Vinegar barbeque sauce is the most popular type of marinade for grilled pork, beef, chicken, and some fish in the southeastern region of the United States. Unlike its famous cousins, Texas-style barbeque and Kansas City barbeque, most vinegar-based barbeque sauce is not sweetened nor does it contain tomato sauce, tomato paste, or catsup. In general, vinegar sauces penetrate the marinating meat, drenching it with subtle flavor that gains rich layers during the barbeque process.
Historically, it is believed that Southern vinegar marinades originated with plantation slaves, who soaked meats in vinegar, chili pepper, and black pepper before roasting the pork, beef, goat, or chicken over a fire pit. The vinegar served two functions in addition to flavoring cuts of meat that were oftentimes substandard. The vinegar’s mild acetic acid helped tenderize tough meat by attacking gristle and connective tissue. Vinegar marinades also had the added bonus of helping to minimize any bacteria that may have infiltrated unrefrigerated meat.
Popular in Georgia and the Carolinas, vinegar barbeque sauce recipes typically favor apple cider vinegar over distilled white vinegar or those made from other fruits. The sauce is used as a precooking marinade to tenderize the meat and enhance its taste, as a basting liquid during roasting, and in dipping sauces that some diners apply after the meat has been cooked. In some parts of North and South Carolina, vinegar sauces might contain brown sugar, cayenne, red pepper, or other hot peppers; yellow mustard or a small amount of tomato sauce might also find their way into the recipe. While some purists object, others insist that the addition of a variety of chopped herbs, ground spices, pureed olives, or other ingredients can make a vinegar barbeque sauce unique.
Home cooks have used vinegar-based marinades and dipping sauces for hundreds of years. In spite of this, the first barbeque sauce to be manufactured for commercial sale did not appear until 1909, when the Georgia Barbeque Sauce Company produced a bottled sauce. Thirty years later, Heinz jumped aboard with its own version.
The Southeastern United States is not the only place where vinegar barbeque sauce is popular. Brazilians add parsley and onions to a thin sauce composed of olive oil, vinegar, and tomatoes to create vinaigrette, a meat marinade. Caribbean jerk sauce is another popular variation that gets its flavor from vinegar, usually made of red wine, and the smoke of burning pimento wood, in addition to allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Some versions include Scotch bonnet peppers, which are extremely hot.