This is the kind of sauce you drink straight from the bottle when no one’s looking. A thick, crimson-chocolate colored sauce. Tomatoes come first, followed by the sour of mustard, the acidity of cider vinegar, sweetness of brown sugar, and finishing with a kiss of cayenne.
More American than Apple Pie
For me, there’s little more all-American than barbecue—actually, “BBQ” is likely the more ‘Merican parlance. One could argue that baseball, or perhaps apple pie takes that prize. But I’d beg to differ.
Now, it should be noted that I’m also keenly aware of how little we can claim barbecue as uniquely our own, knowing that nearly every culture has their own rich history of smoking or grilling meats over open flame. Even the word itself can be traced back to the West Indian island of Hispaniola, where the local Arawakan Indians dried meat over an open fire from a frame of wooden sticks. This was referred to as a barbacòa in their native language, Taino.1
But none of that matters, because for us Americans, BBQ is in our blood. And this time of year, as we approach the day of our country’s independence, backyard warriors across our great land are taking up arms, dusting off grills and ringing in the 4th with a beer in one hand and a spatula in the other.
A Heated Topic
Asserting the topic of barbecue and grilling as contentious is an understatement. While “grilling” and “barbecuing” are terms often used interchangeably, they’re significantly different. Grilling is a relatively fast technique, where food is often cooked over direct heat or flame, usually at temperatures exceeding 500°F/260°C. Barbecue is the opposite, using smoldering wood to simultaneously smoke and cook at temperatures between 175°F/80°C and 275°F/135°C, often at periods exceeding 8 hours.
Now there’s the whole issue of sauce; even to sauce, or not. Many purists would tell you sauce is unnecessary for barbecue done well. They’d argue that sauce is nothing more than a cover for meat cooked poorly.
For those of us that find ourselves in the saucing camp, there’s the whole other debate of what constitutes a true barbecue sauce. There’s the vinegar and pepper camp, and those that include tomato sauce; there’s the ketchup-based sauces, and there’s the mustard-based sauces; there are sauces used for mopping, and those used for dressing… and that just scratches the surface. (For those interested in exploring the topic Amazingribs.com has a more exhaustive Taxonomy of American Barbecue Sauces.)
As with most things in life, the answer to one’s personal preference can often be found in the place of their upbringing. That is to say: we prefer what we know. And while I honest-to-goodness love all types of barbecue sauces, my heart lies with the sauce of my youth: The Kansas City Sweet Sauce.
The Kansas City-style sauce is undoubtedly the most prolific, even more so for those of us west of the Mississippi river. In the Northwest, where I was raised, the same is true. BBQ sauce was brown, often cloyingly sweet and occasionally spicy; traits dictated less by taste or desire and more by the selection of our local grocer.
This is my take on barbecue sauce. An ode to my youth, no doubt, but one with a balance of taste in mind. Only slightly sweet and certainly more tart than those found at your grocery. It’s what Kansas City sauce should be, in my opinion. I’m calling it a Northwestern-style BBQ Sauce, because we Portlanders have better sense than to buy an off-the-shelf sugar-laden imposter, but more importantly, we deserve to have a sauce of our own.
If you find the urge to sneak a swig on your next midnight cooler raid, I certainly won’t blame you. Heaven knows, I’ve had my fair share of dosings straight from the bottle. The way I see it, that’s my right—you know—as an American.
BBQ Sauce Preparation:
1. World Wide Words, Michael Quinion, 1996–2014
- 355 mL (one 12oz bottle) hard apple cider
- 250 grams (1 medium) onion, finely chopped
- 30 mL (1/8 cup) + 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, or other neutral oil
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 20 grams (approx 4 teaspoons) chili powder
- 2 grams (approx 1 teaspoon) smoked paprika
- 4 grams (approx 1 teaspoon) salt (more to taste)
- 4 grams (approx 1 teaspoon) fresh ground black pepper (more to taste)
- 2 grams cayenne/habanero pepper, ground
- 600 grams (approx 2 cups) ketchup
- 200 grams (approx 1 cup) brown sugar
- 250 mL cider vinegar
- 60 mL (approx 1/4 cup) worcestershire sauce
- 30 mL (approx 1/8 cup) lemon juice
- 5 grams (approx 1 teaspoon) liquid smoke (optional)
- Simmer hard apple cider in a small sauce pan until the alcohol has evaporated, reducing approximately 10%.
- While cider simmers, heat onions in oil over medium heat. Add salt and sweat for about 10-15 minutes until translucent and soft.
- Turn heat to medium-high, add additional 2 tablespoons oil and all of the dry ingredients. Sauté for several minutes until the spices are well incorporated and fragrant.
- Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, being careful not to burn.
- Add the hard apple cider and deglaze the pan.
- Add all remaining liquid ingredients. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently to avoid scorching.
- Reduce heat to low and simmer for an hour or so uncovered, stirring occasionally.
- Purée the sauce with a blender to the desired consistency. Or serve without puréeing for a more rustic texture.
- Use the sauce warm to dress your BBQ, or cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate. Sauce will last for several weeks refrigerated, and is best after sitting in refrigerator overnight.
- This makes a fairly thick sauce. For a thinner sauce, double or triple the amount of hard apple cider.
- For a spicier sauce increase the amount of cayenne.
- Liquid smoke is optional; If you are smoking or grilling the food this sauce is applied to, it's not necessary