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Smoke and Spice

All-American barbecue sauces to brighten your backyard cookouts

Sam Gugino
Posted: July 2, 2002

  Basic Barbecue Sauce Recipe  
  How to get it  
  Other Sam Gugino Tastes columns  

The French may have given the world bordelaise, hollandaise and demi-glace, but America gets the credit for barbecue sauce. "French sauces are great, but they're not much fun," says Steven Raichlen, whose decidedly fun Beer-Can Chicken: And 74 Other Offbeat Recipes for the Grill includes barbecue sauce recipes with ingredients such as black cherry soda, prune juice and Belgian beer. Barbecue sauce should not be confused with barbecue, the method of slow-cooking for a long period over low, indirect heat. With this type of cooking, sauce, if any, is added at the table, though many barbecue purists shun sauce entirely. Barbecue sauce is meant for foods that are grilled over direct heat, often high heat, for a relatively short period of time.

As with barbecue cooking, barbecue sauces have regional characteristics. Kansas City-style sauce is the most common nationwide. It has a tomato or ketchup base and pronounced sweet, sour and smoky elements. Barbecue sauce from nearby St. Louis usually has a tomato foundation but without the smoke (which normally comes from bottled liquid smoke). North Carolina's barbecue sauce, traditionally put on that state's beloved pulled pork shoulder at the table, is vinegar-based; the sauce is clear in eastern North Carolina and tomato-red in the western half.

Mustard is the key ingredient in the sauces of Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi. White barbecue sauce, made from mayonnaise, cider vinegar and black pepper, is big in Alabama, where people have it on chicken. In Texas, beer and chilies form the basis of a rather watery sauce. In the Southwest, from New Mexico to California, tomato salsa and pico de gallo qualify as barbecue sauces, since that's how they're often used. And there are scores of other ethnic sauces for grilled foods, including mojo, a blend of lime juice, cumin and garlic favored in Miami's Latino community.

I tasted 11 brands of barbecue sauce, along with a few homemade versions, on chicken breasts and slabs of pork spareribs. My two favorites were Stubb's Original and Bog Bottom. Stubb's, from Stubb's Bar-B-Q Restaurant in Austin, Texas, was assertive without being overbearing and had an almost perfect balance of sweet, smoky and spicy flavors. Bog Bottom, made in Wilmington, N.C., by Wagner Gourmet Foods, had a meaty quality, a smooth rich texture and a tangy finish.

Though a step down from the top two, I also liked Mad Dog Ultra Hot, from Dedham, Mass. It was one of the hottest brands I tried, though I found the heat manageable. It was also pleasantly sweet, with a nice molasses note. Next came Bull's-Eye Original (sauces listed as "Original" usually have a hotter version, too), made in Garland, Texas. It had the same elements as Stubb's, but was a bit heavy-handed with the smoke and had a spice profile that reminded me of Worcestershire sauce. Roadhouse, made in Des Plaines, Ill., was zesty, with a chunky texture, a fruity sweetness and a whiff of what seemed like mesquite.

Except for its strong molasses undertone, I thought KC Masterpiece had a pretty mainstream taste, more suburban than country. Two Buddies Macho Mesquite, produced in Southern California, looked and tasted more like salsa than barbecue sauce. Though it had quality ingredients, American Spoon Foods sweet and fruity Cherry BBQ Grilling Sauce was far too genteel. Scott's, a classic North Carolina vinegar-based sauce, was just too thin to coat properly. Try it as a mopping or basting sauce during cooking instead of as a finishing condiment. A surfeit of clove, allspice and hot pepper tilted Vernon's Jamaican Jerk Sauce way out of balance. On the other hand, Texas Best Mesquite Recipe was so tame, it tasted more like it was from Ohio (where it is made) than from the Lone Star State.

My first homemade sauce was too tomatoey and didn't have the depth of flavor of the best bottled sauces. It might have had I cooked it for four hours, which is what Jack McDavid, co-host of the Food Network's former Grillin' and Chillin', does at his Jack's Firehouse in Philadelphia. My results improved considerably when I followed Raichlen's recipe for basic barbecue sauce (below), though it still didn't have the snap and tang of Stubb's or Bog Bottom.

But if you're determined to make your own, it is best to start with ketchup (as Raichlen does) because it already has the requisite sweet, sour, tomato and spice components. Then you can add sweetness with molasses, brown sugar, maple syrup or honey. A sour balance can come from vinegar (cider vinegar is a favorite), lemon or other citrus juices. Other possible seasonings include mustard, Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, garlic, onion, black pepper, hot pepper such as ground cayenne, or hot pepper sauce such as Tabasco. Red wine, Port, Bourbon (especially with maple syrup) and rum can add plenty of flavor, too. If you add beer, use no more than a half-cup and reduce it somewhat to cut the bitterness of the hops.

If you're looking for an Asian bent, try adding ginger, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, Sherry or five-spice powder. Ground cumin, cilantro and lime or other tropical juices will give you a Latin feel. Raichlen suggests adding a ringer ingredient for "brag power." It can be anything from iced tea to cranberry juice to vanilla. Jack's Firehouse uses coffee and cinnamon. Also important is consistency -- a sauce that is slightly thinner than ketchup works best. If you make it thicker, your sauce will hang heavy on the meat. A thinner version will just slide off.

Since barbecue sauce almost always contains some kind of sugar, putting it on the meat too early will cause the exterior to burn before the inside is done. Moderate caramelization is delicious, though. If you're cooking at high heat, slather on the sauce five to 10 minutes before the food will be done. Put it on sooner if you're working at lower heat. And don't let the sauce do all the work -- you should also season the meat well with a spice rub or a liberal coating of salt and pepper. Another possibility, advises Chris Chickering, chef for American Spoon Foods, is to thin out a few tablespoons of sauce with wine and oil and brush this basting or mopping sauce on the meat as it cooks.

Choosing a wine to go with the sweet, sour, smoky and hot pepper flavors of barbecue sauces is a challenge. The exuberant fruit in Zinfandel makes it a good choice, as long as alcohol levels (or the heat of the sauce) are kept in check. Ditto for Australian Shiraz. Shiraz and Rh™ne Syrahs have a peppery and smoked meat quality that works nicely with barbecue sauce. I also like Petite Sirah, Rioja riserva and Chianti Classico. Sometimes you can go with a white, perhaps an off-dry Chenin Blanc or Riesling (especially German Rieslings, because their higher acidity refreshes the palate). You could also try an extra dry Champagne, just to show the French that there are no hard feelings.

Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).

Basic Barbecue Sauce
(adapted from How to Grill by Steven Raichlen)

  • 2 cups ketchup
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Tabasco
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons liquid smoke
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

    Combine all ingredients in a nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 10 to 15 minutes or until sauce is dark, thick and rich. Adjust sweetness, sourness and hot pepper to taste.

    How to Get It

    America's Best Barbecue
    (800) 814-6815; www.americasbestbbq.com

    Chefshop.com Inc.
    Seattle, Wash.
    (877) 337-2491; www.chefshop.com

    The Gourmet Grill
    www.thegourmetgrill.com (for links to sites that sell sauces)

    San Luis Obispo, Calif.
    (800) 462-3220

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