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Posted at 07:07 AM ET, 05/24/2011

DIY barbecue sauce: How we picked our reader recipe winners

Some people spray canned fragrance to keep their homes smelling nice. Here’s a better idea: make barbecue sauce – or several. The sweet, pungent, dusky aroma of slowly simmered sauces is a barbecue hound’s dream scent.

I know, because I smelled it for several days while making the sauces for the first Smoke Signal Barbecue Sauce Recipe contest. The winners will be announced in tomorrow’s Food section, which is posted today on the web site.

I made several with the help of great home cook (and, full disclosure, my cousin) Kathy Brackett. After chopping, mincing, chopping, pureeing, slicing, sautéing, boiling, and simmering – oh, yeah, and cleaning! – my house was perfumed with the rich and tangy aroma of a mixture of mustard, ketchup, tomato sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, and a world (literally) of seasonings. I kept walking outside, then back in, and breathing deep, just to get the full, magnificent effect.

As Memorial Day approaches, and with it our first sauce contest to kick off the barbecue season, here is a look behind the scenes at how we went about the process of winnowing the field and choosing the winners.

Deputy food editor Bonnie Benwick and I carefully perused every one of the 68 submissions to select the ones we thought most deserved testing. We chose 17, a quarter of them.

We brought our completed sauces to the Post, where they were poured into small bowls and numbered to keep the judging blind. Post staffers, plus Bonnie and I, served as preliminary tasting judges. Through comments and grades, we narrowed the field even as an issue was raised. Shouldn’t we have barbecue to taste-test a barbecue sauce?

It’s a good question, and, even though I was the one who asked it, I was also the one who answered it. And my answer was, Uhm, no. We needed to keep the playing field level.

Each sauce has its own flavor, and the flavor is changed when paired with food. And while a barbecue sauce is sometimes deliberately unbalanced (take, say, a sharp vinegar-based sauce to go with pulled pork), it is not hard to tell a good version from a bad one. Tasting with barbecue would undermine the broad universality of the idea of what a barbecue sauce is.

Then, there was the practical matter: which meat and how to cook it? Ribs? Shoulder? Chicken? Brisket? All of them? And how should they be cooked? Light rub? Heavy rub? Unrubbed? Deeply smoked? Delicately smoked? Different smoke for different foods?

Washington’s own Safeway Barbecue Battle, one of the nation’s biggest contests, leaves the sauce to its own devices. “The sauce is judged without food, and it is up to the expertise of the judges to discern its best usage,” says the sauce contest’s coordinator, Doug Halo.

Makes sense. Most people, when purchasing sauce, don’t carry a slab of smoked ribs with them to the grocery store, open a bottle, and try it to see if matches perfectly. Nor would I guess that people, other than ‘cue heads and this columnist, stock refrigerator shelves with a dozen or more sauces for specific purposes. People go to the store, buy a sauce, hope it tastes good over several food items.

So, the first cut was to assess a barbecue sauce on its own. But because the sauce is transformed by food, the second, and final, determination would include food.

After the preliminary judging, I went home and, over the next couple of days, repeatedly tasted the top five sauces plain and with lightly seasoned, moderately smoked pulled pork and ribs. The method approximated the one used by the Kansas City Royal, which judges a barbecue sauce by itself and with unseasoned pulled pork. (Other contests just taste them plain.)

Many contests categorize the sauces – tomato, mustard, vinegar, specialty, what-have-you. The categorization helps address an existential question: What is a barbecue sauce?

The French have what they call mother sauces. Sauces in France are defined, not by the rabble, like in the United States, but by chefs (namely, Antonin Careme and, later, Auguste Escoffier). A béchamel is a white sauce, non? We know how to make it. Granted, you can add cheese to it and then, voila, it is a Mornay sauce. But that’s the whole point. There are mother sauces, each clearly delineated, and there is a brood of progency sauces, each also with its own name and personality traits (read: ingredients).

Here, in America, we have this thin, or maybe thick, and sweet, or is it spicy, and, finally, tomato-, or is it, vinegar-based stuff we all agree is the same thing: barbecue sauce. You could say that barbecue sauce is the mother sauce and that the tomato, mustard, vinegar, etc., sauces the spawn. Except that there is no real agreement on barbecue sauce. They’re all mother sauces!

This first time out, we didn’t know what to expect – whether we’d get enough to categorize, quite frankly – so we went with one against all and all against one. As it happens, our three winners fell into categories. One is mustard-based, another tomato-based, and a third a specialty type.

Thanks to all who entered. Lots of folks are reticent to share their secret sauces, this one handed down from a grandmother, that one developed over long hours of trial and error. We appreciate the work and creativity that went into your hand-crafted sauce and that you were willing to share your creation with the world.

Now, get back in the kitchen and start working on your concoction for next year. Your house will thank you for it.

By  |  07:07 AM ET, 05/24/2011

 
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