Tennessee Barbecue Sauce (Tennessee, 1978)

I’ve lived out West all my life where “barbecue” means either tri-tip, hamburgers, or some sort of hodgepodge of Kansas City and Texas-style barbecue from somewhere else in the United States.  I’ve traveled enough to realize that this it utter heresy to some folks, where each regional variant is held as the one true barbecue.

Which is why I have to tread lightly when talking about Tennessee Barbecue Sauce, one of the local treasures from the Thorn Grove Baptist Church cookbook.  My only prior experience with Tennessee regional barbecue was a dry-rubbed Memphis-style barbecue, which was defiantly served without any sort of sauce.   What’s presented here instead is a vinegar-based sauce, which – out West – would usually be marketed as “North Carolina barbecue”.    And yes, I realize that there are micro-regional variants in North Carolina and quasi-religious debates about whether a vinegar sauce should have tomato or no tomato.  I’m just telling you how it is.

But aside from the vinegar this is no “traditional” North Carolina sauce, which typically has a scoop of brown sugar and a healthy amount of crushed red pepper.   There’s no sweetness at all here, just vinegar, tabasco, and Worcestershire Sauce for seasoning.  Now I’ve had the good fortune to dine in Owensboro, Kentucky where they slather chopped mutton with a vinegar/Worcestershire mixture, both during the cook and on the plate.  I won’t commit blasphemy by pretending they’re even remotely the same type of sauce, but it’s the best point of reference I’ve got.  To top it all off, the Tennessee sauce is ‘helped along’ by two full sticks of butter and cooking oil, which help it stick to and tenderize the meat at the same time.

The recipe only specifies “meat”, but this recipe screams pulled pork to me both as a mop sauce and a ‘dressing’.  It might also pair well with a lamb shoulder or smoked chuck roast; it seems built for chopped meat.   I’ve also used it to dress salt-and-pepper rubbed pork ribs.  It doesn’t soak into the meat the way it would a pulled pork sandwich, but the acid really draws out the flavor of the smoke from the meat.

Tennessee Barbecue Sauce (Tennessee, 1978)



  1. Mix together. Baste on meat during cooking, and serve remaining sauce on the side.


When smoking a pork shoulder I prefer to let the meat sit on the smoker for 2-3 hours before adding sauce, and then add sauce once per hour until I wrap the meat or the cook is finished.  This seems to provide the right balance of bark and moisture.

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