In Japan it’s ponzu, in France it’s beurre blanc, in Argentina it’s chimichurri, in Spain it’s aioli, while in the United States barbecue sauce is boss.
Ketchup’s smoky, tangy, complex cousin is king of condiments for dipping, spreading, pouring and slathering on everything from pulled pork, burgers of all manners, assorted cuts of beef, grilled chicken, shrimp and fish to fries and onion rings, grilled vegetables, sandwiches, and even soups, stews and zesty cocktails. On the cusp of Memorial Day and grilling season, I decided to scope out the selection of barbecue sauces at a few natural food and specialty markets. Yippee ki-yay! I got a road map of the nation’s barbecue pit stops along with a free geography lesson.
Primitive barbecue wingdings have been traced back to cave dwelling days as archaeologists recently unearthed ancient fire pits in present day Central Europe (Czech Republic) with charred carcasses of woolly mammoths and other prehistoric creatures. Barbecue trickled into early American culinary traditions enjoyed by George Washington, while Lyndon Johnson transported his iconic Texas-style barbecue ribs and sauce to the capital making it an official White House dish. Flavor and ingredient variations along with modes of preparation have gradually filtered through the nation firmly establishing certain areas as mesquite Meccas. Denizens throughout the land heartily boast that their coveted regional recipe reigns top dog in the long-standing culinary competition, remaining die-hard fans till the last drop.
Starting the route in the lone star state beef and barbecue rule. Brisket and link sausages are favorites in these parts, while oak wood is the choice for smoking meats. Texas barbecue is a bold, brown, hearty tomato based sauce with an authentic hickory bite from chipotle peppers, cayenne and cumin, tempered by sweet nuances from rich, dark brown sugar.
Head northeast to Memphis, birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and rockin’ pork ribs slathered in a sauce with sweet and sour notes, blended in pitch perfect harmony. Tomato, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and mustard provide the acid, molasses and brown sugar provide the sweet, while crushed chilis, red peppers, garlic and paprika the heat.
Proceed south to Alabama where yes, we have no tomatoes in the barbecue sauce. This creamy, dreamy, perky white barbecue variation ranging in color from alabaster to antique lace is mayonnaise based with a zippy dollop of white horseradish, lemon juice, white wine vinegar and dash of sweetener (recipe at right). Divine on grilled corn on the cob or a dipping sauce for crudités or French fries, white barbecue puts Ranch dressing in the doghouse.
Now travel east to South Carolina, where folks live high on the hog, and barbecue sauce is golden. The mustard based sauce with vinegar, sugar and a heap of spices pairs particularly well with the other white meat, whether the state’s signature pulled pork or a whole roasted pig infused with deep, smoky hickory wood notes.
Then proceed due west to Kansas City, Missouri (not Kansas City, Kansas) where barbecue style is a hybrid incorporating gustatory influences from other regions. All meats, including beef, chicken and pork are given equal opportunity to earn their grill marks with a sauce that is more sweet than spicy loaded with molasses and dark brown sugar, ketchup and tomato paste, a dash of soy sauce, a pinch of dried mustard, and aromatic flavors from allspice, cloves and bay leaves.
Flying off the mainland to Hawaii where barbecue sauce is inspired by the aloha spirit the result is a sweet, sticky and tangy concoction. For an authentic island flavor, blend shoyu (soy sauce) with sake or vermouth, pineapple juice, fresh grated ginger and garlic, and a drop of honey for a sassy marinade for beef, chicken, shrimp, pork or vegetables.
Recipe: Alabama Barbecue Sauce
• Ingredients: 1 1/3 cups of mayonnaise (I prefer olive, sunflower or avocado oil based); 1 tablespoon of white horseradish; 1/4 cup of white wine vinegar; juice from one Meyer lemon; 1 garlic clove, minced; 1 teaspoon of light brown sugar; cayenne pepper and sea salt to taste.
• Method: Whisk ingredients together in a glass mixing bowl. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to five days.
— For additional barbecue recipes, e-mail Catharine Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org