American Barbecue Seasonings 

Spice up your summer cookouts with these recipes for flavoring meat. 

By Steven Raichlen
June/July 2018

Smoke may be the soul of barbecue, but the rub and sauce gives it personality. However, what you mean by “barbecue sauce” depends on where you live or grew up. In Kansas City, barbecue sauce typically means a thick, red, sweet, smoke-scented condiment typified by the commercial brand KC Masterpiece. (And variations exist even in Kansas City.) In North Carolina, barbecue sauce is a watery amalgam of vinegar, salt, pepper, and hot red pepper flakes — with nary a drop of molasses in sight. South Carolinians favor mustard-based barbecue sauces, while in Alabama, you might get a white sauce comprised of mayonnaise and vinegar that leaves you wondering whether it’s barbecue sauce or salad dressing. The truth is, while we Americans love barbecue sauce, we don’t agree on what it is.

Barbecue sauces can contain dozens of different ingredients. I’ve seen sauces flavored with everything from coffee to cranberry sauce to cough syrup. But whether you’re making a simple vinegar sauce or an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sauce, there’s one component you can’t do without: balance. The goal of the following barbecue seasonings is to meld contrasting elements — sweet, sour, salty, aromatic, hot — into a harmonious whole. Let’s start with the rub.

Basic Barbecue Rub Recipe


This is the granddaddy of all barbecue rubs, but don’t let the simple formula fool you. This rub contains a heap of flavor — the molasses sweetness of the brown sugar, the heat of the pepper, the vegetal sweetness of the paprika, and the slow burn of the cayenne. Use this formula as a springboard for your creativity. You can use this or any rub in two ways — either sprinkle it on right before grilling or smoking, as you would a seasoned salt, or apply it several hours beforehand to cure the meat as well as season it. Yield: about 1 cup.