Great barbecue is made of quality meat, cooked or smoked to perfection. Great barbecue sauce is far more complicated.
Some cooks think the sauce is what makes barbecue. Others think the sauce is negotiable. Some work tirelessly on the perfect sauce recipe. John Dance, owner of Mary Lou's BBQ in Lexington, thinks sauce should be an option.
"It should be used to embellish the meat. Let the quality of the meat speak for itself," he said.
Whether you slather it on or choose not to use it, barbecue sauces are practically a food group unto themselves, reflecting the region of the country where they were created.
Barbecue expert Steven Raichlen, whose books include The Barbecue! Bible: Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades and the new Best Ribs Ever, said various regions of the country have developed the sauces that best suit their style of barbecue. For example:
■ "In North Carolina, where pork shoulder (or whole hog) is served, shredded or chopped to bits, the local sauce is a thin vinegar pepper sauce. This makes sense because it's easily absorbed into the meat," Raichlen said via email.
■ "In Kansas City, on the other hand, barbecue often consists of whole slabs of baby backs or spare ribs. Here you need a thick sauce to adhere to the broad slabs of smoked meats. The sweetness and spice go great with pork.
■ "In Owensboro, the barbecue of choice is mutton (not sweet tender lamb, but strong, smelly, gamy mutton), so they developed what may be the world's only "black" barbecue sauce — a robust mixture of Worcestershire sauce, melted butter, pepper and lemon juice, the piquancy of which cuts the gaminess of the mutton.
■ Elsewhere, barbecue sauces originated with ethnic groups or individuals. Santa Maria (Calif.) tri-tip (steak), which is grilled over oak, comes with a salsa, not barbecue sauce — the contribution of the Mexico-born ranchers and cattle hands who settled the area. And because tri-tip is eaten more like steak than brisket, salsa makes sense, Raichlen said.
■ "The white barbecue sauce of Big Bob Gibson's in Decatur, Ala. (mayonnaise, cider vinegar, black pepper — it tastes better than it sounds) has an interesting origin. Big Bob had a good customer — a railroad man, if memory serves — who couldn't abide tomatoes. So Bob dispensed with the usual ketchup-based sauces and made the mayo mixture instead. It became a regional classic," Raichlen said.
Central Kentucky isn't known for a certain style of barbecue or barbecue sauce, but that doesn't mean we don't have really great barbecue.
Like most accomplished pitmasters, Dance created his barbecue sauces simply by combining flavors he prefers. Meat shouldn't be cooked in the sauce, he said. "Most sauces have a lot of sugar in them, and if you cook it for 14 or 16 hours, it will burn. You don't want that."
Raichlen says sauce should be added at the very end.
"For ribs, I'll brush the sauce on the last five minutes and move the meat directly over the fire (prior to that I've been indirect grilling or smoking) to sizzle and sear the sauce into the meat. It's like lacquering the meat with barbecue sauce. But often, I serve the sauce on the side, so you can experience the pristine taste of the smoke, spice and meat first."
Barbecue sauces that aren't thick and sweet are nearly impossible to find in Lexington grocery stores.
"We Americans have a natural proclivity for sweet foods — a taste reinforced and rammed down our throats by the fast-food industry and agribusiness," Raichlen said. "That's why I'm such a big fan of Carolina vinegar sauce, tri-tip salsa, Argentinian chimichurri and Spanish romesco. They're not sweet.
"But some meats, like smoked pork, do shine with a sweet smoky barbecue sauce."
At home, Raichlen said, he prefers a fried caper butter sauce — fry capers in butter with a squirt of lemon juice — or a simple sauce of extra virgin olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper.
The next time you grill a few racks of ribs, serve each one with a different sauce. Here are some ideas.
Lemon brown sugar barbecue sauce
2 cups ketchup
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (or to taste)
2 tablespoons molasses
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
11/2 teaspoons liquid smoke
2 teaspoons dry mustard (Colman's)
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine ingredients in saucepan and whisk to mix. Gradually bring sauce to a simmer over medium heat, and continue to simmer until thick and flavorful, about 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to bowl or clean jars; let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until serving time.
From Best Ribs Everby Steven Raichlen's
3 dried anorra chilies or 1 ancho or pasilla chili
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 small onion, quartered
1 small red bell pepper
2 large or 3 medium fresh, ripe tomatoes
3 tablespoons blanched whole almonds or slivers, toasted
1 small onion, quartered
1 or 2 slices country-style white bread
1⁄3 cup good quality olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat grill to high. Quickly toast chilies on both sides (10 to 20 seconds in all). Transfer to bowl of warm water and let soak several minutes while you grill other vegetables. Skewer garlic on toothpicks. Skewer onion on bamboo skewers. Arrange pepper, tomatoes, garlic, and onion on grill grate and grill until skin on pepper is blackened and other vegetables are nicely browned. As they are done, transfer to a platter and let cool. Remove toothpicks from garlic and skewers from onions. Brush bread on both sides with oil and grill until nicely browned, 1 to 2 minutes per side.
Drain chilies, reserving liquid. Tear chilies into pieces and remove stems and seeds. Remove any very charred skin from tomatoes and pepper; core and seed pepper. In food processor, combine bell pepper, chilies, onions, garlic, bread and almonds, and purée to a smooth paste. Add parsley, vinegar, remaining olive oil, and salt and black pepper. Process until smooth, adding enough of reserved chili soaking liquid to make pourable sauce. Correct seasoning, adding salt or vinegar as necessary.
Serve sauce at room temperature; it will keep, tightly covered in refrigerator, for up to 3 days. Makes 2 cups.
From Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen
Alabama white barbecue sauce
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon prepared horseradish (not cream-style)
1 lemon, juiced
In a large non-reactive bowl, whisk all ingredients together. The sauce will keep, tightly covered, in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Brush it on food 5 to 15 minutes before the cooking time is finished or dunk your hot-off-the-grill food in a bowl of sauce. Makes 2 cups.
From Smoked, Slathered, and Seasoned by Elizabeth Karmel
Old-time Eastern North Carolina barbecue sauce
1 gallon cider vinegar
11⁄3 cups crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons black pepper
1/4 cup salt
Mix ingredients and let stand at least 4 hours. This recipe doesn't need refrigeration.
From Holy Smoke by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed