What’s better than a piece of grilled meat, chicken or fish from the barbecue? One that’s been basted and coated with the perfect barbecue sauce, of course. Barbecue is pretty much the staple of backyards and picnic areas everywhere come summer, and it’s no wonder why: grilled anything is freaking delicious.
While there are plenty of cooking techniques (smoking, high heat, indirect heat, etc), we can probably all agree that the sauce itself is where it’s at. That’s why we caught up with Spencer Watts, host of Gusto’s Watts on the Grill (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET), to get his take on what makes the perfect barbecue sauce, and how you can whip it up at home or at the cottage.
Find a balance
No matter what kind of barbecue sauce you’re whipping up, the golden rule for any saucy griller is to ensure that you have a well-balanced flavour profile. That way the sauce is sure to hit all four cornerstones of culinary success.
“Your tongue has four sense on it: sweet, bitter, salt and tart,” Spencer explains. “You want to hit all of those and tick off all the boxes.”
If you’re doing a classic barbecue sauce, the cook recommends always starting with a big old bottle of ketchup and then mirroring the flavours within. For example, mustard is “ketchup’s counterpart” and “best friend,” so use that in a three-to-one ratio. Meanwhile, vinegar plays with the tartness, and brown sugar heightens your sauce’s sweetness.
Add your own flair
Once you’ve got your base then you can get really creative with which other flavours you want to feature. Spencer admits to loving smoked paprika to accentuate the smokiness in the sauce, a “kiss” of molasses for some added sweetness, and a little bit of cumin for an unexpected punch.
“It’s one of those spices where you’re eating the barbecue sauce and thinking, ‘What is this?'” he explains. “Cumin has shoulder pads on it but a couple of sprinkles gives the sauce this exotic earthiness.”
Not a fan of cumin? Not a problem, says the host. The point is to find a flavour profile that adds “a good aromatic boldness.”
Do something unexpected
Once you’ve figured out your ultimate barbecue base, then you can take your creativity even farther. Every now and again Watts will mix things up by adding an ingredient like sumac to give his sauce “a really unique flavour.” He’s also a fan of subbing in Indian spices like garam masala and coriander, along with whole cumin seeds.
If you’re looking to add heat, Watts has one suggestion: make sure the heat you’re adding also adds flavour. Instead of busting out the chili flakes, opt for a chipotle (“it has this beautiful, haunting, smoky, spicy quality to it that’s just delicious”), or a smoked jalapeno or even a harissa paste from the Middle East. “It’s full of roasted peppers, so you’re getting heat and flavour,” he explains.
Bring it back to basics
If you want to make your barbecue sauce extra special, then maybe go beyond the store-bought bottle of ketchup and whip up your own batch to use as your base. “It’s super simple,” Spencer says. “Just get some nice plum tomatoes, a little bit of tomato paste, really good quality vinegar, brown sugar and then cook it all down.”
Stay away from liquid smoke
A smoky barbecue sauce is divine, but playing with liquid smoke is like playing with pit-fire: it’s not necessarily your best move. That’s in part because liquid smoke is ridiculously strong and it’s easy to overdo it — usually you don’t need more than a drop or two. But more importantly it doesn’t add any actual flavour other than smoke, which can weigh down your sauce.
“You can get some good smokiness out of the smoked paprika,” Watts advises instead. “Then the sugars are going to caramelize and the fat is going to drip down and hit the flames to give that smokiness.”
Know your ingredients
There are two benefits to a regular, condiment-based barbecue sauce. The first is that you don’t have to actually cook the sauce ahead of time because everything is ready to go, so once it’s assembled you can throw it right on the meat and then onto the grill. The second benefit is that if you refrain from adding fresh ingredients like garlic or onion (opt for powders instead), it will keep for a long, long time in the fridge. “How long does ketchup last in your fridge?” Watts asks. “I know people who have kept the same bottle of ketchup for six years!”
However, if you’ve gotten a bit ambitious with your sauce and added something with a high vinegar content like apple juice or apple cider vinegar, then you’ll want to use it as more of a marinade. Those types of barbecue “marinades” are perfect for breaking down tougher cuts of meats, says Watts.
So what are you waiting for? Go and get that sauce going, you saucy griller, you. Spencer suggests getting started with this particular grilled banana barbecue sauce (that should be slathered over these spicy barbecued sausages). Once you get a taste, you’ll want a second–or third–serving.