You may talk about your barbecue. You may even brag that your barbecue is world-famous.
But knowing how to cook meat at just the right temperature is only a small part of the barbecue experience. Making a rub is merely the first step.
If you are going to claim credit for world-beating barbecue, you can’t cover it with something that comes out of a jar. Real masters of the barbecue make their own sauce.
To be sure, plenty of great, commercially available barbecue sauces are out there. And buying one at the store is easier than making it yourself. But when you get right down to it, it’s not that much easier.
Most barbecue sauces are a mixture of sweet tastes and tart, of rich flavors and acid, of spiciness and salt. The key lies in selecting the appropriate ingredients and using them to create a breathless balance among the competing flavors.
To get an idea of where to start, I turned first to Steven Raichlen. Raichlen has written more than 25 books, many of them about barbecue, including the irreplaceable “The Barbecue! Bible.” I took a couple of his books down from the bookcase and eagerly paged through them.
That’s when I saw that most of his barbecue sauce recipes contain liquid smoke. I’ll still swear by “The Barbecue! Bible” as an unimpeachable source for recipes about international methods for grilling meat, but I have always held that using liquid smoke is cheating.
So instead I pulled out a recipe I have been making for 15 years. It’s from Texas, and therefore meant to go with barbecued beef brisket. But this is such an all-purpose sauce that it would go just as well with pork ribs, chicken and even lamb. It is the ultimate expression of a perfectly balanced barbecue sauce.
It begins with a base of ketchup and tomatoes. For sweetness, it calls for equal measures of molasses and brown sugar. Aromatic notes are provided by onions, garlic and Worcestershire sauce. An unexpected depth comes from a half-cup of coffee. And the required heat comes courtesy of Dijon mustard and a couple of chipotle peppers -- which also create the smokiness (but not the liquid smokiness) that is so desirable in barbecue.
A sauce such as this one should be used judiciously, and only at the end of cooking. In fact, if you are making it for brisket, it should only be served on the side of the already cooked meat. For other uses, such as ribs or chicken, it should only be added in the last few minutes over the fire. Any longer than that and the sugar and the molasses will burn.
This Texas sauce, besides being a Texas sauce, also might be considered a Midwestern sauce because it has some sweetness to it and a tomato base. It’s what people in most parts of the country consider a barbecue sauce.
But not the good folks of North Carolina. In North Carolina, or at least in eastern North Carolina, they don’t want to talk about tomatoes in their barbecue sauce. They don’t even want to hear about tomatoes. Barbecue sauce in eastern North Carolina is made from vinegar, with peppers in it and maybe a few other spices.
A vinegar-based sauce cuts right through the richness of pulled pork. But it also makes a spectacular barbecued chicken.
My favorite bottled vinegar-based sauce is called Scott’s Barbecue Sauce. It is sold throughout the southeast but is made in a tiny little restaurant in Goldsboro, North Carolina, a midsize town that is not particularly near anywhere else.
Naturally, the company is not about to release its secret recipe. So I set about to try to re-create it. Mine might not taste exactly like Scott’s, but it is awfully good in its own right.
I began with a mixture of two vinegars, white and apple cider. Then I tossed in 1 1/2 tablespoons of cayenne pepper -- how much you add depends on how hot you want it -- and equal amounts of salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and paprika. Why equal amounts? I wanted to keep it simple.
My version had a wonderful, surprisingly complex flavor, a pleasant tang, plenty of heat and no sweetness whatsoever. It is not what a lot of people think of as barbecue sauce; it is thin in texture and tastes more like a vinegary hot sauce. It can be used as a marinade or as a finishing sauce, served on the side once the pulled pork is cooked or basted over chicken while it is on the grill.
I tried it with chicken and loved it. I can’t wait to use it again.
But I still wasn’t done with vinegar-based sauces, because I wanted to make Frank’s Famous Barbecue Sauce.
I have no idea who Frank is. I don’t even know if his sauce is, in fact, famous. It lacks the garlic and onion powders and paprika of my version, but it compensates with mustard. And instead of cayenne, it uses Texas Pete hot sauce.
That’s how you know it is truly a North Carolina sauce. Made in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Texas Pete is practically the national dish of North Carolina. But here is the catch: It is not available anywhere near St. Louis. I used a supermarket brand instead.
There is one more thing about Frank’s. It calls for a full pound of vegetable shortening to be melted into a quart of apple cider vinegar. Maybe that was acceptable 40 years ago, when the recipe was written. But I’m just not going to subject anyone to that much fat, so instead I used1/4 cup of the shortening.
Even that relatively little amount makes a difference. It gives the sauce more depth, more richness. I tried mine over pulled pork, and it proved to be the perfect counterpoint.
The only problem is that you have to use it while it is warm. Otherwise, the shortening begins to re-form back into its gooey, gelatinous state.
BBQ SAUCE RECIPES
Texas Chipotle Barbecue Sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup coffee
3 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 canned chipotle peppers (see note)
Makes 3 cups.
Put oil in a small saucepan over medium heat and add onions and garlic. Cook until the onion becomes translucent, about 3 minutes, while occasionally stirring. Add tomatoes and simmer 8 minutes. Add ketchup, coffee, molasses, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce and chipotle peppers, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes.
Puree in a food processor. Store in a refrigerator.
Note: Chipotle peppers are sold in small cans in the Hispanic section of most grocery stores
North Carolina Barbecue Sauce
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon paprika
Makes 2 cups.
Combine all ingredients and store in the refrigerator. Stir or shake well before using. Serve with pulled pork or use to baste chicken on a grill.
Frank’s Famous Barbecue Sauce
1 quart (32 ounces) apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
5 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons pepper
1 tablespoon mustard
2 to 3 ounces vinegar-based hot sauce, preferably Texas Pete
Makes 41/4 cups.
Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan and heat, occasionally stirring, until the shortening has melted. Mix thoroughly before serving. Store in a refrigerator, but always heat until the shortening has melted before using. Serve with pulled pork.