Only One Style of Barbecue Sauce Gets the Flavor Balance Right, and It’s Not Memphis

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 28 2013 3:31 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Barbecue Sauce

Brown sugar and garlic are both crucial ingredients for barbecue sauce.

Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker for Slate

Tennesseans, look away. Carolinians of both the Northern and Southern persuasions, you might want to stop reading now. Fellow Texans, forgive me. The various vinegary, mustard-based, and heavily spiced concoctions that you serve with slow-grilled meat are inferior to the Platonic ideal of barbecue sauce: Kansas City-style. This thick, sweet, tangy condiment is the most popular kind of American barbecue sauce for a reason, and it’s what you should be serving this Labor Day weekend as you grill, drink beer, and debate the racial politics of Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Achieving a proper balance of flavors in barbecue sauce is a challenge, mainly because there are so many flavors to balance. A good barbecue sauce should exude—at a minimum—tomato, vinegar, sugar, mustard, pepper, and smoke. Ketchup contributes tomato flavor, along with some vinegar and sugar. (Try to find a brand that uses sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup, as its sweetener.) But the ketchup must be offset by enough other ingredients that the resulting sauce does not taste merely like vaguely spicy ketchup. The most important of these are apple cider vinegar (neither as sharp as white vinegar nor as snooty as balsamic or sherry vinegar) and some kind of sweetener. You’re best off with a combination of brown sugar and molasses, the latter of which provides syrupy depth and moderates the more straightforward sweetness of the sugar.

As for smokiness, some people add liquid smoke (possibly genotoxic), chipotle peppers (delicious but often overpowering), or smoky whiskey (acceptable). I like to use smoked paprika, which not only contributes that familiar smoldering warmth but also gives the sauce a sneakily spicy aftertaste.


Obviously, barbecue sauce is traditionally brushed on slabs of meat, but it is delicious as a dip or sauce for virtually any non-dessert food. I did not particularly care for adult film actor James Deen’s cooking series, but it did contain at least one snippet of eternal wisdom: In the episode about the McRib sandwich (note: that site is NSFW), Deen quotes a friend who says, “You put enough barbecue sauce on anything, it’ll taste good.” I believe this is true, and I believe this recipe lives up to that maxim.

Barbecue Sauce
Yield: About 2 cups
Time: About 30 minutes

2 cups ketchup
⅓ cup brown sugar
⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup molasses
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons pimentón (smoked paprika)
¼ teaspoon black pepper
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine the ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar, molasses, Worcestershire sauce (if desired), mustard, garlic, pimentón, black pepper, and cayenne pepper in a medium saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled. (Store leftover barbecue sauce in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few weeks.)



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