If barbecue is religion, then the sauce that finishes it is final grace, a finishing touch worthy of hosannas and high praise.
Brushed on toward the tail end of long, slow cooking, barbecue sauce might seem like an afterthought, a slapdash finish. “If it comes across as minor, it’s not. Sauce is one of the pillars of barbecue,” says Amy Mills, co-owner of 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Ill. “It’s meant to complement spice in dry rubs, work with the meat and become something bigger in the experience.”
Sauces are staunchly regional. Across the barbecue belt and beyond, styles have evolved and become points of prideful bragging rights. “Everyone thinks their sauce is best,” says Mills. 17th Street’s sauce offerings have grown over time to now include a range of styles.
“People like choice, to try a little of this and that,” Mills explains. “For me, sweet sauce isn’t the right way to go. It coats your taste buds so that’s all you taste. Our sauces are savory, not too thick. You want them to seep into the meat, not just sit on top.”
At Sacramento’s Woodlake Tavern, executive chef Joe Pruner says his house-made sauces are specific to the meats with which they’re served. His brisket is gilded with tomato-based Texas-style sauce spiked with local California chiles, while St. Louis spareribs have a sweeter sauce that leads with spice and molasses. Smoked chicken arrives with white sauce, “like the one made famous by Big Bob Gibson,” notes Pruner, referring to the mayo-based sauce that’s indigenous to Alabama. At Woodlake, confit garlic and horseradish amp up the flavor. “It’s such a regional thing, but we’ve had a good reaction to it.”
Charlie McKenna, chef/owner of Lillie’s Q in Chicago, likes that sauces contribute to the big bang, that inimitable mix of meat, smoke and sauce. “Creating sauces is a way for us to add another flavor profile. They are meant to accompany the meat, but not cover up the flavor. We want you to taste the protein, seasoning and then the sauce.”
Creating a sauce isn’t hard, chefs agree, adding that it’s about finding a match-up to your taste and the foods it will accompany. Bow & Arrow’s Caleb Fischer urges a focus on ratios.
“A lot of sauces are way too one-note,” he says. “In the end, the main thing is the levels of acid, salt, sugar and spice. It’s okay if one of them is stronger on one end, but keep them in balance. When you get it right, the sauce absolutely sings.”