Help me find the ultimate secret ingredients to make the ultimate (tomato based) BBQ sauce
April 7, 2012 11:05 AM   Subscribe

As a connoisseur of barbecue sauce, on a lifelong quest to either find or replicate the best barbecue sauce I ever tasted, I keep coming back to the same thing: What exactly is the key ingredient or ingredients in a barbecue sauce that really make it special? What ingredients really make the difference between a good sauce, and a really great sauce? And just how much of a difference does it make to actually cook it and reduce it rather than mix it cold? Askmefi hivemind, help me out!

A long time ago where I live in the UK, a barbecue sauce went on sale. Old Ranch House Smokey Barbecue Sauce. It came and went from the shops over the years and finally vanished forever around the late 2000s. It was a reasonably thick tomato based, tangy, irresistible concoction that was best used as a condiment, though it made a fine marinade too. I kept the last ever bottle that I found (washed out), and the ingredients are:

Water, sugar, tomato purée (18%), acetic acid, worcestershire sauce, salt, stabiliser:xanthan gum; onion powder, hydrolysed maize protein, hickory smoke flavour, ground garlic, antioxidant, ascorbic acid, spices

This is the point at which I started thinking, just what exactly is the vital ingredient in that lot which makes it so special compared to anything else I ever tried? The hickory smoke flavour, perhaps? Or the combination of the onion powder, garlic, magic spices? How much of that list can I just ignore as your typical mass produced preservative stuff? I'd love to somehow replicate it and reproduce that exact flavour, but it seems more realistic to try and just figure out which kind of ingredients to focus on and experiment with my own recipes.

So, mefites who mix or cook your own tangy, tomato based barbecue sauce condiments (and it has to be a good condiment above all else), how would you reverse engineer that sauce? What ingredient(s) stands out to you? Or just in general, what do you consider to be your barbecue sauce ingredients that have the biggest impact on flavour? And how much of a difference does it make to cook a sauce rather than just mix it?

If you are outside the UK and you have specific products to suggest as ingredients, please give me a little background so I can go about finding them or recreating them over here. I'm thinking for example that hickory smoke flavour could exist all kinds of ways from all kinds of different manufacturers. Thanks!
posted by Elfasi to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The ratio of sugar to (acetic acid + tomato puree) is the really defining aspect of the sauce, because those are going to compose the balance between sweet and sour. The amount of salt is also important. Sweet, sour and salty are things you can detect with your tongue. The other thing here that you can detect with your tongue is umami, namely glutamate (sometimes called MSG). The anchovies in the worcestershire sauce contribute glutamate; hydrolyzed maize protein is also included because it contains glutamate. The standard worcestershire sauce over here in the USA is, of course, Lea and Perrins and I would be very hesitant to try barbecuing anything in my house without a bottle on hand.

"Spices" and "hickory smoke flavor" are the things you can really detect with your nose. Unfortunately, they could be anything; putting 'spices' on an ingredients list is sort of like saying "We're not going to tell you our secret recipe." In my opinion there is no easy way to reverse engineer spices; the method is going through your spice rack, sniffing each of the spices, then sniffing your sauce and thinking "is that in here? if so, how strong?"

I think a 30 minute reduction on simmer is important for both a mop (what you're calling a condiment) and a rub. The effects I've noticed are a blunting of the sharp fresh garlic tang; a blunting of the sharp acidity of the tomatoes; the movement of flavors out of the small diced chunks and into the liquid; and an improvement in texture of the tomato puree and the onion bits (if any).

I think it would be crazy to pretend that anything I've said here is objectively "right" or "correct." There are as many opinions about this stuff as there are barbecue chefs. The best chefs I've known have been experimenters, but there are others who are slavish recipe followers who also make great 'cue.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 11:17 AM on April 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Add some good balsamic vinegar. That will give it a bit of complexity you don't find in most BBQ sauce. Here's my recipe for a tangy KC style sauce:

2 cups Heinz organic ketchup
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (don't skimp too much)
1/4 cup Worchestershire sauce
2 Tablespoons of molasses
2 Tablespoons of French's yellow mustard
1 to 2 teaspoons Frank's original hot sauce
1 to 2 Tablespoons of Dizzy Pig's Swamp Venom

This is a complex, tangy sauce that is not too sweet. Adjust the Frank's hot sauce and the Swamp Venom to vary the heat.
posted by mikeand1 at 11:18 AM on April 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Regarding smoke flavor: You can buy liquid smoke in bottles. The best kind is just smoke-flavored water and should have nothing else in it.

