If you love outdoor cooking, there's nothing like taming a tough cut of meat through the mastery of a low and slow fire, or deftly hand-ling a lean cut quickly over a hot grill. But often it's that signature touch, a thoughtfully honed sauce, that separates barbecue masters from weekend warriors.
At once sweet, sour and spicy, the best sauces achieve a controlled balance of what might initially seem like contradictory flavors. These aren't run-of-the-mill sauces, mass-produced and available at any market. These sauces are special, and you tailor them to fit whatever you're cooking.
Start with a foundation. Most traditional barbecue sauces are tomato-based, drawing on tomato sauce, fresh or canned tomatoes, ketchup or a combination of these. There are also vinegar-, mustard-, broth- and even mayonnaise-based barbecue sauces.
From there, add ingredients one or two at a time and taste carefully; you're looking for balance. Sweeten the sauce with sugar, or other options such as maple syrup, brown sugar or even molasses. (Because sugar burns easily, most barbecue sauces should be applied at the last minute to avoid scorching.)
Give the sauce a tart note with any of a variety of vinegars, or try citrus juice or zest. Consider fresh or ground spices and herbs, and adjust the heat with fresh or dried peppers or hot sauce. Then season the sauce; add a little salt, or deepen the flavor with soy or Worcestershire sauce.
Allow the mixture to cook slowly to give the ingredients time to mature and marry, much as you would with a homemade tomato sauce or chili. Like the best barbecue, a great sauce develops slowly, its flavor improving with time.
Finally, consider taking the sauce to the next level by adding one or more signature ingredients. Think fruit juice, coffee or cola, chiles, agave nectar, horseradish or an unusual spice.
Liquid smoke may be controversial in some circles, but it can lend depth to a sauce, particularly when the meat is not smoked or grilled over an open flame but cooked on a stove-top grill or slow-cooked in an oven.
One fun route is using liquor. For a Kentucky bourbon barbecue sauce, simmer some onion and garlic in a couple of cups of bourbon. A slow simmer will soften the onion and garlic, and the bourbon will mellow to buttery richness as the alcohol cooks off.
The foundation of this sauce is ketchup and tomato paste. Sweeten it with brown sugar and molasses, then balance that by adding cider vinegar, pineapple and lemon juice (pineapple and lemon juice are natural complements to bourbon). Add depth with Worcestershire sauce, salt, liquid smoke and dry mustard, then spice it just a bit with a little hot sauce and chili powder.
Slightly sweet, the sauce is perfect mopped over pecan-crusted pork spareribs. Coat the ribs with a seasoned wet rub of Dijon mustard, brown sugar and chopped pecans, then cover and bake them over low heat for two to three hours until they're meltingly tender. Shortly before they're done, uncover them and baste them with the barbecue sauce; the sauce will thicken to a beautiful shellac. Serve the ribs hot, with a stack of napkins.
Or go a different route. Fruit is an increasingly popular ingredient in barbecue sauces, but it must be used with discretion. You don't want barbecue sauce to taste like jam.
Finding your own sauce is a matter of balancing flavors and careful cooking. Trust your taste, and don't be afraid to experiment. Barbecue sauces have a mystique about them, but developing your own signature style is part of the fun.
Pecan-Crusted Spareribs With Kentucky Bourbon Barbecue Sauce
For the sauce:
1 large onion, thinly sliced, top to bottom
6 cloves garlic, crushed
Juice and grated zest of 1 lemon, divided
2 cups Kentucky bourbon
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
1 tablespoon salt, or more to taste
1/2 cup tomato paste
4 cups ketchup
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup pineapple juice
1/4 cup liquid smoke
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco, or other vinegar-based hot sauce
2 dashes bitters
For the ribs and pecan mustard rub:
2 whole racks pork spareribs
1 tablespoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
4 teaspoons chopped garlic
3/4 cup Dijon mustard
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco, or other vinegar-based hot sauce
4 cups chopped pecans
1/2 cup beer
Note: Makes about 7 cups of sauce, more than is required. The sauce will keep up to 2 weeks, refrigerated.
For the sauce: In a heavy-bottom 4-quart pot, combine the onion, garlic, lemon zest and bourbon. Bring the bourbon to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and continue to cook until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the remaining ingredients and continue to gently simmer for 30 minutes. Stir frequently, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot to prevent burning.
Remove from heat and puree the sauce until fairly smooth, using an immersion blender or blending in stages in a stand blender. Place the sauce in a nonreactive container and set aside until it comes to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until needed. Warm the sauce before using.
For the ribs and rub: Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Peel the tough membrane lining the underside of the spareribs, then rinse the ribs, pat dry and place in a large roasting pan.
Evenly coat the racks on both sides with the salt, several grinds of pepper and the garlic. Set the racks aside while you make the rub.
In a medium bowl, combine the mustard, sugar, chili powder, onion powder and Tabasco to form a thick paste. Stir in the pecans until combined; this will form a sticky wet rub.
Rub the pecan mixture evenly over the rib racks on both sides to coat. Pour the beer into the roasting pan, then cover tightly with foil.
Place the ribs in the oven and cook until the meat is tender and curled away from the ends of the ribs (you should see about 1/2 inch of bone at the end of each rib), about 2 1/2 hours.
Remove the foil from the pan and mop the ribs with a generous coating of barbecue sauce. Cook the ribs an additional 30 minutes to allow the barbecue sauce to thicken and form a "crust" on top of the ribs. Remove from heat and allow the ribs to cool slightly. Slice and serve immediately with additional barbecue sauce.
Each serving: 834 calories; 35g protein; 40g carbohydrates; 4g fiber; 58g fat; 14g saturated fat; 128mg cholesterol; 1,462mg sodium.