There is a credible group of enthusiasts who make the argument that good meat needs no BBQ sauce. They are right. But I would say that very few meats make it to the level of transcendentalism where this is truly an issue. You can name the joints on one hand in this state, I suppose, perhaps two, where you might actually have some guilt over using BBQ sauce on such fine fare.
But, here is the dirty truth. I like my BBQ slathered up in sauce. I am a little more discerning now. I actually judge the meat and appreciate it before diving in for the sauce. I now even “dip” brisket or sausage into sauce instead of pouring sauce all over it. But still, I like BBQ sauce. I like dipping buttered Texas Toast into sauce. I like cleaning up my saucy plate with bread or that last bite of BBQ. I’m not ashamed.
But BBQ folk are a serious bunch of opinionated people and they like to argue and compare and beat each other about the head regarding the “rights” and “wrongs” of the enterprise and that is before you get into the regional feuds…all in good, tasty fun, or course. So my apologies if my version of BBQ sauce violates any cardinal rules of which I am unaware, or outs me as a classless BBQ poser or sauce floozy.
My passion for good BBQ sauce probably goes back to Callaway’s BBQ in downtown Wichita Falls. Clarence served a lunch crowd in a long skinny little joint where patrons lined up down the left side wall. There was room for maybe 8 double tables in there, and everyone else bought it to go. The serving line was perhaps 10 or 12 feet across before the cash register (are you envisioning the requisite tree of Dum Dum lollipops?) And then there is the sound. WhapWhapWhap! WhapWhapWhap! That, of course is the sound of brisket being turned into chopped brisket for sandwiches. As I sit here typing, I can smell Callaway’s, I can open the door, I can see the trays, and I can see Clarence standing there taking orders and serving BBQ. Yellow potato salad, Texas Toast, Brisket, and seriously dark maroon, sweet, spicy sauce. I can taste it right this minute. I loved that sauce. It could have come out of a bottle. I don’t know and I don’t care. I loved it like mad.
Imagine my joy decades later to discover a recipe card that my Grandpa Virgil had of his own recipe for BBQ sauce. One of my aunts submitted it for our family cookbook. I couldn’t wait to monkey around with it and see what he thought was perfect sauce. Of course, it contained an entire can of Budweiser. There was a laundry list of spices. It was good, but the sentimental nature of using one of his recipes clouded my brain for a few years.
At some point, I started getting a little more methodical about my BBQ and tried to learn a bit about what made good meat, instead of just being the sides and dessert lady. I started playing with my Grandad’s recipe and finding that each time I was ditching an ingredient or two. The beer had to go, but not for any philosophical reason. It just made things too watery. I stopped using the diced tomatoes for the same reason. Then one fateful day, I sautéed my onions and made my sauce just as close to my Papaw’s recipe as I could, and I had an epiphany. It was: That batch of sauce tasted like crap.
Being me, I needed to know what in the heck had happened so I started working backwards. The problem was, there was so much STUFF in the sauce that my brain couldn’t suss out the offender easily. I think many cooks spend a lot of time thinking that the longer the list of ingredients, the better something must be. And I’m here to tell you, I am reborn. Generally. But, specifically with my sauce.
I did finally figure out where that batch had gone wrong. It turns out that I am very sensitive to the flavor of cooked canola (rapeseed) oil. It tastes fishy to me. I have suspected this as an “off flavor” culprit in other dishes and now I know it to be true. Some people are just wired that way. I think it is probably the same gene that makes me dislike cilantro, try as I might to enjoy it.
But, to make a long story even longer, figuring out the canola oil issue made me go back to the most fundamental stages of making BBQ Sauce. What does it need and what is just interesting taste decoration?
This is my foundation. Beyond that, I found that I could modify in any direction that I wanted. I could make it sweeter, or less sweet by adjusting the sugar. I could make it a little more tart by tweaking the vinegar. But basically, those ingredients stayed in place. Now here is the fun part. YOU CAN NOW DO WHATEVER YOU WANT!!
I added chile powder, black pepper and Tabasco sauce to this base and I’m pretty much thrilled. You can start by cooking chopped onions to add some depth to the sauce. You can go in a spicy direction by using cinnamon or cloves. You can add dried mustard. You can add a little zing of lemon juice. You can try Chinese Five Spice powder and a little shot of pineapple juice. You can absolutely do whatever you like.
Also, Robb Walsh, in his wonderful book Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, suggests that many pitmasters will add brisket drippings to their sauce for that extra bit of greatness. But he also notes that it renders the sauce un-store-able. However, the next time I smoke a brisket, I’ll be adding the carving drippings to my sauce.
There are people who have spent a great deal of time developing sauces that are more entertaining than this, I assure you. I in no way want to demean the art form. Many will consider this formula overwrought ketchup.
I’ve just found that for me, simple is better. I like the texture and the flavor and it works with just about anything. What’s more, I will never again find myself without BBQ sauce, because I always have these four ingredients on hand…always. But, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a last minute trip to the store to find BBQ Sauce. Now I feel a little silly.
So, here is MY version of this very basic sauce. Remember, you can omit any of the ingredients save the first four and go in whatever direction you want to go. And you may also exhibit some effort and sauté the onions first.
Recipe for Basic BBQ Sauce:
1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce
½ cup distilled white vinegar
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
¼ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
½ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken. If you desire a thicker sauce, at this time you can stir in a cornstarch slurry (1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed into just enough cold water) and simmer for an additional three minutes. Serve warm.
That’s it. Now, let’s hear it. What is your favorite sauce? What are your favorite secret ingredients? Do you buy bottled or make your own?