Regionally sauces divide in much the same way as the cuts of pork used to make barbecue. Along the Eastern side of the Carolinas, the sauce is spicy, hot and completely devoid of tomatoes. These people continue to hold to the ancient belief that tomatoes are a product of the devil himself. As you move west tomatoes enter into the sauce and it moves from the hot to the sweet.
There are several saucing options for pulled pork aside from finishing sauces. Sauces known as mops or sops can be applied during the smoking process to add flavor and maintain moisture on a relatively lean piece of pork. Mops and sops are thin sauces typically made with water and vinegar and some kind of seasoning like cayenne. Though most people will tell you that it's not a necessity to use one of these sauces, many people like the additional flavor it can provide.
The Traditional sauce for pulled pork is what is commonly called a finishing sauce. This is added to the meat at the table. It is also called a table sauce. Finding the right sauce can be a challenge. You can stick with tradition or you can use what you like best. We don't suggest thick commercial sauces. For pulled pork, it's best to stick with something thin and not overpowering. After all, you've just spent several hours making a tough piece of pork tender and delicious.
Tomato vs. Vinegar
Southern-style sauces fall into two categories. Those sauces with tomato and those without it. You will also find sauces based on mustard. A basic sauce without tomato has cider vinegar, hot pepper sauce, salt, and pepper. You can also add brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard (prepared or powdered), and most anything else that catches your fancy. These sauces sometimes referred to as vinegar sauces, are usually hot. Tomato sauces can be hot but are usually sweet. The tomato in tomato sauces can come from whole tomatoes, paste, sauce or ketchup and are usually made with some vinegar, brown sugar or molasses, garlic and chili powder or hot sauce.
Sauce up Pulled Pork Before You Serve It
Another way to sauce up your pulled pork is to do it before you serve it. Once you have the pork pulled and it's sitting in a pot to stay warm add about 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar and 2 teaspoons of cayenne. Stir and simmer until the meat absorbs the vinegar and it develops a thick sauce. You can always add other ingredients as you go. Occasional taste testing will tell you if the flavors are properly balanced. Some people find the vinegar adds to bitter a flavor while others find it the perfect addition. But remember, the sauce should add to the flavor, not cover it. As someone once said, "the sauce should nudge the flavor in the direction you want, not derail it".