Barbecue sauces (including whether and when to use them) attract more bickering per capita than politics, religion, and smartphone choice combined. This is precisely because people have their own preferences… which is a great reason to tailor your sauce to fit your personal inclinations.
Sauces tend to have a handful of characteristics in different combinations: sweetness, tang, heat, consistency, smokiness. You can play with most or all of these to customize your own sauce. Let’s look at a basic Kansas City-style sauce, chosen because it’s most similar to the bottled sauces you’ll find in grocery stores:
BASIC DIY KC SAUCE
1 cup Ketchup
2/3 cup Brown Sugar
3 tbs Mustard
3 tbs Apple Cider Vinegar
1 tbs Salt
1 tbs Dry Mustard
1 tbs Worcestershire Sauce
1 tbs Garlic Powder
1 tbs Onion Powder
1 tsp Black Pepper
1 tsp Paprika
1/2 tsp Cayenne
Mix it up. Simple enough, right? And fantastically dull. Now, let’s customize this a bit.
The ketchup adds tang, sweetness, and umami. Consider using tomato paste instead, and adding a bit more (or different) vinegar and a different sweetener, like molasses or sorghum. (NOTE: you must cook tomato paste to avoid a raw, metallic taste; I recommend browning it in a skillet.) Brown sugar is always good, but in some combinations you might prefer honey or maple syrup or something else entirely. The cayenne is a relatively one-note heat, so why not replace it with finely diced chipotle peppers, which also add smokiness to the sauce? You can also get some smoke flavor by using smoked paprika, or by adding a touch of Liquid Smoke. Etc.
You can also play with proportions to get wildly different results. Use less ketchup and more vinegar, and you’re approaching a classic Lexington Dip, a popular North Carolina sauce style. Ditch the tomato and crank up the mustard and you’re building a South Carolina-style mustard sauce. Replace it with mayo and you have an Alabama white sauce.
Here are a few ways to go even further with your saucey inventions. Note that I’ve mostly opted to not use ketchup in tomato-based sauces, as I prefer to get my sweetness from more complex sources.
You can bring more complex flavors and usually sweetness to your sauce with fruit, or even with fruit preserves.
8oz quince paste (or the preserves of your choice!)
1/2 cup tomato paste
1/2 cup water
1/4 Cup unseasoned rice vinegar (use slightly less with a stronger vinegar)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 T honey
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 medium chipotle pepper, minced finely (include the adobo sauce!)
Sautee the tomato paste for a few minutes in a dry pan on medium-low heat, then combine the remaining ingrediets and bring to a simmer. Cook for a few minutes, until the flavors meld, about 10-20 minutes. Add more water if the sauce gets too thick.
Be creative in styles of homemade sauce, and replace ingredients in wild experimentation. Particularly sources of sweetness, which abound in our culture. How wrong can you possibly go?
The Simple “It’s BBQ Sauce Because I Say It Is” BBQ Sauce
10oz Sweet Chili Sauce (try Mae Ploy brand; Trader Joe’s also has a good one)
Juice of 1 lime
Vinegar to Taste.
Mix it up. Taste it. Add whatever you think will make it even better. Enjoy!
Spiciness is a bit harder to come by than sweetness in American cuisine, but not much. Feel free to reach beyond
Panang, That’s Good!
1/2 cup tomato paste
4 tbs brown sugar
2 tbs honey
1 tbs panang curry paste (or more, to taste. Try red curry paste if you can’t find Panang.)
3 cloves garlic, minced finely
4 tbs lime juice
Brown the tomato paste for a few minutes, then combine all ingredients and simmer about 15 minutes.
Good, complex, or at least flavorful liquor can do wonders for adding character to any barbecue sauce. ‘Round here, that means bourbon. But a good rum, brandy, beer, or (if you must) wine will work too. I’m keen to try this with a black strap rum, which is cheap, good, and molassas-y.
