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A Love Letter to White Barbecue Sauce

This mayo-based barbecue sauce won over a North Carolina skeptic.
By Published Sept. 2, 2022

I spent the better part of a year living in Birmingham, Alabama. I loved the farmers’ markets there and was lucky enough to eat my fair share of gulf shrimp. But the part of the food scene that left the deepest impression on me was the white barbecue sauce.

Many barbecue sauces are primarily made up of ketchup, mustard, and/or vinegar. But white barbecue sauce is made primarily with mayonnaise. As a native North Carolinian who is all about a simple vinegary sauce, I was a little thrown by this. But one taste of smoked chicken slathered with white barbecue sauce and I was sold. 

It’s an unfamiliar condiment in most areas of the United States, but it reigns supreme in Alabama and a handful of the states that border it. It is said to have been invented by Robert Gibson to serve with smoked chicken he would feed to his family and friends. He went on to open Big Bob Gibson BBQ in Decatur, Alabama, and the restaurant became (and remains) famous for their use of the sauce.  

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If you think about the pairing, it makes sense. Pork and beef barbecue need tangy, less rich sauces to cut through the fattiness of the meat. But chicken is comparatively lean. Mayonnaise is tangy and salty—two elements of a good ’cue sauce. And if you amp it up with vinegar or another acidic element and some spice, you have a great sauce that adds some richness to the lean meat. 

In Alabama, you can buy white barbecue sauce at the grocery store. But making your own is as simple as stirring together a few ingredients. Of course you need to start with a good amount of mayonnaise. Then add some apple cider vinegar until it’s thinner and plenty tangy. Stir in some minced garlic, horseradish, Worcestershire, and both black and cayenne peppers for a complex kick.

You should try it on smoked chicken. Or if you want to serve a crowd, slather it over pulled turkey breasts (the sauce’s popularity spread over the state border with this Tennessee-inspired recipe). The well-seasoned turkey is so juicy it lightly sops into the bun. And the white barbecue sauce piled on top of the turkey adds tang and heat to the already-delicious meat.