BBQ: What's the Secret to Your Sauce?

I am a Yankee girl. My family is from up North, too. When Fourth of July would come 'round, we'd eat burgers and dogs, corn on the cob and potato salad. And if we were good, we'd have "Wooder ice" for dessert.

The word for such a feast was a "cook out, " which was also used as a verb, as in "We're going to cook out tonight." The word "barbecue" was not part of the vernacular, with one exception - when my Dad was feeling adventurous and bought a bottle of Kraft barbecue sauce to brush on chicken breasts.

I'm not complaining, really. But coming from up North, we got the short end of the stick when it came to matters of the grill. In this case, I suppose ignorance is bliss as I had no idea what I was missing. Wasn't chicken on the grill supposed to charred and fossilized? And ribs - that was something we'd eat in a sit-down restaurant like Rib-It (a Philadelphia chain), not anything we'd attempt in the backyard.

Not until I was an adult did I become familiar with this phenomenon known as barbecue, yet I remain a student of what is probably the quintessential American dish, with as many regional-ities (did I just make up a word?) as the French do with wine. Be it from Carolina, Kansas City or Tennessee, barbecue is Greek to me.

I've got a copy of "Peace, Love and Barbecue" by Mike Mills, who's a three-time champion at the Memphis in May International Barbecue Festival. And I sure am excited. But where do I start? I was thinking about making some sauce.

According to Mills, barbecue sauce has "one of four bases: vinegar, tomato, ketchup or mustard." Okay, I got that.

And in "The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining," authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison offer the following tips when making your own sauce:

Almost always include an acid such as vinegar, citrus juice or pickling liquid.

For balance, add "sweetness from sugar, honey, molasses or maybe caane, corn or maple syrup."

"Salt helps with the balancing act, either in granular form or as soy sauce, anchovies or other sodium-rich ingredients."

"Many people, including us, like some heat from fresh or dried chiles, Tabasco or another hot sauce, freshly ground black pepper or perhaps horseradish."

So if I understand this correctly, in order to make a respectable barbecue sauce, I need the following: acid, sweetness, salt and heat.

Now it's your turn. Help a Yankee girl out, why doncha? With Fourth of July weekend just a few days away, I'm desperate to get on the barbecue caravan. Send your sauce ideas and tips in comments area below!

P.S. Stay tuned for Barbecue, Part II, Friday, June 30.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 28, 2006; 12:28 PM ET  | Category:  Backyard Cooking , Flames
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Georgia-style BBQ is by far the best. The sauce tends to be ketchup-based, but very tangy with a lot of white vinegar, and a bit of mustard too. Sugar/molasses should NOT be added under any circumstances! For mine, I usually use 2 1/2 or so parts ketchup to one part vinegar. Add a tablespoon or so of yellow mustard. A tablespoon or so of Worcestershire sauce. A few pinches of salt, a healthy amount of black pepper, and a few splashes of Tobasco. The sauce should be thin (not thick like Kraft or the like), yet not watery. Delicious!

Posted by: former Georgian | June 28, 2006 01:46 PM

Forget the four basic sauces. For a refreshing change from sauced barbecue, try it Memphis style: coated with dry rub spices and slow-roasted over hickory coals. The best barbecue I ever had was a rack of ribs cooked this way at Pig-N-Whistle restaurant in Memphis (www.pig-n-whistle.com/).

Posted by: Hans Von Milla | June 28, 2006 01:52 PM

My secret ingredient is Black Bean Sauce. A tablespoon per half cup of bbq sauce does the trick. Best if used in combination with more tame varieties of prepared store bought sauces. Wonderful on chicken and pork ribs. Also, the best bbq is achieved with patience. Get the meat cooking before covering with sauce; otherwise, the sauce burns. Brush on sauce, move meat to cooler parts of the grill and cover with slight ventilation. Sit down. Have a drink. I spent an hour grilling pork ribs last night - much, much better than when I rush through...Have a great Fourth!

