Barbecue, to me, is smoked meat. For many if not most Americans, however, barbecue is sauce. Sweet. A little smoky. A little spicy. But mostly sweet.
Great BBQ sauce enhances meat. Sauces can be bought, but I submit you can make a better sauce for a lot less. The key is to have the sauce complement the meat. Ribs with a spicy rub? Try a slightly sweet sauce. Brisket with just some salt and pepper? Spicier sauce.
If you’re going to brush sauce on the meat as it grills or smokes, do so only in the last 15 minutes or so. That way, you won’t burn the sauce, but can get some “caramelization” as the meat and sauce’s sugars combine.
The foundations of an American BBQ sauce are: ketchup or, preferably, some other tomato base; sweetener (brown sugar; molasses for depth; maybe even fruit preserves); vinegar; aromatics like onion and garlic; heat, from mustard powder to cayenne and hotter peppers; and some spices. To add smokiness, sauté some bacon instead of using “liquid smoke.” At home, I make a remarkably simple, sort of agrodolce, balsamic BBQ sauce for smoked short ribs that helps tame the fat. How much of what you put in will determine the sauce’s character. (See below for recipes.)
I haven’t found a good commercial sauce for pulled pork. Having grown up in North Carolina, I just can’t abide a gloppy sauce on pig’s meat. I favor the Western Carolina sauce—vinegar base with some tomato. It’s so good, you can just drink it straight. For a twist on smoked chicken, try Big Bob Gibson’s “Alabama White Sauce.” (See below.)
If you don’t want to cook, you don’t have to spend $17 at Williams-Sonoma for apple-bacon sauce or $16 for the maple-chipotle that goes better on waffles. I recommend five commercial sauces, each less than $5.
I like Sweet Baby Ray’s “original” (sweetbabyrays.com). You’ll find familiar sweetness (too sweet?) and some pepper. This is often available at your grocery for $1.00 a bottle. Great for guests as a dipping sauce for pork ribs. I’m also partial to Curley’s Hot & Spicy, 12 bottles for $34 (curleysbbq.com).
For chicken and pork, I recommend the 17th Street BBQ Sauce from Mike Mills, a BBQ champion many times over. You can buy three bottles online for about $15 (shop.17thstreetbarbecue.com). Check out Fiorella Jack Stack sauces from Kansas City, 12 for $45 (jackstackbbq.com). These two sauces combine tomato and mustard to create a distinctive balance of sweet followed by tangy.
Finally, I’d just ask that one time you try inventing your own. The rewards can be infinite.
For recipes, click here.