Welcome, friends to the fourth instalment in our Beginner’s Guide to BBQ Series, my humble effort to give you, the home cook, a firmer grasp on the great American tradition that is BBQ! This time, we focus on a subject surrounded by much debate and controversy: BBQ Sauce! More specifically, my favorite kind of BBQ Sauce: North Carolina BBQ Sauce.
Cooking up a batch of North Carolina style BBQ sauce
If you remember, in part one of our series, we covered BBQ basics, styles and principles. In part two, we covered the perfect dry rub, the cornerstone of any good BBQ cook-off. Finally, in part three, we cooked a true BBQ classic, perfect pulled pork… And now, finally, we’re coming full circle and finally saucing things up by dunking a load of sauce on our pulled pork!
Want the recipe, not the full story? Aww. No problem. Click here to skip ahead!
Want the recipe, not the full story? Aww. No problem. Click here to skip ahead!
But what kind of sauce? Well, to many, that is the question… So bear with me as I try to explain the jungle of choices and styles available and show you how and why to pick the right one (i.e. mine!). Before we get started, though, we need to ask ourselves the following questions: Just what is a good BBQ sauce? And how do we pick one?
A BBQ sauce should be a hot, spicy, sweet and sour mess, that accompanies meats without overpowering them. Like this, see!
Well, first things first: a good BBQ sauce is a good condiment to BBQ meats. Simple as that! A nice second fiddle so to speak. It’s a sauce that compliments the rich, smoky, bold flavors of BBQ and adds more layers of flavor and complexity – without overpowering neither the subtle nor the not-so-subtle flavors that we have spent hours if not days to create. Pretty simple, right? But how then do we pick one? Well, if we’re every bit as lazy as many people these days, we could go ask our local supermarket or corner store. But in the plethora of ready-made sauces available today, we encounter a couple of problems:
The trouble with store-bought BBQ sauces
The first obvious problem with store-bought BBQ sauces is the sheer number of options. Even in the relative BBQ wasteland that is Denmark, you’ll find at least a handful of large, industrial brands and an even larger handful of smaller artisan brands. If your search takes place in a BBQ mecca like the US, your option probably grows into a handful of supermarket (or web shop) shelves worth of alternatives. And as diverse and confusing as that may sound, the sad fact of the matter is that in many ways, store-bought BBQ sauces are pretty much the same on so many levels.
For starters, many of them are filled with artificial and largely unnecessary preservatives, colors, flavor enhancers, stabilizers, texture control agents and what have you… None of which are ever good eats and none of which, you’ll probably know, I’d ever advocate eating. Not only because they’re not good for you, but because the flavors and textures they help create are usually so artificial, so bold and so overpowering that they defy the very purpose that we just set for a perfect BBQ sauce: that it compliments the flavors of BBQ without overpowering them in any way.
Artificial ingredients aside, though, another huge problem with store-bought sauces is that they’re, well, quite honestly, pretty much the same. Commercial products by definition have to appeal to some sort of lowest common denominator. On the subject of BBQ, that usually translates into sauces high in brown sugar, tomato, chili powder and the usual suspects from the spice rack thickened into a ketchup-like consistency and hit with a shot of liquid smoke t0 add smoke flavor in case you didn’t bother smoking the meat yourself. In this day and age, of course, where BBQ sauces are counted by the shelves, not by the handfuls, many will contain one special ingredient to set them apart in the flavor department and justify their existence, be it whiskey, honey, molasses or something else entirely like beer or ghost chili (yes, it is, of course, a thing!). However creative the special ingredients or gimmicks, the main flavor drivers are usually the same. Because, well, the lowest common denominator reigns supreme.
Not all store-bought BBQ sauces are horrible. This Danish artisan line-up, for example, is actually quite good!
Now, granted, I’m probably being a little rough here. There are very good, very tasty and very exciting ready made sauces out there, and some of them are quite worth your buck. I know this as I’ve actually had the pleasure of some very good artisan sauces in the past. But even with good options at hand, the inherent problem with ready-made sauces lies in finding one amongst the hundreds out there that suits your particular taste and keeps on suiting it. Your taste may evolve with time, you see, or depending on which type of meat or dry rub you used in creating your BBQ feast. Your favorite commercial BBQ sauce, on the other hand, doesn’t change. The main quality of a commercial product, after all, is consistency in flavor and texture.
Bearing these factors in mind, the solution to total BBQ sauce perfection, you see, must be to take matters into our own hands. And in doing so, creating our own perfect BBQ sauce to perfectly suit our needs! In the end, it’s not only more fun and rewarding than finding a store-bought brand of BBQ sauce, it’s also easier than you think. And a lot cheaper than buying a ready-made sauce!
But how then, do we set about creating our own unique flavor of BBQ sauce. Well, that is, indeed, a very good question. Because if we transcend into the world of homemade or restaurant style BBQ sauces, we’re entering a far more complicated and far more diverse kind of world.
Regional varieties of BBQ Sauce
Now, we have already in a previous post touched upon the subject of regional BBQ styles: Texans love their beef, the Carolinians their pork, the lovely people of Memphis have a way of turning everything not BBQ into BBQ (Mmm… BBQ nachos…. But that’s another post!) and the beautiful people of Kansas City like their piles of BBQ meats with a side of fries. It’s all very diverse, very religious and every sub geography has their own way of doing their BBQ. And the same thing goes for their sauces, see.
