Barbecue sauce, the viscous condiment based on tomatoes, sugar, vinegar and spices, originated in America. Some historians believe it was early in the 1600s when Dominican missionaries saw cooks in the French West Indies adding lemon, lime juice and hot peppers to meat cooked on an open pit. This method of seasoning barbecued meat made its way to America and today is one of the most diverse condiment categories, comprising pourables, spoonables, squeezables and rubs.

Exploring global flavors

Barbecue sauces and rubs help meat and poultry remain relevant to today’s flavor-seeking consumers. They make it easy to explore flavors from far-away places.

Take for example the new tamarind-based barbecue sauce from Tamarind Heads, West Bridgewater, Mass. The jarred condiment is tart while tangy, and also smoky, sweet and spicy at the same time. It comes in hot and mild varieties.

Tamarind was identified as the flavor of the year by McCormick, Hunt Valley, Md. It comes from the fleshy, juicy, acidic pulpy fruit of the Tamarindus indica tree, which is indigenous to tropical Africa and Asia.

Such flavor evolution is taking place across the country, even in what are staples of various barbecue regions. For example, Goode Company Barbecue, a Houston-based restaurant that describes itself as authentic Texas barbecue, sells take-home bottles of its original sweet, smoky, bold sauce. To stay relevant with consumers looking for more flavor adventure, the original sauce now comes in jalapeno garlic and heavy garlic varieties.

Barbecue sauce in Hawaii is nothing close to what you find in Texas. It’s more of a teriyaki-style sauce. But even it’s getting some global twists. L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, which was founded in Honolulu, developed a piquant katsu sauce for its barbecued chicken.

“Traditional barbecue sauces and rubs remain favorites, but unconventional and internationally inspired flavors are taking center stage in culinary innovation, which is driven by consumers, especially the ever-social Gen Z and Millennials, who are increasingly interested in the next new thing to experience and share,” said Francesca Balestrazzi, senior manager of communications and marketing, ILLES Foods, Carrollton, Texas. “From Asia and Africa to Mexico and the Caribbean — and anything in between — barbecue has its place in every culture of the world.”

Peter Losee, vice president of marketing, Bluegrass Ingredients, Glasgow, Ky., added, “Despite being a quintessential American food, barbecue rubs and sauces lend themselves well to international influences where sweet, spicy and umami-driven flavors tend to shine.”

Some players in this space, such as Oak Brook, Ill.-based Ace Hardware, are exploring a mish mash of all types of flavor profiles in its new private-label line of barbecue sauces and rubs. From the tangy flavor of the “Boom Shaka-Laka” apple habanero sauce to the sweet-heat taste of the “Uhh-Huh!” rub, each product in the lineup is carefully designed to leave a lasting impression on even the most discerning palates.

“As we proudly launch Loud Mouth Barbeque, we’re not just introducing a new product, we’re igniting a flavor revolution in the world of barbecue,” said Brian Wiborg, senior vice president of merchandising. “Our decision to develop Loud Mouth Barbeque was reinforced by the desire for bold, high-quality barbecue products at an affordable price point.”

Such flavor mashups of classic flavors with twists are gaining momentum. They provide permission to try something new, without straying too far from the familiar.

“Consumers are interested in foods that combine two or more familiar flavors into something new or add a twist,” said Cecilia Pereyra, global product marketing for flavors, IFF, South Brunswick, NJ. “The twists represent the balance between comfort and fear of wasting money through food. Mashups in this space are sweet and spicy, dill pickle combinations and ranch plus ketchup.”

This trend towards bold barbecue flavors was confirmed by Kerry North America, Beloit, Wis., in its 2024 Taste Charts. Jamaican jerk is leading the way, with Brazilian barbecue showing the greatest potential for growth. While flavor adventure is desirable, there’s also a back-to-basics movement going on at the same time.

“While consumers are continuing to stretch their palate, they are also looking for better versions of ‘classic’ flavors,” said Shannon Coco, strategic marketing director for meat at Kerry. “Over the past year, particularly as it relates to chicken products (wings, rotisserie, coated etc.), we’ve seen growing interest in lemon pepper and parmesan garlic.”

She said there’s also a trend in “capturing the taste of fire through cooking methods flavors.” Those flavors are then incorporated into barbecue condiments.

“We leverage cooking cues of char- or grilled beef notes with Korean flavor profiles of gochugaru, ginger and soy, reflecting trending tastes,” said Kelly Newsome, senior global marketing manager, colors and savory flavors, ADM, Chicago. “Our roasted pork flavors pair well with Latin spices to achieve an al pastor-style option. Our roasted chicken flavors complement Cantonese profiles alongside a grilling sauce with Sichuan pepper, ginger and lime flavors and our yuzu yakitori flavor profile is excellent for meat applications inspired by Japanese flavors, highlighting the bright citrus and warm grill notes of robata-style cooking.”

Sauce vs. rub

Barbecue condiments are either wet or dry. They may be applied to grill-ready raw meat and poultry by the processor prior to vacuum packaging. They are also often added to fully cooked heat-and-eat proteins. Some butchers apply the desired sauce or rub to the meat at the service counter.

“When processing meat commercially, rubs and sauces can impact finished goods in a variety of ways, from flavor and appearance to shelf life and cost,” said Brooke Cooper, food scientist at Bluegrass Ingredients. “Sauces tend to deliver better stability and shelf life, which makes them ideal for packaged applications. For retail channels, the sauce in raw or precooked meats provides flavor delivery and eye appeal. Dry rubs, on the other hand, are impacted by moisture and water activity, which makes them more likely to be utilized in foodservice or prepared-at-home applications.”

