Sorting through the Sauce Story

In this part . . . Ask most people what makes great barbecue, and they tell you it’s all in the sauce. (No sauce is going to make desiccated pork butt taste like the food of the gods but, hell, it can cover a few barbecue sins.) In this part, you find out about using sauces and get inspirations for dreaming up your own rave-inducing versions. I give you traditional recipes from all four American barbecue regions and unexpected sauces from all over the world.

Leave your meat in the smoker too long, and your friends may let you forget it, but present a mundane sauce, and you break what many people consider an unpardonable barbecue sin.

(They’re right only in part: How well you prepare and cook meat is at least as important as your sauce, but in many minds, sauce is the whole story of barbecue. Can’t fight conviction.)

In this part, you find barbecue recipes from all four barbecue regions and some that may hitherto never have been part of American barbecue. But if you really want to get adventurous, run right past the exotic sauces and concoct your own from-scratch barbecue sauce. Doing so is a great party trick because the reality is that it’s not as complicated as most people think.

As I tell you in Chapter 4, you use different barbecue sauces at three different stages of preparing your food :

  • The tomatoey, sugary barbecue sauce that so many people equate with barbecue itself is not a good match for the heat of the grill and tends to burn, so save it for the last few minutes of cooking, brush it on after you’ve pulled cooked meat from the smoker, or serve it as a dipping sauce.
  • Sauces made from bases like vinegar and mustard rather than tomato can be used as mop sauces. You regularly slather mop sauces on your food as it cooks.

The recipes in this part of the book give you a wide range of sauces not just from around the country but from around the world. In this chapter, I home in on how to create your own traditional barbecue sauce from scratch.

Choosing a Base

The base you use makes up the largest part of your sauce, although it won’t necessarily end up being the most notable flavor.

Sauce bases set the tone and hold your other ingredients together in a harmonious mix.

Three bases serve as starting block for most of the barbecue sauce that cooks in the United States stake their names on :

  • Mustard: Sauces that start with mustard run the gamut, showing up in sweet or spicy versions and most often served alongside pork. Mustard and pork bring out the best in each other.
  • Tomato: Almost synonymous with “barbecue” for many people, tomato-based sauce is the one that fills grocery store shelves and most regularly coats ribs, pulled pork, and so on. Tomatoes are a tangy canvas for sweet sauces and equally at home with sharp, spicy ingredients.
  • Vinegar: Thin, vinegar-based sauces contain little that’s neutral enough to diffuse the strong flavors within them — usually red pepper flakes or pepper sauce, maybe a pinch of sugar. Some add a little tomato or Worcestershire, but vinegar (often apple cider and white vinegars) is responsible for most of the oomph.

Mayonnaise-based “white sauce” is a wild card that originated in Alabama (and has pretty much stayed there, so far). The tart sauce usually includes apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and sugar. You find a recipe for it in Chapter 9.

Treat white sauce as you would a tomato-based version, keeping it away from heat until the last few minutes of cooking to keep the mayonnaise from separating. You also can use it as a marinade before you get cooking.

White sauce tastes great on chicken, turkey, and pork, and you can use it as a dressing for salads or coleslaw.

Striking a Balance

Despite every successful barbecue cook holding his recipes close to the vest, a basic formula for sauce is no secret at all. Every sauce that works has a balance of sweet, sour, and seasonings.

Many throw in heat, too, to keep things interesting.

As you work on your own sauce recipe, effect change step by step.

If you mess with too many elements at a time, you can’t pin down what’s keeping the sauce from working. Change just one part of the recipe for a subsequent batch, and you leave no mystery as to what’s making the difference, and then you know better how to proceed toward your masterpiece.

When you start dreaming up your own sauce, keep in mind that you want one element to do most of the work. A sauce needs an identity if it’s to become a standout. If you prefer a sweet sauce, let an element like apricot preserves take the stage and give hot elements the role of backup singer. If you want a sour, vinegary sauce, heat and sweet do the doo-wop work.

The following sections run down the common ingredients that go into the various elements of great sauces.

Sweet ideas

Standard granulated sugar works for adding sweetness, sure, but so do a lot of other ingredients, many of which add much more interesting combinations of flavors along with the sweet :

  • Brown sugar
  • Fruit juices (anything from apple to raspberry or pomegranate)
  • Fruit preserves, jams, or jellies
  • Honey
  • Light corn syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses

The making (and using) of molasses

Molasses isn’t necessarily a staple in today’s kitchens, but it was the sweetener of choice until granulated white sugar became affordable in the late 19th century.

Molasses is the syrup that arises during the cane sugar refining process. Sugar cane is crushed to pull out its juices, and the juice is heated to separate the sugar into crystals and syrup.

The process of refining sugar requires several stages. Molasses may come from the first stage, in which case it’s called, fittingly enough, first molasses. (Later boilings of the molasses draw out more sugars and lead to darker and darker molasses.)

The darker the molasses, the less sweetness it’s going to have. Molasses lends deeper and more complex flavors than table sugar; it’s a little heartier and has a sharp tinge on the tongue that sugar doesn’t give you.

