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Barbecue Sauce
by Steven Raichlen

Sauce is the lifeblood of barbecue. This statement might be disputed by a few ornery Texans (who would argue that the essence of true barbecue is the long, slow smoking of beef). But for just about everyone else, barbecue simply isn't barbecue without the sauce.

The problem is, which sauce? Sauces vary from region to region, stirring strong emotions when local traditions are violated. You could no sooner serve a sweet, sticky Kansas City style sauce to a North Carolina pig picker than you could a South Carolina mustard sauce to a Texas brisket buff.

There are something in the neighborhood of 750 commercial barbecue sauces sold in the United States alone and in the eight years I've been studying barbecue, I've sampled hundreds more abroad. So picking the essential sauces is a bit like naming the ten best rock songs of the decade—entertaining, but ultimately impossible.

I hope the following sauces start your gastric and creative juices flowing. I encourage you to "doctor" the recipes to create sauces of your own. Hey, if you want to cook with the big boys, you have to have your own barbecue sauce. I'm sure even a Texan would agree with that.

Steven's Eight Steps to Outrageously Good Sauce

THE IMPORTANCE OF BALANCE: A good barbecue sauce is a study in balance. Play the sweetness of the brown sugar or molasses against the acidity of the lemon juice or vinegar. Balance the fruitiness of apple cider or marmalade with the earthy pungency of garlic and onion. Above all, don't forget: where there's smoke, there's fire. Use liquid smoke (a brown liquid found at most supermarkets) to give you the former and a blast of hot sauce or cayenne pepper to kick up the heat.

GET A GOOD START: When creating a new barbecue sauce, I often start with ketchup. It's the base ingredient in many American barbecue sauces. It already tastes good by itself, so all you need to do is improve on it. Another great starting point is a basic commercial barbecue sauce. Doctor it up by adding brown sugar, molasses, vinegar, hot sauce, bourbon or rum—or something strange—like horseradish or cranberry jelly.

THE WORTH OF WATER: One of the most important ingredients in many great barbecue sauces has no color, smell or flavor. What is this mystery ingredient? H2O. Water mellows the intensity of some of the stronger condiments, like mustard or hot sauce and helps marry the various flavor elements into a harmonious ensemble.

THE ESSENCE OF TIME: Barbecue sauces are like fine wines—most of them improve with aging. In general, try to give your sauce 2 or 3 days, or even a week in the refrigerator to "ripen," so the flavors merge and blend.

THINK OUT OF THE BOX: No ingredient is too strange for barbecue sauce. Some of the best sauces I've ever tasted have been enriched with such oddballs as coffee, cola (and other soft drinks), whiskey, beer, and even cough syrup. Below you'll find a barbecue sauce made with iced tea. Remember, the stranger the ingredients, the more brag power you'll get from your sauce.

TRUST YOUR OWN TASTE BUDS: The most important words in any sauce recipe are "season to taste." Feel free to add any ingredient you feel you need to make the sauce taste good to you.

HANDLE WITH CARE: The beauty of barbecue sauce is that you can't curdle it, scramble it or break it. It will burn, however, particularly if it contains lots of sugar. Stir the sauce often with a wooden spoon or whisk to keep it from scorching.

ABOVE ALL, KNOW WHEN TO APPLY THE SAUCE: Barbecue sauce should be applied the last 5 or 10 minutes of cooking or even served separately from the meat. Most American barbecue sauces contain sugar, so if you brush it on at the beginning, the sauce will burn before the meat is cooked through. If you've ever charred chicken on the grill, you'll appreciate this simple tip.

* Please remember that barbecue sauces are high in sodium and shouldn't be eaten daily. If you have salt-sensitive hypertension or are trying to reduce your salt intake, you may want to reduce the serving size from four tablespoons to two.

No matter what state you hail from, you'll have them begging for more BBQ with these sensational sauce recipes:

Kansas City Style Barbecue Sauce
Here’s a basic sweet smoky barbecue sauce in the style of Kansas City. Slather on ribs, pork shoulder, chicken, and just about anything else you can think of.

North Carolina Vinegar Sauce
This thin, clear vinegary sauce sure doesn’t look like your typical American barbecue sauce, but North Carolina pulled pork would be sorry stuff without it. Mix with shredded or chopped meats.

South Carolina/Georgia Mustard Sauce
This sharp, sweet sauce is just the stuff for barbecued chicken, sausage, pork or ribs.

Iced Tea Barbecue Sauce
Iced tea is sweet, tart, earthy, and aromatic—in short, just the qualities you want in barbecue sauce. Challenge your guests to guess the "secret" ingredient!

About Steven Raichlen

Steven Raichlen is the award-winning author of the best-selling Barbecue Bible; Barbecue Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades; and How to Grill. His latest book is Beer Can Chicken. You can reach him at his web site:

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