And yes, cooking it and reducing it makes a huge, huge difference. How could it not? If you make a bolognese sauce for pasta, for instance, would it taste the same if you just mixed the ingredients together raw (not the meat, cook that) versus if you cooked them all together? It would not!
posted by rtha at 11:21 AM on April 7, 2012

Bourbon is the secret ingredient in any good barbeque sauce. Anything else is just fancy ketchup.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:39 AM on April 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: smoke flavor is a big component in our favorite bbq sauces. we prefer mesquite, but hickory is good too.
posted by nadawi at 11:49 AM on April 7, 2012

If at all possible, stay away from bottled liquid smoke. Instead, smoke onions and tomatoes, then purée them into the sauce. (You have a smoker, right? Otherwise really good BBQ sauce is a waste of effort, IMO.)

Also add whatever you're smoking. If it's a pork butt that ends up with a really good "bark", peel off some bark, blitz it in the food processor, and add it in. Obviously, the contribution that makes will depend on what spices are in your rub (I like black pepper, raw sugar, salt, paprika, cayenne).

I'll use liquid smoke too sometimes, but only if I'm not smoking meat at the same time. Obviously YMMV.
posted by supercres at 12:06 PM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: just how much of a difference does it make to actually cook it and reduce it rather than mix it cold
A huge difference. Most spices don't really bloom until heated in oil, and end up just tasting harsh and nasty. You also need to caramelize the sugars in the tomatoes (and any added sugar.) Cumin needs to be heated as does cinnamon, as used in this Kansas City style sauce.

But if you haven't tried Carolina style mustard and vinegar based, you might want to do so--I think this beats any red sauce to smithereens. I linked to the recipe for Wilbur's in Goldsboro--chosen by Garden and Gun.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:21 PM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Supercres has a great idea for incorporating smoke. Elfasi, do you have a grill at home? Or are you working from just a range/oven combo?

Smoking is actually pretty easy.

The craziest smoking technique I ever saw was done by a local celebrity chef. He took the name literally, by smoking some fish using a really nice cuban cigar! All he did was set the food on a rack in a pan, light the cigar and stick it at the bottom of the pan, then tent the thing with foil. You might consider doing the same for tomatoes and onions to get a smoky flavour for yur barbecue sauce.
posted by LN at 1:24 PM on April 7, 2012

Best answer: Living in Kansas City, where BBQ is its own religion, the suggestions I have for things to experiment with are:
Brown Sugar
Onion & Garlic Powder
Different colors of peppercorns
Maple Syrup or Honey
Red Peppers
posted by jferg at 1:33 PM on April 7, 2012

Best answer: The key problem in making a good BBQ sauce is balance. You need to strike a proper balance between the sweet and tart, which are usually moderated primarily by sugar, tomato and vinegar. Some folks like brown sugar or a mixture of turbinado & molasses. Lately I use a mixture of apple cider vinegar and balsamic vinegar. Then you need a proper ratio of spice/aromatics to add kick. Everyone's taste will vary. I prefer a bit of hot kick, so I always have some pepper, usually chipotle but lots of folks swear by hot paprika. Some people use weird stuff like cinnamon or coffee. You almost have to include pepper, onion and garlic or it isn't really BBQ sauce.

There is so much that is down to taste. For instance, in your preferred sauce, I find several things I wouldn't ever accept -- some borderline sacrilegious. Using acetic acid instead of vinegar makes me feel creepy. I don't know what hydrolysed maize protein even is, but I don't like the sound of it! The item you note "hickory smoke flavour" is another abomination, analogous to using "truffle oil" instead of truffles. Some people may find they don't mind the difference, but purists like myself think its a disaster to use the fake stuff.

I can usually taste a sauce and identify what they have done, but alas the brand you mention isn't one I've ever seen in the US. It appears to be a house brand sold by Waitrose, which probably means someone else manufactures it for them. I'm tangentially in the grocery business and I'll make some inquiries Monday and see if I can find who makes it and if they sell the same sauce under a different label or not.
posted by Lame_username at 2:02 PM on April 7, 2012

Response by poster: Okay a few updates, thanks for the great suggestions so far. Definitely got the consensus it's better to cook this stuff than just mix it, so I will try a batch like that next time. I've tried Bourbon based sauces but never really got the taste for it.

mikeand1 - Any tips on where on earth to find Frank's hot sauce and Dizzy Pig's swamp venom outside the UK? Or failing that a description so I can try to find an approximation? :)

I think I do need to track down some kind of smoke flavour liquid. I don't have a smoker; it doesn't really seem to be the thing in this country (I've never known anyone with one). Given how many houses and flats are next to mine, and the tiny size of my garden, I suspect it wouldn't work out anyway. Maybe in the future when I live somewhere big.

Ideefixe - I have tried a mustard based sauce recipe and it was rather good, so I'm not averse to the idea, but so far it hasn't beaten my holy grail tomato based. I am curious about vinegar based though, being a big fan :)

LN - All I have is an electric hob and an electric fan oven. Would love to have the space and the equipment for a smoker some day.

