A good barbecue sauce is a complex interplay of flavors, balanced among sweet, sour, salty, and savory.
Regional styles of barbecue sauces vary most in their sweetness. Starting in the east with Carolina barbecue, which is noted for its tart, vinegary emphasis. Mustard is another characteristic flavor of eastern barbecue sauce. The farther west you travel, barbecue sauce becomes thicker, more tomatoey, and sweeter.
One of the simplest ways to make your mark on a sauce is to take a great bottled sauce and customize it your way. Different sweeteners, a little mustard, sautéed onions, roasted garlic, and chiles are all great additions. Step outside the box and incorporate some unusual flavor notes like cinnamon, curry or ginger.
However, if you want to try the from-scratch route, decide what your focal flavor will be first. Most barbecue sauces are vinegar-based, tomato-based, or mustard-based.
Ketchup is much sought-after as a base for barbecue sauce. But if you want to make a sauce and simmer it to concentrate the flavors, you might want to start with tomato sauce.
Next, decide the sweetener. This can run the gamut of options from sugar, brown sugar, and molasses to apple juice, honey, and agave. In fact, many sauces blend several different sweeteners to create a unique interplay.
Start out by trying a recipe or two to get the dynamics down. After that, you can take off in any direction you choose.
If you use a vertical smoker for making barbecued meats, the juices in the water pan are invaluable in making a great homemade sauce. Just pour the remaining juices into a sauce pan and boil it down until the juices are reduced to a syrup. From there, you can mix the syrup with a bottled sauce, or use it as a base for adding your own choice of ingredients.
When to Use
If you’re using a Carolina-style vinegar-based sauce, you can use it as a marinade, a baste, and at table as a side sauce.
Thicker, sweeter sauces are best used as a glaze only within the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking because the sugar, honey, and other sweeteners will caramelize within that time. Using a sweetened sauce too early will scorch the sugars within and leave you with a burnt, acrid crust.
Have you ever made your own barbecue sauce? Do style of sauce do you prefer most? What’s your favorite secret ingredient?