S. John's Signature Barbecue Sauce
("Bold" Doesn't Begin to Describe It) by S. John Ross, ©2010

There are many "holy trinities" in life ... sex, drugs, rock and roll ... wine, women, song ... okay; those two are really similar and they render most others moot, but among the hundreds of runners-up I count a trinity most holy: succulent pork, homemade cornbread, and this barbecue sauce.

This is one of my oldest personal recipes, and it packs the strongest nostalgic kick of anything I created on my own (to get more nostalgia from a food, I have to go to recipes from my mom and great-grandmother). That's not all the kick it packs, either. Right off the bat, maybe you'll want to cut the spices in half, but maybe not. Try the real deal first, and adjust from there to make it your own. Bear in mind that if you find it has too much bite; that's not the Tabasco; it's actually the black pepper (the Tabasco adds warmth, but not bite).

It's as strong (and brickety-thick) as it is to match my preferred grilling and broiling style, which is a thin paint of sauce in the last stages of cooking - there in the dry heat just long enough to caramelize and crisp a bit. If you prefer to lay your sauces on thick (or dip deep), apply some of the adjustments described below. But for now, here's the core recipe, which strays only a little from the original version I concocted in High School when undertaking my first in-earnest study of the grilling arts:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced up pretty fine
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1-1/3 cups brown sugar
  • 12 oz tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp freshly-ground black pepper (fine/dusty grind)
  • 12 very rapid dashes Tabasco
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • a dash of ground cinammon
  • 1 cup cider vinegar

Over medium heat, saute onion and garlic in the olive oil until the onions are clear. Add brown sugar and stir until melted. Add tomato paste and stir thoroughly. Add the remaining ingredients, and stir until smoothly blended. Lower heat and very lightly simmer (covered) for two hours (ideally ... and without at least one full hour, the flavors won't smooth out properly). Check and stir often. Serve warm or cold.

And that's that. Of course, there are many things called "barbecue" and this is a sweet, bold, heavy sauce that only belongs to a few of them. It's not a mopping sauce or Texas on-the-side sauce or anything like that; it's designed for charcoal grilling or oven-broiling, rather than barbecue (smoke-cooking) proper. It's best on pork (country-style ribs, seared pork-loin cubes, grilled chops) but very good on chicken and great on a burger, too. I like a dollop in my tuna salad, even (along with the more usual stuff). Some things I hear a lot (and often about this sauce):

It's ... Good ... But How About: Add a half-teaspoon of red pepper flakes, or cayenne, along with the onions for more zip. Add a tablespoon of prepared brown mustard (or a tsp Coleman's, or both) for a more complex flavor (the brown-mustard add is probably my favorite variant). Add molasses for deeper flavor, or a splash of liquid smoke for duskiness. Add grated lemon peel and a healthy glug-glug of white wine to fine-tune it for chicken.

It's A Bit Bold, and I Worry: Begin by reducing the black pepper by half. If that doesn't do it, reduce the Tabasco and chili powder as well. But remember, the "bite" is mostly about the black pepper. For a less tangy sauce (seldom requested, really), substitute half the vinegar with beer, stock, or leftover tomato soup.

Wow, It's Thick: Just thin it out with some beer or stock. Or better yet: an excellent variant if you'd like to adjust the texture to more closely resemble bottled sauces is just to add an extra half-cup of vinegar along with a half-cup of honey. The mix of honey and brown sugar for the sweetness makes it an all-around awesome thing, really, so it can be worth it to take the thinner texture.

Isn't It A Little Sweet For You, Mister Diabetic-These-Days?: Sadly, yes, it is. These days, for my and Sandra's table, I make a modified version for the sake of the diabetic thing, but it still stays very close to the original flavor. In terms of ingredients, I ditch the brown sugar and replace it with a cup of Splenda (the measurable kind, not the packet kind) and a quarter-cup of molasses. Any expanding I do (if I want the bottle-thin version) I do with raw agave syrup rather than honey, because agave is very friendly to the blood sugar.

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