The Basics of BBQ Sauce

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Many places claim to have the best barbecue – from Kansas City to Memphis, all the way to Boulder, CO through Reno – and all BBQ cooks have their special secrets, sauces, tinctures, rubs, and methods. While some people swear by the way they prepare their meat, or how they build their fire, truly good BBQ comes down to the sauce, and the truth is that most BBQ sauces start out much the same. While there are countless variations on this same theme, we are going to take a look at some of the basics of BBQ sauce, as well as a few of those variations which can make your BBQ sauce distinctly your own. We will also learn more about using these sauces to make the best barbecue.

The secret to good BBQ, and BBQ marinades and sauces, is a thorough knowledge of herbs. While this is true for cooking in general, nothing brings out the full flavor of meats like a good marinade and nothing complements that flavor like an excellent sauce. Barbecued meats may be marinated, prepared with a dry rub, or simply washed and thrown on the grill, but all are sauced while they cook. There are two types of BBQ sauces: The mopping sauce and finishing sauce. A mopping sauce is similar to a marinade, in that it is “mopped” over the meat while it cooks, and the finishing sauce is used as a condiment when the meat is served.

The most basic BBQ sauces have two or three main ingredients, of which tomato sauce (or ketchup), vinegar, and mustard are the most common. Other common ingredients include brown sugar, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, chili powder, onion, and garlic. Further down the list are wines – especially red wines – Tobasco sauce, beer, liquors, cola, and thyme. While BBQ sauces are traditionally spicy, tangier sauces go better with pork and beef, milder and more complex sauces with chicken. Also, dried herbs are twice as strong as fresh herbs, and powdered herbs are twice as strong as dried ones.

The following recipe is the most common, basic, BBQ sauce – almost every type of BBQ sauce includes these ingredients. While the following can be used as a mopping sauce, it contains both tomatoes and sugar – both of which burn and can affect the flavor of your meat – so you may want to use a different recipe for your mopping sauce, or even a marinade or dry rub instead; this recipe is more appropriate as a finishing sauce.

Quick BBQ Sauce

2 C. Ketchup
1 Can of Tomato Sauce & 1 Can Tomato Paste
1 Tbs. Worcestershire Sauce
1 Tbs. Chili Powder
2 Tbs. Vinegar or Red Wine
2 tsp. Dry Mustard
2 tsp. Celery Salt
1 Clove Garlic (Mashed)
1 Onion (Minced)
Salt and Pepper

Mix all of the ingredients in a small or medium saucepan and stir over low to medium heat for about 10 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove the garlic before serving. You can store the BBQ sauce in the refrigerator for up to one week.

You can substitute soy sauce for Worcestershire; use balsamic or rice vinegar instead; add a few tablespoons of brown sugar for a thicker, richer sauce; even change the measurements as you see fit. Using fresh ingredients instead of dried or powdered herbs will affect the texture and complexity of your sauce as much as they affect the actual taste. Taste as you prepare, but remember that the actual flavor will not become apparent until after simmering.

While every step in the process is key to good barbecue, the sauce is probably the most important. Kansas City sauces are known for their thickness, while North Carolinian sauces are said to be thin and runny, and Texas sauces are legendary for their kick. A glance at the prepackaged BBQ sauces in your local grocery store will give you even more ideas – such as Honey-BBQ, Tangy Mango, Citrus Lime, and more. There are literally hundreds of variations, but almost every BBQ sauce contains some measure of the ingredients included above. Start with this very basic recipe, then experiment with seasonings, measurements, ingredients, and substitutions to develop your own, signature BBQ sauce.

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