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Want to make a signature sauce? Learn the basics and then go crazy. You’re only limited by what’s in your pantry.
1. Try a classic. To figure out what you like in a barbecue sauce, start by understanding the classics. Most storebought sauces mimic the sweet, thick, ketchup-based Kansas City-style sauce. If you like something tangier, try the vinegary Eastern Carolina sauce. Prefer something in between? The Western Carolina saucemixes ketchup into the vinegar base. And don’t stop with the most well-known sauces. Try the more obscure South Carolina-style sweet mustard sauce or the Alabama mayo-based white sauce.
2. Vary the sweetener. After you feel comfortable with the basics, start playing around with the sweetener. Brown sugar is classic, but for a richer, sweet-bitter flavor, try blackstrap molasses. If you’re a locavore living in the Northeast, add maple syrup; in the South, add sorghum. Or, wherever you are, try honey.
3. Consider adding fruit. When you’re making ribs or chicken wings, a thicker, sweet sauce is usually best. Instead of a purely tomato base, try mixing it up. For an especially sweet, sticky sauce, add guava paste. Use blueberries or blackberries for a jammier sauce or lemon juice for an extra hit of tang.
4. Raid your pantry. After you’ve settled on the base, play around with spices and condiments to make it your own. Try peanut butter and chipotle in adobo for a sweet-and-spicy sauce. Use hoisin in place of ketchup for an aromatic, Asian-inspired sauce, or sweet spices and dates for a Moroccan-inspired sauce. Dried ancho chiles are great for creating a sneakily spicy sauce. Other ideas: try adding Thai curry pastes and Asian fish sauce or harissa and pomegranate molasses.
5. Then raid your bar. All barbecue sauce needs some kind of liquid. For a California-inspired sauce, add red wine. A boozy, bourbon-spiked sauce is great with pork. Adding sodas, like root beer and cola, is a well-known pitmaster trick. For an eye-opening sauce with a pleasantly bitter edge, add brewed coffee.
Kristin Donnelly is a former Food & Wine editor and cofounder of Stewart & Claire, an all-natural line of lip balms made in Brooklyn.