Wednesday, October 26, 2011

BBQ Sauce

As even a casual BBQ eater knows, there are a variety of sauces, rubs and dips available out there.  They originally varied geographically, but in our mobile society, you can find then everywhere.  Purists make their sauces from scratch, simmer them for hours, can them and age them.

I don't have the time for that, so I'll tell you how to make your own sauce, the way I learned.  The basic recipe I got from my father, who in turn learned it from his friend Mickey, who grew up in Tennessee.*  I've made my own modifications, and never written it down before now.  There aren't any exact measurements, because it's not about precision, it's about taste.  I taught this recipe to a friend once, and he spent the entire time writing down everything I said, estimating "so, about a quarter cup of sugar?" and stuff like that.  I almost couldn't do it - it's like the story about how the centipede could walk just fine, until someone asked him how he coordinated his legs, and then he was thinking about it so much, he couldn't walk.

* - Correction, the recipe here is based on my father's own recipe, Mickey's recipe was mustard based.  This is what happens when you rely on your memory instead of asking questions.

Here's what you'll need:

  • A big stockpot
  • Lots of ketchup
  • Lots of white vinegar
  • Several onions
  • Garlic
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Beer or Bourbon (my rule of thumb is, whatever brown alcoholic beverage you're currently drinking)
  • Hot peppers (some pickled, some raw) - jalapeños, habaneros or whatever you prefer.  The hotter the pepper, the less you'll need.  Unless you want to hurt people.
  • Brown sugar
  • Liquid smoke (some folks call it cheating, I call it using what you need to get the taste right, because not all of us have the time)
  • Other spices you want to put in
  • Saltine crackers
  • Cooking oil
Heat up the stock pot over a medium-high flame with a tablespoon of oil or so, then add chopped onion and cook until it starts to caramelize.  Add minced garlic and let it cook for a minute or so, then add some raw pepper (go easy here, as you can spice it more later, but you can't really unspice it).  Pour in the ketchup - about as much ketchup as you want to make into sauce.  This works better in larger batches - I remember Mickey and my dad always used those plastic one-gallon restaurant size ketchup or mustard jars to store it.  Add the ketchup and turn the heat down to low so it can simmer.  

Here's how to sort out the ingredients from here:
Ketchup for thickness/base
Vinegar makes it tart
Sugar makes it sweet
The peppers make it burn
The alcohol gives it some more complex flavors, as do the spices
Liquid smoke gives it a taste of woodsmoke.  That matters.

Once you've got the ketchup gently simmering, start mixing up your additions.  For the anal-retentive reading this, start with about a quarter cup of sugar and vinegar, stir it and let it sit for a minute, then dip a saltine in the sauce and taste it.  Add more sugar and vinegar as you want to until you get the pucker right and it's sweet enough.  Now dribble a wee bit of the juice from the pickled peppers (I've just cut up peppers and let them sit in vinegar for a week or so and that's worked fine, if you want to do it all yourself) and taste again.  Mix in some booze and spices, keep tasting as you go.  The last thing you want to do is add a drop or two (seriously, not much at all) of the liquid smoke.

The crucial thing here is to get the sauce the way you like it.  Personally, I aim for a nice and mellow sweet tone that hits you right off, then the pucker from the vinegar kind of pulls at your mouth.  Lastly, your lips go a little numb from the peppers.  Your personal flavor will be your own.  Take the time to experiment with it, until you get the mix of flavors you like.  

This can be canned in mason jars, or stored in ketchup bottles - it'll keep for a while sealed, and once it's open, the refrigerator will do it just fine.  The longer it sits before you use it, the better the taste.

Cooking the BBQ can be done a lot of different ways - slow-cooked over wood coals is the ideal, but not all of us have the time.  A gas grill will work well enough, and you could even just slap a brisket in a crock pot if that's what you want to do.

This sauce works on pork, beef, goat, lamb, chicken and turkey - I'm hoping to get my hands on a goose or duck someday and test it on those.

Any questions?


  1. Papa's BBQ sauce was HIS recipe and is tomato based. Mickey's sauce is a mustard base which Papa didn't care for. They would always put both sauces out and let people choose. As you know, there are so many different opinions on sauce.

  2. D'OH! My bad, I've made the appropriate correction.

  3. This sounds scrumptious. (and I too have a bottle of liquid smoke in the cupboard.) *g*

  4. Liquid smoke is very useful!

    This sounds like great bbq sauce. Ima try it.