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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.