Stephanie Moore never intended to make her own barbecue sauce. As the mother of two young children who also holds a full-time job, she takes shortcuts in the kitchen. But when she couldn't find a bottled barbecue sauce she liked, she put on an apron and began experimenting. She developed a sauce she describes as "not too sweet and not too smoky."
"It takes me about eight minutes to make, and everyone loves it," says Ms. Moore of Concord, Mass. "We put it on beef brisket, ribs, chicken fingers for the kids, you name it." Her recipe includes common ingredients such as vinegar, sugar, Worcestershire sauce, and ketchup. Her personal touch is chopped celery.
Folks like Moore, who've tasted success making their own batches of barbecue sauce, say they rarely go back to commercial varieties, which they say can be cloyingly sweet. They like to control the level of sweetness, adding sugar, honey, or maple syrup to their individual tastes. And there's nothing better than the tantalizing smell of fresh sauce simmering on the stove – or the gratification that comes from making a finger-licking recipe to serve at the Fourth of July picnic.
"You would have thought I'd hit a home run to win the World Series!" says John Babiak, an avid cook from Denver, about the day he made his first barbecue sauce. It was inspired by a standout sauce he tasted at Flint's restaurant in Oakland, Calif. "After 17 or so iterations, I finally cracked the combination of ingredients," he says.
When Mr. Babiak served his own version of Flint's sauce to friends at a backyard picnic "it was all the rage," he recalls. "I enjoyed watching my friends lick their fingertips. That's the best compliment anyone could have paid me."
After mixing a variety of ingredients, including liquid smoke and dark molasses, he lets his sauce simmer for four to six hours.
Barbecue guru Steven Raichlen, who's been making sauce for 30 years, understands how Babiak feels. "It's all about the pride of workmanship," says Mr. Raichlen, author of the newly published book "Raichlen on Ribs," as well as several award-winning cookbooks, including "The Barbecue! Bible."
But making sauce from scratch is not as difficult as you might think. "Barbecue sauce is really pretty fail-proof," Raichlen says. "In the world of saucemaking, it's not like hollandaise or béarnaise, where you worry about egg curdling. With barbecue sauce, it's dump, mix, heat, and stir."
Still, mistakes can be made when cooking with barbecue sauce. The most common blunder is applying sauce to the meat too early. Sauce is different from a marinade, and it should only be brushed on during the last five minutes of cooking. Any longer, and the sauce's sugar will caramelize and burn.
Some people even avoid cooking with sauce altogether, opting instead to cook the meat with a dry rub, then serve the sauce, warm, on the side for slathering and dipping at the table.
The latter is the method of choice for John Willingham, dubbed by many as "the king of barbecue." Mr. Willingham has won more major grand champion barbecue awards than anyone else and has created his own line of rubs, sauces, and marinades, based on his award-winning "W'Ham" rub.
When reached by phone at his home in Memphis, Tenn., Willingham was preparing for – what else? – a weekend barbecue. On the menu: pork loin and chicken wings cooked with his dry rub and served with six different sauces, many featured in his book, "John Willingham's World Champion Bar-B-Q."
For novices who want to develop their own sauce, Willingham suggests studying ingredient labels on commercial sauces, keeping in mind that every good sauce balances elements of sweet, sour, salty, aromatic, and hot.
Many of the basic ingredients include ketchup, tomato paste, vinegar, brown sugar, mustard, molasses, salt, and pepper. Toss in a little imagination, and you can create a sauce that is sweet, fruity, smoky, or Cajun-style – the variations are endless.
For example, for a Southwestern-style sauce, simply add fresh, chopped jalapeño peppers, serrano chilies, or a dash of chipotle chile powder, says Karen Adler, author of "The Best Little BBQ Sauces Cookbook."
To make Asian sauce, add sesame oil, soy sauce, minced garlic, and ginger. Or for a fruity version, add raspberry preserves and a bit of lemon juice. Of course, Ms. Adler adds, keep in mind what meat you're serving and pair it with a sauce that complements it.
If you're not up for making a sauce entirely from scratch, Adler suggests embellishing a basic store-bought sauce with your own ingredients.
Another good source on barbecue sauce is the cookbook "Grilling," just published by the Culinary Institute of America. Once you've mastered the recipe for "Black Jack Barbecue Sauce," you may want to experiment with the 175 other mouth-watering recipes for grilling everything from salmon and steak to mangoes and papayas.
Before long, friends will be lining up for your backyard barbecues, and you'll burst with pride when they start licking their fingers.
14-ounce bottle ketchup
1-1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1-1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1-1/2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon onion salt
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/8 teaspoon liquid smoke
1 clove garlic, minced
Tabasco sauce, to taste
In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients except Tabasco. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook for 10 minutes. Season with Tabasco and continue cooking for 5 to 6 minutes. Cool to room temperature and serve, or transfer to a glass container, cover, and refrigerate for up to a week. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.
Source: 'John Willingham's World Champion Bar-B-Q' by John Willingham