Barbecue sauces: Make them your own

By Jim Shahin
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 12:22 PM

I suppose we should get this out in the open: When it comes to barbecue, I am not a big sauce guy. My barbecue upbringing was in central Texas, where sauce is either served on the side or, among the purists, not served at all.

And I think a lot of the sticky-sweet stuff served in the Washington area is an abomination to barbecue.

Before you start throwing rib bones at me, let me add that I not only enjoy a good sauce, I have in my refrigerator nine store-bought sauces and four homemade ones. When I say I am not a big sauce guy, I mean I don't slop a bunch of red glob on every hunk of meat that comes off the smoker. To me, sauce is like wine: It should enhance the food.

I can't make wine, but I can make barbecue sauce.

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I started doing it about 20 years ago, and by this point I make sauces for different foods and different moods. I might want a mildly spicy tomato-based sauce on my chicken one day, a mustard-based sauce another. Some years ago, I made a multi-course fruit-based barbecue dinner for a friend to showcase the bounty of the season, and I made sauces from smoked peaches and blueberries and other fruits, along with a variety of chili peppers as flavorings.

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In addition to commercial sauces, I always have some basic homemade ones around. They're quick and inexpensive to put together, taste better than most store-bought stuff, and last weeks in the refrigerator.

I don't always succeed. I've burned sauces. I've made some just plain inedible sauces, stuff that no amount of tinkering could save, so I threw them out. But once you get the hang of it, and if you follow the less-is-more dictum in your flavoring, you'll put more in the fridge than down the sink.

The primary thing I look for is balance. I might want a velvety-textured mild sauce or a grainy, scorching-hot sauce or a thin spicy-sweet sauce, but my goal is to make the flavors work together and for the whole to be better than the sum of its parts.

If the nation had a sauce laureate, that person would be Ardie Davis. A trim, mild-mannered, gently eccentric retiree from Kansas City, he attends cook-offs wearing a bowler hat, a bowtie and an apron with three rib bones pinned to it, and goes by the nom de 'cue of Remus Powers, Ph.B., or doctorate in barbecue philosophy. The degree is from Greasehouse University, which he founded.

"Barbecue sauce should complement the flavor of meat," Davis says. "I always say, use sauce in moderation. Real barbecue has such good flavor, you don't want to overpower that."

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