BBQ Sauce: Common Ingredients, Uncommon Taste

No one knows the actual origin of barbecue sauce. Some people give credit to Columbus, others to the colonists, but everyone has an opinion about how to make it. In some parts of the south, the words “barbecue sauce” may kindle feuds or incite riots. While these sauces have common ingredients, the differences are what stir up trouble. Most contain vinegar, spices and oil or butter, but beyond those basics, the combinations are endless and regional.

In Texas, ketchup, tomato sauce or tomato paste are essential ingredients. Texas sauce is thick and old-fashioned (Texans would say “classic”) like the kind found on grocery store shelves. A typical Texas recipe also includes brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, cayenne, garlic, onion and butter. Since the sauce is tomato-based, don’t use it early in the cooking process since it may burn. When BBQ sauce is served in Texas, diners add it to their meat as they sit down to supper.

Kansas City sauces are similar to Texas ones. They’re made from ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, garlic, cayenne and chili powder added as a kicker. They’re thick and meant to be brushed on meat toward the end of cooking or added at the table. In Saint Louis, the sauces are thinner and less sweet with a tangy flavor. Recipes include the basics plus yellow mustard and onion or garlic powder.

Moving on to Tennessee and the Carolinas, you get other (they would say “better”) versions of the classic sauce. Tennessee folks enjoy a BBQ sauce that starts with a tomato base but incorporates lemon juice, molasses, liquid smoke and even Jack Daniels. The Piedmont area of western North Carolina gives us sauces made from apple cider vinegar, a little ketchup, sugar, salt and red pepper flakes for heat. Eastern North Carolina eliminates the tomatoes entirely (don’t even mention them). In South Carolina, mustard sauce reigns supreme. SC barbecue sauces are thick and yellow with no tomatoes and a little flat beer. Natives will tell you that their recipe goes back to 18th century German settlers (that explains the beer). Basic ingredients are vinegar, chili powder or cayenne, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar and butter.

Cooks know that BBQ sauce works well with grilled or baked beef, ribs, chicken and pork. The vinegar in the sauce acts as a tenderizer, while spices flavor the meat, giving it a hot or tangy zest. To get the best results, prepare your sauce several hours or a day ahead of cooking. Advanced preparation gives the ingredients time to blend so that the sauce complements the meat, rather than overpowering it. Be sure to cook the sauce thoroughly, especially if it’s tomato based, so that all ingredients offer a melded flavor. Finally, refrigerate it and use it during the cooking process as well as at the table.

Here’s a recipe that’s mostly Tennessee and slightly Texas to get you started. While it’s particularly good on beef brisket, you can use it anytime you barbecue. It’s simple, doesn’t require much cooking and refrigerates well. Just make it, put it on the shelf next to the mayo and enjoy it often.

Barbecue Sauce Recipe

6 TBS Ketchup 2 TBS vinegar 1 TBS lemon juice 2 TBS Worchestershire Sauce 4 TBS water
2 TBS butter 3 TBS brown sugar 1 tsp salt 1 tsp dry mustard 1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp cayenne 1 tsp celery seed

Mix all ingredients and heat thoroughly. Don’t allow the sauce to boil. Cool and refrigerate in a tightly covered container. Reheat to serve.

For a more original sauce, try this recipe for marinating and grilling chicken. It leans toward the Carolina style, with no tomatoes allowed.

Chicken Marinade Barbecue Sauce

2/3 cup olive oil 1/3 cup vinegar 1 TBS Worchestershire Sauce juice of 1 lemon 1/4 cup liquid smoke
3 TBS dried onion soup mix 1 pkg. Italian salad dressing mix dash of garlic salt, celery salt, onion juice
freshly ground pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients and heat slightly. Cool. Marinate chicken pieces in sauce for 3 to 8 hours. Grill chicken, turning and basting with sauce every 5 minutes.

You can use these recipes and many others to start your own BBQ tradition.