Lame_username - I've never seen the sauce I mention, sold in Waitrose. It was an independent brand produced by 'G Costa & Co Ltd' in Aylesford, Kent, UK. If you google the full name of it, a few reviews from about 10 years ago show up. I'd love to try and find it again :)
posted by Elfasi at 3:08 PM on April 7, 2012

Elfasi, I don't know about Dizzy Pig's, but you can definitely get Frank's hot sauce in the UK.
posted by SMPA at 3:17 PM on April 7, 2012

Best answer: texture is extremely important. in the ingredients list above xanthan gum thickens the sauce and gives it a particular mouthfeel. This is critical for conveying the sweet-sour-smokey flavor of this type of barbeque sauce. Buy some xanthan gum online. It is inexpensive and allows you to do lots of cool things. You add 1% xanthan gum to the weight of the liquid. Looking at the ingredients above this tells us that the ingredients after xanthan gum are most likely added to the recipe in concentrations less than 1%. Try adding some xanthan to worcester sauce, this is an awesome sauce on it's own!
posted by Infernarl at 3:35 PM on April 7, 2012

Elfasi, you can smoke on your hob. Assemble the following rig: 1 large pan, with lid. 1 smaller, shallow pan that will fit inside the larger pan. 1 rack, that will fit on top of the smaller pan, and in the larger pan. 1 meat thermometer, if you ever desire smoking actual meat.

In the bottom of the large pan, place about 1/2 cup woodchips, green tea, etc. Given where you are, apple wood is likely going to be easiest to procure. However, sometimes you can find hickory chips at the local DIY. On top of the woodchips, place the smaller pan, and fill with 1 1/2 cups of water. Place the rack on top of the smaller pan. On the rack, place the food you intend to smoke. In the case of BBQ sauce, you could smoke onions or tomatoes. Place this entire rig on the hob and turn on the burner to medium heat. Cover the whole thing with the lid (or with aluminum foil). You might want to crack a window, or turn on the fan above your hob. You will know it's working when the pan starts to emit smoke. In about 30 minutes to an hour, the chips will have smoked out, and you will simply be applying heat. Take it off the burner, uncover and retrieve your smoked veg.

This simple setup will work to smoke pretty much anything: fish, cheese, nuts, meat, veg.
posted by LN at 4:19 PM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Elfasi, I don't know about Dizzy Pig's, but you can definitely get Frank's hot sauce in the UK.

It sounds like the OP is now no longer in the UK, though he doesn't say where he is.

Anyway, Frank's is basically just made from white vinegar and cayenne peppers. It adds heat and a bit of sourness and doesn't have a terribly strong flavor or aroma beyond that. I suspect you could replace it with whatever vinegar-based red pepper sauce (or fresh red pepper) is available where you are.

I'd never heard of Dizzy Pig's either, but I googled it and apparently Swamp Venom is a dry spice mix. So that would be harder to replace without knowing what exactly they put in it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:54 PM on April 7, 2012

Response by poster: Sorry I am in the UK, typoed earlier, meant to say I don't know where to get Dizzy Pig's outside the USA (ie in the UK).
posted by Elfasi at 4:56 PM on April 7, 2012

Best answer: Cook it, reduce it ... And let it rest! Many sauces are better after several hours, or even a day later.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:43 PM on April 7, 2012

Best answer: liquid smoke is just wood smoke bongwater, the particulate of smoke in water suspension. in the US, at least, you can find variants on it that add a bunch of preservatives to it, but, come on, smoking is a preservation strategy itself and what is nastier than bongwater, anyway?

So the plain stuff is absolutely useful to have on hand. Here's a wikipedia page on the product category.

here's a dated UK BBQ forum thread on where to find the stuff.

it appears that Stubbs is available in the UK. The bad news is that this is one of the shelf-stabilized varieties, and has stuff in it beyond water and smoke.

Looking over your list of stuff, you can ignore xanthan gum, maize protein, ascetic acid, and the stuff at the end that is obviously preservative oriented (antioxidant and something).

Upthread someone mentioned xanthan gum is a thickener; it is, but you can get there by reducing, as again someone upthread mentioned. I will tend to use a sweetener and thickener as well; teriyaki sauce is usually at hand and less often but more tradtionally, molasses is great for this too.

there's an element you did not mention but which I encourage you to consider: most of the suggestions above emphasize slow preparation, like from six hours to a day just to get the sauce ready. This equally holds true for the meat. cooking a hunk of pork at 220F for six hours or more will blow your mind, and the sauce is an important component. you can do this with the kitchen setup you mention, and should seriously consider looking at trying the non-tomato sauces too when you have that long and slow cook down pat.
posted by mwhybark at 11:05 PM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For tomato based sauces, I would definitely cook the sauces. The flavor of sautéed garlic and onions, to me, easily beats raw, and the tomato really needs to be cooked down. Things that help add flavor include worcestershire sauce, cumin, brown sugar and such. The sauce that I make for ribs is usually a Dr. Pepper sauce. Adding colas gives a nice depth to sauces.