Posted by: Shaun | June 28, 2006 02:10 PM

You're down South now where barbeque (note the spelling)is a noun, not a verb!

Posted by: Stick | June 28, 2006 03:23 PM

For a serious look at BBQ, check out John Thorne's book, Serious Pig. I'm a fan of east carolina bbq, myself. No gloppy sauce, just a little rub, and a little mop to keep the pig moist. Pure pork heaven.

Posted by: | June 28, 2006 03:44 PM

...and it refers to the food, not the grill it's cooked on!

Posted by: former Georgian | June 28, 2006 03:45 PM

Barbecue is slow-cooked over indirect heat, not something grilled directly over a fire. Grilling's all well and good, and can produce some fine eating, but it's not barbecue. A big weber grill can be used (although a custom-designed smoker is best), with the coals piled on the sides, a water pan in the middle, and plenty of soaked wood/wood chips to provide that sweet, sweet smoke

Posted by: Derek | June 28, 2006 04:18 PM

Green Egg grills are great for slow-cooking/smoking too.

Posted by: former Georgian | June 28, 2006 04:57 PM

Sauce tips are great, but cooking methods are equally important:

To add to the first comment by former Georgian, my b-b-q sauce is ketchup based as well. Except, instead of white vinegar I've found apple cider vinegar makes a world of a difference. I cook out all the time, so from my mistakes I have learned that the ingredients are useless if you don't know proper cooking method. To start, most barbeque sauces have some sort of sugar in it. Orange juice, ketchup, honey...sugar "burns" easily. The food turns black very quickly. SO, from my mistakes, to prevent this you should follow these cooking steps. 1. Partially cook the meat on both sides, I'm sure former Georgian can appreciate this; southern style b-b-q'd foods are usually heavy on the sauce. You know, the kind where you absolutely have to lick your fingers. Step number 2. drudge, dip,and dunk your partially cook the meat, then throw it back on the grill to finish it off. This way the sauce to turn black. For good down south sloppy b-b-q; dip it, throw it back on; dunk it again, and throw it back on for about 30-45 seconds on each side before you serve it up.

Posted by: crispanic | June 28, 2006 05:51 PM

My sauce is just a part of the process, so I'm including the whole thing. A few years ago I asked a Texan how to BBQ. Here's his recipe for ribs that I use and keeps my friends and family coming back for more:

1) Get a large pot and fill it half way+ with water and heat it to boil.
2) Chop a large onion, some tomatoes, a clove or two of garlic, and toss in.
3) Add a tsp of Cyanne pepper, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp ground black peppers.
4) Put the slab of ribs in the pot. If you have more than one rack, you can try to roll up the slabs to fit them into the pot. Mind the hot water.
5) Boil it for 45 minutes.

While you're boiling the ribs, you should start the souce. In a medium bowl stir together(about):
1) A cup of Heinz Ketchup.
2) 1/4 tsp Cyanne Pepper.
3) 1/4 tsp ground black pepper.
4) 1/3 cup 100% pure maple syrup.
5) 1/2 of a small can of tomato paste.

Heat the grill when the meat has about 10 minutes left in the pot. When the meat is ready, carefully remove the slab(s) from the pot and place them on the grill curve up and turn the heat on the grill down to medium. Brush the ribs with the sauce, turn them over right away and brush the other side. Wait five minutes, turn the ribs over and brush the ribs with the sauce.
Enjoy.

Posted by: Helgi | June 28, 2006 06:24 PM

Never never boil the meat! Makes it tough. I'm from Memphis and here's my way: A little dry rub, sear well on both sides starting with bone side. Curb your coals or turn off one side of gas grill, move meat to cooler side. Put a small aluminum foil pan with water wherever you can fit it, add some well-soaked hickory or pecan(milder) chips to the coals. Close the lid. Keep closed as much as possible. In about 45 minutes, brush on some sauce if you want and cook for 5 minutes each side. If you constantly put sauce on before that, all you get is flare-ups and burnt sauce on your ribs. Meat comes out tender, pink and smoky.

