caribbean, where they were barbecuing as early as the 1500s. The recipes and methods were likely brought to the US by enslaved peoples in the early 1800s.

🍋 Although lemons were used in Caribbean ’cues, the citrus fruits were harder to come by in the States, so vinegar became the substitute.

So, how did we get to three different styles of BBQ between two states? Here’s the rundown:

There are three types of BBQ in the Carolinas – vinegar-based, tomato- (or ketchup-) based, and mustard-based.

Buxton Hall BBQ. Asheville, N.C. Photo by @rauljgarrido
Buxton Hall BBQ. Asheville, NC Photo by @rauljgarrido

Eastern NC | vinegar-based

    • Made with water, cider vinegar, black pepper + salt, and sometimes crushed red pepper + hot sauce
    • This OG style of ’cue can be traced back several centuries and appears in cookbooks like Kentucky Housewife (1839) and Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book (1872).
    • It was first served commercially by Adam Scott (of Goldsboro, NC) and Bob Melton (from Rocky Mount, NC), who opened restaurants after WWII.


Lexington (Piedmont NC) | tomato- or ketchup-based

    • Like Eastern N.C. sauce, Lexington-style sauce is made with vinegar, but with the addition of tomato (usually in the form of ketchup).
    • It first appeared on the scene around the time of Heinz ketchup, which debuted in 1876 at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia
    • It was commercialized by two ’cue stands run by Jess Swicegood and Sid Weaver + George Ridenhour in Lexington, NC
    • The style is most common around Lexington, NC and areas west – hence the name.
    • Another origin story – it’s from German food traditions. Bavarian-style pork is often served with a sweet vinegar sauce.
    • It’s often accompanied by red slaw.


Bessinger's BBQ in Charleston, S.C. Photo by @mr_jflow
Bessinger’s BBQ in Charleston, S.C. Photo by @mr_jflow


South Carolina | mustard-based

    • Also called “Carolina Gold,” this style first appeared in the middle of the state but quickly spread out from there.
    • Like the other two, it’s made with vinegar, but this time the added ingredient is mustard.
    • It also has German origins – German immigrants to SC brought mustard with them and used it to dress pork.
    • Protip: Look for hash on the menu – and add it as one of your sides.
    • The first person to commercialize it was the controversial Maurice Bessinger (of Maurice’s BBQ and Piggy Park in Columbia, SC).