June 30, 2002
No two barbecue sauces are the same, with each recipe providing its own combination of snap, tang and spice.
The French may have given the world bordelaise, hollandaise, and demi-glace, but America gets the credit for barbecue sauce. “French sauces are great, but they’re not much fun,” says Steven Raichlen, whose decidedly fun “Beer-Can Chicken: And 74 Other Offbeat Recipes for the Grill includes barbecue sauce recipes with ingredients such as black cherry soda, prune juice and Belgian beer. Barbecue sauce should not be confused with barbecue, the method of slow-cooking for a long period over low, indirect heat. With this type of cooking, sauce, if any, is added at the table, though many barbecue purists shun sauce entirely. Barbecue sauce is meant for foods that are grilled over direct heat, often high heat, for a relatively short period of time.
As with barbecue cooking, barbecue sauces have regional characteristics. Kansas City-style sauce is the most common nationwide. It has a tomato or ketchup base and pronounced sweet, sour and smoky elements. Barbecue sauce from nearby St. Louis usually has a tomato foundation but without the smoke (which normally comes from bottled liquid smoke). North Carolina’s barbecue sauce, traditionally put on that state’s beloved pulled pork shoulder at the table, is vinegar-based; the sauce is clear in eastern North Carolina and tomato-red in the western half.
Mustard is the key ingredient in the sauces of Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi. White barbecue sauce, made from mayonnaise, cider vinegar, and black pepper, is big in Alabama, where people have it on chicken. In Texas, beer and chilies form the basis of a rather watery sauce. In the Southwest, from New Mexico to California, tomato salsa and pico de gallo qualify as barbecue sauces, since that’s how they’re often used. And there are scores of other ethnic sauces for grilled foods, including mojo, a blend of lime juice, cumin and garlic favored in Miami’s Latino community.
I tasted 11 brands of barbecue sauce, along with a few homemade versions, on chicken breasts and slabs of pork spareribs. My two favorites were Stubb’s Original and Bog Bottom. Stubb’s, from Stubb’s Bar-B-Q Restaurant in Austin, Texas, was assertive without being overbearing and had an almost perfect balance of sweet, smoky and spicy flavors. Bog Bottom, made in Wilmington, N.C., by Wagner Gourmet Foods, had a meaty quality, a smooth rich texture, and a tangy finish.
Though a step down from the top two, I also liked Mad Dog Ultra Hot, from Dedham, Mass. It was one of the hottest brands I tried, though I found the heat manageable. It was also pleasantly sweet, with a nice molasses note. Next came Bull’s-Eye Original (sauces listed as “Original” usually have a hotter version, too), made in Garland, Texas. It had the same elements as Stubb’s, but was a bit heavy-handed with the smoke and had a spice profile that reminded me of Worcestershire sauce. Roadhouse, made in Des Plaines, Ill., was zesty, with a chunky texture, a fruity sweetness and a whiff of what seemed like mesquite.
Except for its strong molasses undertone, I thought KC Masterpiece had a pretty mainstream taste, more suburban than the country. Two Buddies Macho Mesquite, produced in Southern California, looked and tasted more like salsa than barbecue…missing the rest of the article?