For vinegar sauces, I don't cook them. Cider vinegar, brown sugar, chile flakes, and black pepper with salt is pretty good for a simple vinegar sauce. You can mix in some ketchup with that, too, for a bit of a change. For chicken, try white sauce: mayo, cider vinegar, sugar, pepper, salt, lemon juice, and chile powder. Mixit, let it sit for a couple hours. Start grilling some bone in chicken pieces (a nice spicy rub on the chicken is really key), and, about five minutes before the chicken is done, dunk the pieces in the sauce (or baste them). Really tasty.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:45 AM on April 8, 2012

Even with a small garden, you can smoke foods. A good smoker produces hardly any smoke outside the cabinet but it needs to be used outside because of the whole carbon monoxide/combustion thing. No-one would even know you're using it except for the awesome smells.

I figure most smokers will be marketed to fishing-types so they can make their own smoked fish but it can do other things as long as it also does "hot" smoking. Or you can smoke your onions and peppers on the stove. You can smoke tomatoes but from my experience onions and peppers will carry the smoke flavor best.
posted by fiercekitten at 10:39 AM on April 8, 2012

Best answer: You definitely should cook the sauce. Things we add that I like:

Brown sugar
Yellow mustard

I'm not sure if we've tried coffee, but it sounds like a good addition to me.
posted by waitangi at 11:29 AM on April 8, 2012

Response by poster: A few questions if anyone is still reading. How does molasses differ from brown sugar in terms of flavour and impact? Is it an either/or thing as regards adding sweetness? What about all the different kinds of brown sugar?

For the record I have tried a lot of slow cooking and it is indeed amazing. Ten hours of slow roast hunk of pork is so damn good.

What do people use for the tomato base? On my magic sauce ingredients it lists tomato purée, is that like the squeezy tube of stuff you put on a pizza base? Can I just use a tin of chopped tomatoes? Am I gonna see a benefit if I get one of those little blenders to purée everything, either before or after cooking?

Is acetic acid just a creepy vinegar substitute?

I am also more tempted now to try my own smoker arrangement. Thanks again for all the comments and I'll try to make an overall summary and mark some best answers in a few days.
posted by Elfasi at 1:40 PM on April 8, 2012

Tomato purée has the advantage of already being thick. If you went with plain raw tomatoes you are going to have to cook the sauce longer to break down the tomatoes and thicken them up. The stick blender (or really any blender) will just help make things be a uniform consistency.
posted by mmascolino at 3:02 PM on April 8, 2012

If you're going to used canned tomatoes, opt for whole instead of precut. There are supposedly more additives and water content in canned diced tomatoes. Open the can, drain as much liquid as you can, then swish a cheap/old knife around in the can. Voila, diced tomatoes.

And seriously, ketchup is probably the easiest source of tomato for your BBQ sauce.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:24 PM on April 8, 2012

Best answer: Please also consider expanding your barbeque experience to other variations:

North Carolina Vinegar barbeque
South Carolina Mustard Barbeque
Alabama White Barbeque (mayonnaise base)
posted by leotrotsky at 3:46 PM on April 8, 2012

Best answer: Molasses gives a more complex sweetness - blackstrap is deep and dark and has a bitterness to it. I wouldn't use it as a sole source of sweetness - or would do so only judiciously. Maple syrup, if available, plus some blackstrap, is a great combination.

You can also play with citrus as a source of sweetness - fresh oranges, or even a good marmalade, can add that "what did you put in this it's fabulous!" secret ingredient flavor.

Take notes as you make and taste batches, so you know what you did (more) right, in terms of ingredients and cooking times and techniques.
posted by rtha at 4:45 PM on April 8, 2012

Is acetic acid just a creepy vinegar substitute?

White vinegar is acetic acid and water. Acetic acid is just extra-strength (less diluted) white vinegar. I'm not sure I understand the "creepy" part, but yes, they're basically the same thing.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:14 PM on April 8, 2012

My boyfriend likes making his own bbq sauces. I bought him Paul Kirk's Championship Barbecue Sauces and in addition to some really good recipes, it talks a lot about different ingredients you can use for different components and what effect that has. Our copy of the book is now covered in notes and recipe variations and, yes, splotches of bbq sauce.
posted by logic vs love at 2:09 PM on April 10, 2012

If anyone is still reading, you can get Frank's Hot Sauce in the UK at bigger branches of Tesco - £1.49.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 3:44 AM on April 18, 2012

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