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.
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.
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."
In 1984, Davis held a contest in his back yard. He rounded up 100 commercial sauces, many of them recommended in the Jane and Michael Stern "Roadfood" books, and he and some friends compared them. He called the event the Diddy-Wa-Diddy National Barbecue Sauce Contest. "I was listening to Ry Cooder at the time," he explains.
Three years later, the American Royal in Kansas City added Diddy-Wa-Diddy to its annual event and renamed it the American Royal International BBQ Sauce, Rub, & Baste Contest. Davis is also the author or co-author of five barbecue books, including "The Great BBQ Sauce Book."
Assessing what makes a good sauce, he considers first what makes a bad one.
"Some sauces on the market today go better as a spaghetti sauce or an ice cream topping or something like that," he says. "The most unfortunate trend I've seen is the addition of high-fructose corn syrup. I tend not to stock that kind of sauce."
There are three primary styles of sauce: a thick, tangy tomato-based sauce, the nation's go-to idea of sauce, which is associated with Kansas City; a thin, peppery, vinegar-based sauce, prominent as a flavoring for chopped or pulled pork in eastern North Carolina; and the sweet, tart mustard-based sauce of South Carolina. Others include a mayonnaise- and horseradish-based white sauce favored by pitmasters in parts of Alabama and, despite what Central Texans assert, a watery, peppery, vinegar- and tomato-based au jus style served on the side there.
Sauce has become so popular in recent years that there are a zillion variants on tomato-based sauce alone, and a head-spinning variety that goes well beyond thickish red sauces. The proliferation extends to locally made sauces from Rocklands Barbeque & Grilling Co., Germantown's Beltway BBQ, and Pork Barrel BBQ, whose owners are opening a barbecue restaurant in Del Ray this fall.
Started by two staffers for then-Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), Heath Hall and Brett Thompson, Pork Barrel entered its first competition in 2009 at the Safeway National Barbecue Battle in the District.
Hall recalls he didn't actively begin working on a sauce until after filling out the battle's application fee and was still tinkering with it on the day of the contest. He says he created the sauce, as he had a rub months before, with a palate aimed at city dwellers who might not have a smoker, using puree of chipotle pepper for heat and smokiness, and ancho powder for a little fruitiness.
The sauce took second place, a remarkable triumph for a first-time competitor.
A month later, they started mass-producing the sauce. After some high-visibility stints on Fox and the ABC prime-time show "Shark Tank," the sauce took off. Last year, Pork Barrel sold 18,000 jars. This year, "We're on pace to produce between 150,000 and 200,000 units," Hall says.
For the home cook, Hall advises, "Your sauce is only as good as your ingredients. Don't go to the store and buy the cheapest. We use locally sourced wildflower honey. It costs more, but the flavor is loads and loads better."
Mike Stahill concurs. Stahill's barbecue team, the D.C. Firefighting Team, placed second at the Safeway Barbecue Battle three years ago with a sauce that used a commercial sauce as a base. This year, Stahill's new tomato-based sauce, which he describes as sweet with a little burn toward the end, won first.
His advice to novice saucemakers is to experiment. "Go on the Internet and look at what's out there and pick out something that sounds good and try it," he says. "Then start playing around. If you don't like it, figure out what's wrong. Just figure out what you like and go from there."
Some good Internet primers are at Barbecue Party (www.barbecue-party.com/homemade-barbecue-sauce.htm) and in the recipes section of the Barbecue News (www.barbecuenews.com).
And then there's the good old cookbook. Steven Raichlen's "Barbecue! Bible: Sauces, Rubs and Marinades" has easy-to-follow recipes, including some for exotic sauces made with guava or coffee or even truffled porcini mushrooms (particularly good with lamb and veal).
For those who want help developing their own sauce, "Paul Kirk's Championship Barbecue Sauces," by one of the top competitors on the cook-off circuit, provides step-by-step instructions with notepad-like pages and lists of specific ingredients for readers to mix and match.
Wherever you find your recipes, Ardie Davis has a final piece of advice. "If you want something with a signature flavor, pick your flavor: garlic, sage, allspice, whatever. Do a flavor profile that accents your favorite ingredients."
Most important, he says, "Make it yours."Recipes