Posted by: JW | June 29, 2006 03:14 AM

I'm from New England and we boiled ribs and chicken before they went on the grill. It shortens the cooking time and actually works pretty well to keep chicken moist. Makes ribs *way* overcooked. That said, once you learn the proper way to control heat on your grill, boiling isn't necessary.

Steven Raichlen has several cookbooks about grilling and barbeque. His "How to Grill" is a favorite cookbook in our house and is great for beginners. He has/had a PBS show and his blog is http://www.barbecuebible.com/.

Try grilling peaches and pineapple for dessert. Good stuff.

Posted by: Jennifer B. | June 29, 2006 08:40 AM

Cider vinegar, huh? I'll have to try that next time. We rarely sauce during the cooking (maybe a little toward the end of grilling chicken). We like to slow-cook/smoke a fairly lean pork loin (hate greasy BBQ), chip it up, and then sauce it. Then, it usually goes in the crockpot on low, maybe 30 minutes before eating, just to keep it warm and let the sauce and meat mingle a little. Serve it up as sandwiches or on its own, add a side of simple potato salad (with dill pickles, not sweet), some fresh green beans -- yum!

Posted by: former Georgian | June 29, 2006 11:06 AM

I miss real wooder ice. I was describing it to a colleague and he asked "Isn't all ice from water?" (it's the only part of my very Philadelphia accent left. I saw Water, but it'll always be wooder ice)

Totally forgot about Rib-it. :-)

Posted by: Can take the girl out of Philly... | June 29, 2006 01:22 PM

*faints*

*revives, then faints again*

Oh my stars and garters, I'm still feeling woozy from the idea of boiling ribs. And I've never imagined a world where chicken is boiled prior to grilling! Only a Yankee would ever commit such monstrosities on an innocent piece of meat .

Let's review: you boil meats for one purpose only... to leach the flavor out of the meat/bones and into the cooking liquid in order to make broth. Once you've simmered the ribs, a goodly percentage of the flavor is now in the cooking water. That is bad news... you want to keep the flavor in the meat, not suck it all out into water that you're just going to pour down the drain.

Ribs have enough internal fat to remain moist and tender without ever even dipping a toe into water. And you don't even need a grill... seasoned, wrapped in a double layer of foil and cooked in the oven at 300 for 3 or 4 hours and you'll have meltingly tender, succulent meat. Take 'em out of the foil, sauce or don't sauce to your liking, and pop back in the oven for 30 minutes at 400-450 to crisp up and caramelize the outer fat and you've got ribs to rival the best. (You can also do this finishing step on the grill for that lovely smoke-kissed flavor, but really only bother if you've got charcoal.)

Posted by: Divine Ms. K. | June 29, 2006 01:39 PM

BTW, the above "Yankee" comment was made with tongue firmly planted in cheek ... the internet ate my bracket comment to that effect. :-)

Posted by: Divine Ms. K | June 29, 2006 01:44 PM

Our bbq chicken uses a fantastic marinade from the Herbfarm cookbook. I don't care about traditional bbq (i'm from Michigan), this rocks my world. It goes something like this-ish:

1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tbsp grainy mustard, 1 tbsp *dark* brown sugar, lemon juice, garlic and lots of fresh rosemary. Salt and fresh ground pepper, of course.

I skin the chicken (generally, I use bone in breasts but you can use whatever) and marinade it for a few hours, and if you are doing the right thing and cooking with a kettle grill, throw some rosemary branches right on the coals and grill it up. Amazing. I take the book's suggestion and later in the summer serve this with grilled corn stuffed full of marjoram and butter - the chicken can rest while you cook the corn. No need for utensils. Have a great fourth!

Posted by: Boo | June 30, 2006 01:20 AM

For the best 'cue known to mankind, leave the cooking to the crew at Leatha's in Hattiesburg, Miss., for an ineffable barbecue experience.

Posted by: Rebel Guy | August 10, 2006 02:53 PM

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