If the Romans gave the world mustard and the Chinese introduced the spices and pickled fish that would evolve into ketchup, it’s the American empire that has made its mark on the global table with barbecue sauce. Let’s face it: There are few, if any, culinary inventions as mouth-wateringly versatile and all-American.
The condiment, which traces its roots to the first settlements in America nearly 400 years ago, is as flexible as it is delicious, whether it’s used as a flavoring sauce, marinade or dip. It can also infuse any dish with the memories and sensibilities of an specific locale.
Consider Texas barbeque sauce, which traditionally substitutes sugar with spices like ancho and Southwest chili powder, or Alabama white sauce, born and perfected in Decatur, Alabama, in 1925; or Memphis-style, heavy on vinegar and molasses to separate it from its condiment cousin in Kansas City. These sauces have deep ties to the culture and personality of their respective places of origin, and yet each is universally recognizable with an ability to go well on pretty much anything edible, anywhere and at any time. And from ubiquity comes democracy.
The classic recipe below, which was perfected in the South, is just a starting point for your barbecue sauce odyssey. But there’s no need to stop there; after you master the basics, experiment and adjust ingredients to come up with a version that’s all your own. Who knows — the next great American sauce will show up by accident in your kitchen.
Classic Barbecue Sauce
Makes 2 2/3 cup
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup apple cider or wine vinegar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons mustard
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)
In a medium saucepan, whisk together all of the ingredients. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and continue to simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Use immediately or transfer to an airtight container, let cool, and refrigerate for up to three weeks.