Molasses doesn’t just make pumpkin pie and gingerbread cookies taste good; it has a long history of use as a laxative, and currently blackstrap molasses (the darkest and most bitter form) has a reputation as a health boost, in part because of its high concentrations of iron and calcium. It also has an almost mythical status, drawing claims that it has cured cancer and arthritis and even restored natural color to gray hair. The jury’s out on those bits, but a host of pit masters can attest to its benefits to barbecue sauce.

Sour notions

If you’re going to have a little sweet in your sauce, you need some sour, too, to keep the mix from becoming more of a dessert glaze than a suitable topper for meat. Here are the most-used options :

  • Lemon or lime juice
  • Prepared mustard
  • Vinegar
  • Worcestershire sauce


Pungent fresh vegetables like onions, garlic, and peppers add a lot of depth (and in some cases a little sweetness) to your sauce.

Dried herbs and spices go even farther. Less usually is more when it comes to seasonings, so proceed carefully as you season your sauce.

Here are some of the seasonings that commonly make it into barbecue sauces :

  • Allspice
  • Celery seed
  • Cinnamon
  • Garlic powder
  • Ginger
  • Onion powder

Chapter 5 runs down a lot of the surefire seasoning combinations.

Hot touches

Not every sauce is a hot sauce, but even sweet sauces do well with a little something spicy, which, if you add it with a very cautious hand, actually underscores the sweet effect you’re going for.

Then, of course, there are four-alarm-fire sauces that throw the balance in the opposite direction, using a little something sweet to create depth and complement the tongue-scorching elements within the sauce.

Adding prepared hot sauce is a reasonable shortcut and creates good results. Here are some further suggestions for fueling a fire :

  • Black pepper (fresh ground)
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Chili powder
  • Chipotle (smoked jalapeño) peppers or sauce
  • Cloves
  • Crushed red pepper
  • Dry mustard
  • Horseradish
  • Minced fresh hot peppers (jalapeño, habanero, serrano, and so on)
  • Paprika
  • Pure chile powders from ancho, pasilla, caribe, or other hot peppers

Smoke in a bottle

Given the provenance of barbecue and of smoking, it’s ironic and just plain weird that you can now buy smoke in a bottle.

Liquid smoke is made from the condensed smoke coming off popular barbecue woods like hickory and mesquite as they’re heated. The liquid is collected, filtered, and then bottled and shipped to the shelves of a grocery store near you. (Look for it among the condiments.)

In most cases, nothing goes into the bottle but the condensed smoke. Still, there’s a distinct flavor about most liquid smoke products on the market that make it easily discernable from the flavor that slow-smoking provides. It’s a shortcut, and shortcuts tend not to come off as well as the real thing.

Still, if you’re time crunched or live in an apartment or anywhere else that keeps you from doing actual smoking (or if you just have no interest in the smoking process), liquid smoke is a viable alternative. Its flavor is super-concentrated, so you need only a few drops to give smoke flavor to a sauce. It’s a nice touch for barbecue sauces, of course, and it may make more of your marinade, too. Liquid smoke also makes a showing in many cooks’ salsas, and it jazzes up plain old ketchup for your hamburgers, too.

Finding Exotic Inspirations for Terrific Sauces

Traditional sauces are just that. They use ingredients that most people associate with barbecue (although in an endless variety of proportions and combinations). If you want to step outside the barbecue comfort zone, you might try working with some of the idea starters you find in Table 8-1.

Table 8-1

Inspirations for Unexpected Barbecue Sauces






Soy sauce, black bean paste, white vinegar, sesame oil, brown sugar, garlic powder, hot sauce


Tomatoes, onion, chilies, garlic, peanuts, cinnamon, black pepper, salt, unsweetened chocolate, olive oil, chicken stock, sesame seeds


Peanut butter, lime juice, cilantro, crushed red pepper, ginger

Sweet and sour

Rice vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, soy sauce, cornstarch

Tamarind chutney

Dried tamarind, dates, cumin, cayenne pepper, sugar, salt


Soy sauce, ginger, Japanese rice wine, cider vinegar, sugar

Thai sweet chile

Serrano chili, ground red chile paste, rice vinegar, plum sauce, sugar, lime juice, tomato paste, garlic, paprika, salt

Tikka Masala

Tomato paste, heavy cream, vegetable oil, onion, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cilantro, hot green chile pepper

Using plum sauce

Plum sauce is one element of the Thai sweet chile sauce in Table 8-1, and a good condiment all on its own. The tart and sweet sauce ends up on tables in most Chinese restaurants, and it can do good things for barbecue sauce, too.

Made with vinegar and sugar (and usually a few seasonings; ginger is a popular one), plum sauce has many of the elements you’d put into your sauce anyway, making it a fair shortcut. Plum wine makes a nice addition, too.

You can find plum sauce and plum wine (and other faces of Chinese plums, like dried or pickled versions that may also make interesting elements of sauce) in any Asian market.


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