Rubs contain identifiable particulates and provide visual cues of flavor. When these herbs and spices are cooked on the surface of the protein, they create a unique texture that some consumers enjoy.

“A diversity of colors — reds, oranges and browns — can be applied through a rub to grab the consumer’s attention,” said Lydia Fenley, senior food scientist at ILLES Foods. “We see this most often on ribs, roasts, pork loins and chicken breasts.”

But to some consumers, all those visual cues may be interpreted as “too spicy” or simply “too much.” This is particularly true for picky eaters.

“The primary downside comes when too much salt is incorporated into a rub,” said Charles Purcell, senior manager, application development at Foodology by Univar Solutions, Downers Grove, Ill. “Over time, this can result in a loss of moisture in the protein, making it dry and tough.”

Ryan Kukuruzovic, executive chef, culinary manager, Wixon, St. Francis, Wis., added, “When considering the pros and cons of applying a rub versus a sauce to different meat and poultry formats, it’s important to weigh the benefits of each method. Rubs, consisting of dry herbs and spices, adhere well to the meat’s surface, creating a flavorful crust when cooked. They also enhance the natural flavors of the meat without overpowering them.”

Sauces, on the other hand, are viscous and can contribute moistness to the product. In some instances, the barbecue sauce may provide some redemption to dried out meats, such as overcooked wings and improperly brined ribs.

“The challenge can be the uptake of the product (rub or sauce),” said Zak Otto, director of research and development-protein group at Wixon. “Targeting a certain amount to add to the protein can be limited by how much will adhere to the product.”

“There are times when highly acidified products can break down protein, ending up with a compromised texture of the product,” said Otto. “Highly acidified products can also break down protein and foster purging. Encapsulated salts and acids can be used to slow down this process.”

Sauces applied by the processor tend to be formulated differently than those packaged and sold at retail. Many will include hydrocolloid systems to encourage cling and retard runoff during the cooking process.

“Not all sauces are freeze-thaw stable so that must be considered for frozen portions,” said Paul Seiwert, senior food scientist and liquid product specialist at ILLES Foods. “Not all sauces that are cooked by the manufacturer can survive a second thermal process.

“This is where specialty starches and food gums can come into the formulation to safeguard viscosity through to final application.”

“We’ve developed some lower sugar sauces using less sugar and some high intensity sweeteners to allow the sauce to freeze solid,” said Seiwert. “This enables precooked wings, for example, to receive post cook sauce and be refrozen with less tackiness after refreezing.”

Bradley Borchardt, senior corporate chef of innovation and strategy, Cargill North American Protein business, Minneapolis, said, “Combining rubs and sauces doubles up the flavor experience when grilling. Just be careful that the combination does not incorporate too much sugar and salt, which can mask the flavor of the protein.”

In commercial applications, there are advantages and disadvantages of both. From an economical perspective, with rubs, you are not shipping water.

“Rubs are also easier to store at the production level and they can be applied at a mass level into a tumbler,” said Dylan Knudsen, research, development and applications lead for meat at Kerry. “Portioning and adherence for a sauce can cause issues unless the processor has the equipment available for individual depositing. A couple advantages of a sauce is the ability to concentrate flavor, and the added moisture can help with the texture of some meats.”

Innovation toolbox

Regardless of the format or who is applying it, barbecue flavor innovation is on fire. It’s also sweetening up.

Bachan’s Inc., Sebastopol, Calif., now adds honey to a variant of the company’s original Japanese Barbecue Sauce, creating a crave-worthy condiment that brings rich, warm, sweet notes to the umami-filled sauce.

“Barbecue restaurants in Texas are now merging Asian and Texas cuisine together and intersecting global flavors like oak smoked beef brisket with a chili gastrique and Thai herbs,” said Newsome. “This reflects a broader culinary trend towards global flavor discovery.

“Fusion-type barbecue sauces bring in different spice levels and create layers of flavor,” Newsome added. “For example, while the cooking method for Korean barbecue is different, the flavor profiles are incredibly popular and translate well to traditional US barbecue offerings. Korean-style barbecue sauce includes an umami, spicy fermented gochujang and black garlic notes, sweet honey and bright ginger, and is outstanding with chargrilled or smoked meats. Adding tongue-tingling or mouth-numbing spices like sansho pepper or Sichuan peppercorn to dry rubs or finishing sauces can further elevate the eating experience.”

Mike Haracz, lead culinary food development specialist, Foodology by Univar Solutions, said, “Cultural convergence and the rise of at-home smoking have led to ‘fusionist flavors’ gaining popularity. The inclusion of tropical fruits, various liquors and liqueurs, and even plant-based flavors are gaining more and more of the sauces and rubs category.”

Thanks to sriracha, consumers are accustomed to experimenting with flavors inspired by global sauces.

“Harissa, a spicy red pepper paste from Northern Africa, and gochujang, a sweet and tangy red chili sauce hailing from Korea, continue to trend,” said Pereyra. “Ajvar, a Serbian condiment made from eggplant and roasted red pepper, is on the rise. It’s got a smoky and tangy flavor, which is well-aligned with consumers’ current preferences for flavor profiles.”

The combination of sweet and heat, often with citrus flavor, is an established flavor blend in the barbecue space.

However, formulators should keep in mind that the more ingredients that get added to a sauce or rub, the greater the risk of flavor conflicts. Shelf life is also a consideration.

“Robust food science and culinary design are critical elements for ensuring the finished product is stable and meets consumer expectations,” concluded Cooper.