Kansas City BBQ, for example, (generally) uses thick, sweet sauces based on tomato and sugar, mixed with spices and pepper to coat their various piles of meat… and dip their fries. Memphis and St. Louis style BBQ, on the other hand, use more runny tomato and vinegar based sauces that sport more of a sweet and sour kind of flavor, often with a heavy kick of heat to shake things up. Speaking of heat, South Carolina – with its so-called Mustard Belt (yes, it’s a thing!) – does things a little differently still by using yellow mustard-based sauces to slather their speciality: whole hog BBQ. Not quite weird enough for you? Then try Alabama’s (in)famous “White Sauce”: A trinity of mayonnaise, vinegar and lemon juice bound together by a vigorous shake of black pepper. The options are many, a lot of them interesting, but none of them have won my heart in quite the same way as the style of another favorite home away from home of mine: North Carolina!
A smoke house in beautiful North Carolina!
Why this infatuation with North Carolina BBQ sauce? Well, other than North Carolina being a beautiful place with lovely inhabitants, their sauces are just… Different and full of spark! Just like your favorite food blogger! Ahem, allow me to elaborate… Now, in the beautiful state of North Carolina they do things a little differently than most other places in that they prefer their sauces with a bit of a vinegary bite. And by a bit, I really mean a major, major, noticeable bite!
More on regional BBQ sauces? Check out this amazing read on regional BBQ sauce styles from Serious Eats.
A true, classic North Carolina BBQ sauce really is nothing but apple cider vinegar with a bit of red pepper flake and sugar thrown in. Too much for some and for others of us just right. Fret not, though, dear reader, for our Perfect North Carolina BBQ style sauce, we’ll sweeten things up a little and add a few more ingredients to create a more balanced and widely enjoyable flavor profile. We will however make it heavy on the vinegar. Heavier than you’d think. Why? Because we’re going to use it to smother the pulled pork we cooked up in our previous post, and slow cooked pork loves nothing more than the acidic bite that is a good North Carolina style BBQ sauce.
Pulled pork, you see, is a fatty, smoky, rich, succulent, heavy and fairly well-seasoned piece of eat and it really does need a fair bit of acidity to cut through it and make everything zing, ahem, sing in perfect harmony. Again, whether you want that acidity to come from straight up vinegar or not is a matter of debate, but if you do, you should certainly go for a vinegar of some quality and not just any cheap old stuff off the supermarket shelf. If, on the other hand, you still want something a little more mild, mellow and rounded which still has enough bite to cut through the fatty, smoky pile of meat that is BBQ… Well, then I’ve got just the thing for you… And don’t worry, it doesn’t only go with pork. Any white meat will do, possibly even smoked salmon. Want to use it on beef? Well, it shouldn’t be much of a problem either, I’ve seen it done!
North Carolina Style BBQ sauce, it’s not just for pork!
To sum up, my take on perfect North Carolina-style BBQ sauce is heavy on the vinegar as any true North Carolina style sauce should be, but it invites a couple of other ingredients into the pool to also offer sweetness, depth and savory umami notes that mingle with the natural sweetness of the meat, the smoky notes from the cooking process and the spiciness of the rub to create a complex complimentary explosion of flavors that elevate the overall dining experience to new heights. In actuality, it’s a bit of a mix between a true North Carolina style sauce and a Memphis style sauce in that it’s a slightly thickened vinegar driven sauce with a bit of tomato ketchup and sweetness to round things off, and a few spices to add some kick. It’s sort of the best of both worlds, see. Best of all? It’s easy, it’s cheap and it’s quick to make… And here’s how we do it!
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my easiest of recipes to date. The simplicity does not make it any less awesome, though.
North Carolina BBQ Sauce
- 250 ml apple cider vinegar
- 200 ml Heinz ketchup
- 50 ml apple cider
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
- Combine all ingredients in a medium sauce pan over medium heat.
- Turn on the fan and keep your head away from the pan, there’s a lot of vinegar action going on and the fumes *will* knock you over.
- Bring to a simmer and simmer for about 5 minutes or until well blended and slightly thickened.
- Use immediately or store covered in the refrigerator for upwards of two weeks.
For a thicker, sweeter sauce, continue cooking until desired thickness is reached. Careful, though, ketchup is high on sugar and might burn if you're not careful.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, my take on a perfect North Carolina style BBQ sauce! Too simple for you? Or not quite right? No worries! A BBQ sauce, too, should be a personal thing. Remember how one of my foremost reasons for not going with a commercial sauce was that you can’t easily tweak it to fit your (ever changing) personal taste. With a homemade sauce, you can. So go on, take my recipe, try it out… Then make it your own! Want it sweeter? Then add a little more sugar, honey or molasses or go with the original proportions and reduce it down a bit more. Want it even more zingy? Then hold back the sugar and don’t boil it nearly as much. Want more heat? Add more pepper flakes, a pinch of dried chili or a shot or two of Louisiana-style hot sauce. Want more tomato flavor, simply add more ketchup or maybe a bit of tomato juice. The choice is yours and the possibilities are dang near endless so experiment away!
Have a favorite tip for BBQ sauce perfection? Why not let me and your fellow readers know in the comments below. Or on Facebook?