The secret’s in the sauce: Make a BBQ sauce worthy of your cookout

Sure, you could use a store-bought BBQ sauce this Labor Day holiday, but don't your ribs, wings and chops deserve better?

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You can get into some serious throwdowns over what makes the best sauce for barbecue. Is it mustard style, the preference of my South Carolina relatives? What about vinegar-based? How about a mop sauce?

Labor Day, the traditional end of summer (though you can’t tell it by this steamy weather), means cookouts galore. That also means slathering some sort of store-bought BBQ sauce on the meat you’ve spent hours smoking or carefully grilling.

BBQ Sauce
Photo: Getty Images

Ask yourself this: Would you wear a Versace dress with discount store shoes? Would you go on a night on the town in a new Brooks Brothers suit over an old t-shirt topped with a cut-rate brim?

No. That’s not how you represent.

So why would you buy sauce from a store and put it on your cooking? You want those ribs, wings, and chops looking as good as you in that Versace or Brooks Brothers.

You can make your own delicious BBQ sauce with a standard base that easily adjusts to your taste.

Me, I use a standard ketchup-based sauce more aligned with Kansas City. I find ketchup more flexible, giving me more options to experiment with. Like many home cooks, I’m big on taking a base recipe and playing with it until I come up with something unique (or strange, depending on your point of view).

I use a standard barbecue sauce base that consists of:

1 cup ketchup

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1/8 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon regular mustard (not Dijon or stone ground because the flavor’s too strong)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon steak sauce

1 tablespoon rib rub (What? Don’t hate until you taste it on the plate!)

4 ounces butter

Place all the ingredients in a pot, stir, and cook over low heat for at least 30 minutes (the butter will melt as you go). The sauce should simmer slowly, and you should stir it every five minutes or so to make sure it doesn’t stick to the pot.

So that’s the base; it’s thick, sweet, and tangy, and you can adjust it any way you like. If you want a thinner sauce, add another ¼ cup water; if you want it even tangier, add another ¼ cup apple cider vinegar.

It’s good enough to use on its own, and when I’m in a rush, that’s what I do. The plain version goes well with these crunchy oven chicken wings. Just place the wings in a bowl, add the sauce, and toss.

I prefer a thin layer of sauce so I can taste the spices on the wings, too. But I know some people have “just enough sauce” when it’s dripping down your chin and onto your shirt. You are the boss of your sauce, so whatever you like.

Now, let’s talk about that rib rub.

Many barbecue sauce recipes call for some combination of salt, pepper, garlic powder, chili powder, paprika, and maybe red pepper or cayenne for a little heat. My rib rub has no sugar and is heavy on cumin, paprika, chili powder, black pepper, and a little kosher salt (and some other ingredients.)

I started adding the rub because it gives the sauce a slightly smoky taste and it’s easier than adding all of the spices one by one. (I know, lazy, but hey). Feel free to add whatever seasoning you like to the base, but a tablespoon of rub (store-bought is OK) works even better for me.

So that’s the base. You can fancy-pants this with a few additional ingredients.

Mango Barbecue Sauce

 1 fresh mango, peeled and cubed (not frozen)

1 teaspoon of honey

A slurry made of two teaspoons of cornstarch and ¼ cup of water

What’s a slurry? When you stir cornstarch into water (stir very well so the water becomes cloudy with no clumps), you get a thickening agent, and that’s important here. If you don’t use a slurry you’ll get a much thinner puree that will thin out your sauce.

Puree the mango and add it to a pot over medium heat. Add in the honey and stir. Then, add the slurry and stir until the mixture thickens to your desired consistency. 

Pour half of the mango mixture into the base, stir, and taste. If you want a more robust mango flavor, add the rest of the puree.

Spicy Honey Bourbon Barbecue Sauce

This is an easy one.

1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon of red pepper

¼ cup honey

¼ cup bourbon (any kind will do)

Pour the bourbon into a pan, add the honey and spices, place over low heat on the stove and stir together; taste. Tasting’s always important so you can adjust ingredients. You may want a little more heat, which means more pepper. You might like a sweeter taste, so a little more honey. Or, you might want more bourbon (hey!). 

When the bourbon mixture gets warm and is to your taste, pour it into the base and stir.

So there you go. Three different ways you can make a BBQ sauce that will have the cookout folks going, “Whattttttttttttttt?”

Just don’t tell them your secrets.

Ray Marcano

Ray Marcano is a longtime, award-winning journalist who has written and edited for some of the country’s most prominent media brands. He’s a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer juror, and a Fulbright Fellow.

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