American Barbecue Seasonings
Spice up your summer cookouts with these recipes for flavoring meat.
By Steven Raichlen
Smoke may be the soul of barbecue, but the rub and sauce gives it personality. However, what you mean by “barbecue sauce” depends on where you live or grew up. In Kansas City, barbecue sauce typically means a thick, red, sweet, smoke-scented condiment typified by the commercial brand KC Masterpiece. (And variations exist even in Kansas City.) In North Carolina, barbecue sauce is a watery amalgam of vinegar, salt, pepper, and hot red pepper flakes — with nary a drop of molasses in sight. South Carolinians favor mustard-based barbecue sauces, while in Alabama, you might get a white sauce comprised of mayonnaise and vinegar that leaves you wondering whether it’s barbecue sauce or salad dressing. The truth is, while we Americans love barbecue sauce, we don’t agree on what it is.
Barbecue sauces can contain dozens of different ingredients. I’ve seen sauces flavored with everything from coffee to cranberry sauce to cough syrup. But whether you’re making a simple vinegar sauce or an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sauce, there’s one component you can’t do without: balance. The goal of the following barbecue seasonings is to meld contrasting elements — sweet, sour, salty, aromatic, hot — into a harmonious whole. Let’s start with the rub.
Basic Barbecue Rub Recipe
This is the granddaddy of all barbecue rubs, but don’t let the simple formula fool you. This rub contains a heap of flavor — the molasses sweetness of the brown sugar, the heat of the pepper, the vegetal sweetness of the paprika, and the slow burn of the cayenne. Use this formula as a springboard for your creativity. You can use this or any rub in two ways — either sprinkle it on right before grilling or smoking, as you would a seasoned salt, or apply it several hours beforehand to cure the meat as well as season it. Yield: about 1 cup.
- 1⁄4 cup coarse salt (sea or kosher)
- 1⁄4 cup packed brown sugar (light
- 1⁄4 cup sweet paprika
- 2 to 4 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
1⁄2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1⁄2 tsp celery seeds
- Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir or whisk to mix.
- Transfer to a jar, cover, and store away from heat and light. The rub will keep for several weeks.
- Sprinkle it on pork, beef, chicken, and robust fish, such as salmon. You can cook the meat at once or, for an even richer flavor, let it marinate for 2 to 4 hours first.
Cider Squirt Baste Recipe
One of the secrets of world-class barbecue is consistent and conscientious basting while the meat is cooking. The traditional tool for basting is literally a kitchen mop (hence the term “mop sauce”), but more and more pit masters use spray bottles or misters. This simple baste is short on preparation time but long on flavor. You won’t want to eat this stuff straight, but spray it on roasting or smoking meat to add a world of flavor. I put the sauce in a spray bottle and spray it right onto the meat. You can also brush it on with a mop or basting brush. When cooking chicken or ribs, apply every 30 minutes. When cooking a large cut of meat, such as a brisket or pork shoulder, apply every hour. Yield: about 41⁄2 cups, enough for 4 pounds of meat.
- 2 cups apple cider
- 3⁄4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1⁄2 cup bourbon
- 1⁄2 cup water
- 1⁄4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1⁄2 tsp coarse salt (sea or kosher)
- Combine all ingredients in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Reduce the heat and simmer the sauce for 5 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
- Transfer the squirt to a spray bottle and use right away or refrigerate.
Use within 2 days of making.
Sweet and Smoky Barbecue Sauce Recipe
Ask someone to describe the perfect barbecue sauce, and they’ll likely invoke a thick, sweet, ketchup-based sauce with a zing of vinegar and a whiff of liquid smoke — the sort of sauce Kansas City barbecue buffs have slathered on ribs and briskets for decades. The following recipe comes from the Kansas City Barbecue Society. (Motto: “Barbecue — it’s not just for breakfast.”) Use as you would any barbecue sauce: brushed on pork, ribs, and chicken toward the end of cooking, and poured freely at the table. Yield: 5 cups.
- 6 tbsp packed dark brown sugar
- 1⁄2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1⁄4 cup molasses
- 1⁄4 cup honey
- 1⁄4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tbsp dark rum
- 2 tbsp yellow mustard
- 1 tbsp liquid smoke
- 1 tbsp chile powder
- 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- 1⁄4 tsp ground cloves
- 4 cups ketchup
- Coarse salt (sea or kosher), to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Combine all the ingredients up to and including the cloves in a large, deep, heavy, nonreactive saucepan, and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
- Cook, uncovered, until all the ingredients are dissolved, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes.
- Stir in the ketchup and bring to a boil, stirring well, as the ketchup has a tendency to spatter.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Reduce the heat and gently simmer, uncovered, stirring often, until dark, thick, and richly flavored, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Use right away, or transfer to jars, cover, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate. The sauce will keep for several weeks.
Righteous Ribs Recipe
Eating these ribs can be almost a religious experience, especially when coupled with the Sweet and Smoky Barbecue Sauce. I like the succulence and tenderness of baby back ribs, but you could certainly use spare ribs if you’d prefer. You’d need to increase the amount of rub and sauce for the latter. Yield: Serves 4 really hungry people, or 6 to 8 as part of a full meal.
- 4 racks (8 to 12 pounds) baby back ribs
- 3⁄4 cup Basic Barbecue Rub
- 1 cup Cider Squirt, optional
- 2 cups Sweet and Smoky Barbecue Sauce
- 4 to 5 cups hardwood chips, preferably apple or hickory, soaked in water for 30 minutes, then drained
- Remove the papery skin on the back of each rack of ribs by pulling it off in a sheet with your fingers (use a corner of a dish towel to secure your grip), or ask your butcher to do it. Sprinkle the ribs on both sides with the rub, rubbing it in with your fingers. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
- Set up a smoker, following the manufacturer’s instructions, and preheat to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.
- Place the ribs, rounded side up, in the smoker. Smoke until cooked, 3 to 4 hours. After 1 hour, spray the ribs with Cider Squirt, and spray again every hour. The last half-hour, brush the ribs with half the barbecue sauce. (Omit this step if you opt for the final step in these instructions.) When the ribs are ready, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about 1⁄2 inch. The meat will be so tender, you’ll be able to pull the ribs apart with your fingers.
Set up a grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. Brush and oil the grill grate. Brush the smoked ribs with half the barbecue sauce and direct grill for 2 to 4 minutes per side to sear the sauce into the meat.
Serve the ribs on a platter, with the remaining barbecue sauce on the side.
Steven Raichlen hosts the programs “Project Smoke” and “Primal Grill” on PBS. This is an excerpt from his book Barbecue Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades — Bastes, Butters, and Glazes, Too, published by Workman Publishing in 2017.