How Molasses Became A Staple Ingredient For Memphis-Style Barbecue

Memphis, Tennessee might be best known for the sweet sound of music that echoes through historic Beale Street, but it's also the location of the World Championship Barbecue Contest every May, as well as home to dozens of tasty barbeque joints. As the originator of one of the main styles of American regional barbecue, Memphis boasts a unique recipe of slow and low cooked pork lightly brushed with a sauce flavored with rich ingredients that originally made their way along the Mississippi River to the port city. One key component that headed north on barges and steamboats was molasses, the treacly basis for Memphis-style sauce.

Molasses was the primary sweetener throughout the southern U.S. for many decades. The sticky, dark syrup made from ground and boiled sugar cane was more affordable than refined sugar, and it also lends a distinct flavor that has a bit of savoriness and a bitter undertone. Molasses made its way into many staple recipes like cookies and breads, and so naturally it also became the sweetener for the sauce slathered on all of the delectable meats from Memphis barbecue pits. You'll find sauce recipes today that substitute brown sugar, which ironically is simply white sugar moistened with a bit of molasses for flavor and color. The mineral, savory bite of molasses adds more than just saccharinity to Memphis-style sauce, making it a key ingredient for authentic flavor.

Memphis-style is not too thick with a sweet edge

If you're new to Memphis-style barbecue, the first thing you'll notice is that pork is king. Like many of the eastern U.S. barbecue traditions, pork is the main meat because it was historically easier to raise, not requiring grazing land like cattle. Next, you'll notice the sauce — tomato-based and not too thick, with a good balance of sweet from molasses or brown sugar and tartness from vinegar or mustard. But all the other spice and flavor ingredients are a closely guarded secret at each barbecue joint — you'll have to buy a bottle or come up with your own mixture if you want to recreate this barbecue style at home.

If you want to try your hand at making a Memphis-style sauce for your next barbecue adventure, you can start with an easy basic recipe for a tomato-based sauce, adding enough vinegar to even out the sweetness — don't hesitate to adjust the herbs and spices to make the sauce your own house specialty. Be sure to use molasses as your sweetener. Once your sauce is cooked, thin it down to a brush-able consistency so you can baste your ribs or pork shoulder while they cook. There's nothing wrong with dipping a pulled pork sandwich into a pool of the sauce either — just ask anyone with BBQ stained fingers on Beale Street!