1 1/2 tbs. fresh garlic, minced
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 tbs. olive oil
1/2 cup honey
Juice of 1 orange
1/2 cup rice or cider vinegar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 small chipotle pepper with adobo sauce, minced
1/2 cup decent (or better) bourbon whiskey
1/4 – 1/2 cup water as needed
salt and pepper, to taste
Sauté garlic and tomato paste in the oil, then add remaining ingredients and simmer for 25 minutes. The longer cooking time is primarily to reduce the booziness of the liquor. Add water near the end to achieve desired consistency.
You should have gotten the idea by now, but I’ll say it again. Competition-level barbecue is about cooking skill combined with the willingness to do weird things to your sauce. In that spirit, think outside of the ketchup bottle. Here’s some ingredients on my short list to try:
- Yujacha – Yujacha is sweet Asian yuzu tea. You generally find it in jars, and it has the consistency (and sweetness) of honey.
- Cherry – I’ve made sauces with Bernard Jensen’s Cherry Concentrate, but any legit form of cherry sounds just right for barbecue sauce.
- Smoked paprika – This isn’t speculative. Smoked paprika makes almost everything better.
- Meat drippings – You’re going to put this stuff on meat, right? Why not complement it by adding some of the juices to your sauce?
- Nuts – Can you say “pecan barbecue sauce?” Or, better yet, bourbon-pecan sauce? Or honey-bourbon-pecan sauce? Or how about praline-bourbon sauce? The right nut in the kitchen can do amazing things, right?
- Balsamic vinegar – because balsamic vinegar! Or any one of those kooky gourmet vinegars popping up everywhere.
COOKING MEAT & THE SMOKING GUN
Sauces aren’t cheating, no matter how easy you make them. But you can definitely cheat on the meat. What I’m going to describe here is a shortcut, but a pretty satisfying one. Please, no hate mail; if you disagree with me, bring competing evidence in the form of low-and-slow cooked barbecue by the office and I’ll happily admit the old school method is better.
The barbecue I’m about to describe is smoked with a device called a Smoking Gun handheld food smoker. You might have seen similar products used on cooking shows. The goal of this recipe is simplicity, not perfection. But it’s pretty good, and you won’t do better for the time invested.
NOTE: You don’t need a smoking gun. just search “smoke meat without a smoker” on youtube. Or read the paragraph on Liquid Smoke below.
I’m going to describe the process for cooking pork shoulder and making flavorful pulled pork. This works well because the meat is smoked after pulling, which allows for far more even penetration than you’ll get smoking a big piece of meat traditionally.
- Remove the fat cap from the pork shoulder. This is heresy in some circles, but because of the cooking method it’s pretty important here.
- Place in a slow cooker without liquid (in the simplest version; add whatever flavoring agents you want) and cook on high 5-7 hours, depending on your slow cooker.
- Immediately drain any liquid that collects. Consider separating the fat out and reserving the liquid for a sauce base.
- Shred the pork with two forks or your asbestos hands.
- Fill the smoking chamber with the wood chips of your choice. I used bourbon-soaked oak for a batch I intended to serve with a bourbon-based sauce. You can’t go wrong combining applewood or hickory with pork. Run the flexible tubing under the lid of your slow cooker pot and follow the manual directions to start smoking.
- Smoke for 2-3 minutes, then stir the meat and repeat to get maximum coverage. The manual says 2-3 minutes is all you need, total, but I got good results repeating this smoke-and-stir process five or six times. You can get away with a lot of smoke in barbecue, of course.
- Turn off your smoke detector alarm. Better yet, go back to step 5 and start by taking the whole rig out onto your porch.
Why not just use liquid smoke, you might ask? (And a pitmaster and former competition barbecue chef I spoke with, Hal Hallman, asked this very question.) Good liquid smoke is completely legit, and in no way artificial. It’s also very strong and, so, a little dangerous to add directly to meat. You don’t want a bite that’s inadvertently gotten too much liquid smoke. If I were going to impart smokiness with liquid smoke, I’d add it to the sauce instead… one drop at a time.
There, you’ve made very good pulled, smoky pork barbecue at home with a total investment in prep time of just a few minutes. If you can do better, please let us know on our website or on Facebook.