How to Build a Barbecue Sauce
A great barbecue sauce keeps us coming back for more because it is multi-dimensional—hot, sweet, tangy, smoky . . . the layered flavors combined with juicy meat is absolutely irresistible.
About this Recipe
When I was 19, I spent a summer working in France as an au pair. I was eager to try the local specialties: crunchy baguettes with pillowy interiors; creamy quiches, cloudlike soufflés, duck à l’orange… Even as a teenager, I loved to cook, but I was sure that my skills would not be up to snuff in a real French kitchen.
My hosts were refined and sophisticated. They knew so much more than Teenage Rachel did: like how to perfectly pair wines from their wine cellar with each meal, how to debone a rabbit, and what Coquilles St. Jacques were [unrefined editor’s note: they’re scallops!].
They instructed me on how to make baby food for their 18-month-old son (essentially, purée whatever the rest of the family was eating with a little hot water). On my first night, I threw some steamed zucchini, rice, and salmon into the food processor, whizzed it until smooth, and airplane-d it into the expectant toddler’s mouth.
The little boy tasted it, made a sound akin to a dying animal, turned his head, and refused to eat another bite. I checked in with the child’s mother, who rolled her eyes in my direction. “Did you add butter and crème fraȋche to it?” she inquired, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. Embarrassed, I hurried down to the kitchen to enrich the young gourmand’s dinner with the necessary fats, upon which he consumed the rest of the meal without complaint, giving me a healthy side-eye for the next week’s worth of meals.
So when my hosts said they wanted to ask me a culinary question, I swallowed hard, hoping I wouldn’t say something ridiculous.
I looked into their eager faces as they asked, “Do you know how to make . . . barbecue sauce?” They had spent time in the American South and, apparently, they wanted nothing more than to gnaw, caveman-style, on chicken legs slathered in thick barbecue sauce. (Could anyone really blame them?) So much for Coquilles St. Jacques.
I had to admit: I did not. In fact, I’d never even thought about it before. Barbecue sauce wasn’t something you made . . . right? It was something you bought, bottled, in the grocery store. You could grab some Sweet Baby Ray’s and be happily chowing down less than an hour later.
Barbecue sauce has a long and storied history, and more versions of it than one could count. Different sauces are unique to various regions, and most recipes are jealously guarded by their makers.
According to the Tasting Table, barbecue sauce was first documented in 1698, when cooks in the French West Indies were observed barbecuing meat with citrus and hot peppers—suggesting that this sauce may have its roots in Africa. By the 1800s, sauces featuring ingredients like vinegar and mustard were popular throughout the American South.
A great barbecue sauce keeps us coming back for more because it is multi-dimensional—hot, sweet, tangy, smoky . . . the layered flavors combined with juicy meat is absolutely irresistible. For all its complexity, though, barbecue sauce really isn’t hard to make. You just have to keep adding a little of this and a little of that, tasting until you’re happy with it. Don’t be surprised if it takes you a while to create your perfect recipe—many pitmasters have been perfecting their secret sauces for generations!
I have created a chart to give you ideas on what you could add to your barbecue sauce, but this list is certainly not exhaustive. Use whatever ingredients you like, in whatever combinations you like.
Much like butter or crème fraȋche, barbecue sauce is one of those staples that provides a perfect complement to a great meal.
Guide To Building a Barbecue Sauce
Choose as many ingredients from as many columns as you like to build your signature sauce.
Stone Fruit Barbecue Sauce
1 clove garlic
1 jalapeño pepper (omit seeds for a milder sauce)
2 pounds or 1 kilo stone fruit, roughly chopped, pits discarded (for this recipe, I used about 8 nectarines)
1 teaspoon hot paprika
½ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup ketchup
⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons molasses
Step by Step Instructions
Roughly chop the shallots, garlic, and jalapeño, and roast on a grill or in a hot oven until softened and fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Add to a heavy saucepan with the stone fruit and spices, and cook for 4-5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, and stir to combine.
Bring to a simmer and cover. Cook over medium-low heat for 45 minutes to an hour. The stone fruit will have softened, and released quite a bit of liquid.
Purée all in a high-powered blender until smooth. Adjust seasoning according to taste.
Cool fully, and refrigerate until ready to use.
Sweet and Spicy Chicken Wings
1 recipe Stone Fruit Barbecue Sauce
4 pounds chicken wings and drummettes
Kosher salt and black pepper
Step by Step Instructions
Add chicken and barbecue sauce to a slow cooker, and cook on low for 3 ½ hours. Prepare a sheet pan with heavy-duty foil.
Once the chicken is done cooking in the slow cooker, preheat the oven to broil. Remove the chicken, shaking off any excess sauce into the slow cooker, and add to the foil-lined sheet pan. Reserve remaining barbecue sauce.
Season the chicken with kosher salt and black pepper. Broil the chicken for 3-5 minutes on each side until browned, watching carefully to ensure that it does not burn.
Remove from oven, and brush the chicken on each side with barbecue sauce. Serve hot, with remaining sauce.