Barbecue with Marinades, Rubs, Mops, and Sauces

Learn how pitmasters make their special mark.

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Smoke and time create good barbecue, but it takes more than that to make award-winning ribs or briskets. Every pitmaster has an arsenal of secret spices, herbs, rubs and sauces.


A marinade usually contains acidic ingredients, like lemon juice or vinegar, that break down proteins and work as liquid tenderizers. They also add flavor to meat and help keep everything moist. They're especially good on dry pieces of meat, like chicken breast.


A rub is a dry mixture of herbs, salt, spices and sometimes sugar. It's rubbed over the meat before it gets set in the smoker or grill. Since barbecue uses low heat, the rubs don't burn like they would if the meat was grilled quickly over high heat. Rubs add flavor, but they also contribute the textual elements of crunch and crust. Traditionalists often refrain from adding extra sauces to meat that has been rubbed and smoked.


A mop is similar in taste and consistency to a marinade — thin and acidic. But, unlike marinades, mops don't usually contain oil or butter and they tend to be more straightforward flavor-wise, often containing nothing more than vinegar, salt and black pepper. Beer is also a popular mop ingredient. Mops mainly contribute moisture. They aren't typically used on small cuts of meat. Instead, a mop might be applied every hour-and-a-half to a six-pound pork shoulder as it smokes over a long period of time.


For many barbecue styles and enthusiasts, the quality of the barbecue is determined by the flavor of the sauce. Most sauces stem from a handful of regional variations:

  • Kansas City pitmasters make thick tomato sauces laced with molasses.
  • North Carolina sauces leave out tomatoes and go extra heavy on vinegar.
  • South Carolina sauces are usually spiked with mustard.
  • Texas barbecue often skips the sauce, but if included it usually uses spicy cayenne or other hot peppers.
  • Western barbecue typically uses a tomato base.

Using sauce is tricky since it can easily burn. As long as you maintain a low heat, any barbecue sauce, even sugary ones, should be okay. But even a few short bursts of flame can turn a decadent, sweet glaze into a charred mess. Sauces that don't include too much sugar can be added before, during or after cooking. But to play it safe, sugary barbecue sauce is often added to the meat right before or after it's taken out of the smoker.

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