A spicier, less sweet blend than most bottled sauces
Walk into any supermarket in the US, and you can find Kansas City-style barbecue sauce. It’s usually tomato-based and tasty, but definitely on the sweet side. It obviously has appeal — it’s one of the most popular styles of barbecue sauce sold commercially. What shoppers may not know, however, is that KC-style sauce has a long tradition — and a flavor range that goes way beyond sweet.
Back in our early married years, Mrs. Kitchen Riffs and I lived in Kansas City and ate barbecue quite often. But the sauce served at our favorite spots was quite different from the bottled stuff you buy in supermarkets today. It had a hint of sweetness, but was never cloying. Instead, it tended to have a peppery, spicy flavor with a hint of vinegar — and a texture that could be almost gritty.
The sauce I’m making today is a compromise — sweeter than the sauce of my youth, but less sweet than most commercial versions. The sugar nicely tames the spicy flavor in my sauce (which isn’t fiery — though it will get your attention).
Speaking of attention, that’s what you’ll attract when you serve this sauce with your favorite barbecue meat. Your guests will love it! And you, for making it.
Recipe: Tangy KC-Style Barbecue Sauce
This sauce goes with just about anything that you can barbecue: spare ribs, pork steaks, pulled pork, beef brisket, or even chicken. If you can Q it, this sauce works.
This recipe is easy to tinker with (just adjust quantities and ingredients to make your own “house” sauce). In fact, my sauce is very much a work in progress — I seem to make it slightly different every time.
This recipe is adapted from one I found in Smoke and Spice by Cheryl and Bill Jamison — an excellent book about all things barbecue, BTW, and worth looking at if you’re new to Q.
Preparation and cooking time for this recipe is 40 to 45 minutes. It makes about 2½ cups, and will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a week to 10 days.
- 1 medium onion (~¾ cup)
- 2 cloves garlic (or to taste)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (for sautéing)
- 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
- ¾ cup cider vinegar
- 1¼ cup water (less if you want a thicker sauce, more if you want a thinner one)
- ¼ cup brown sugar (you may want to increase this to 6 tablespoons if you prefer a sweeter sauce; either dark or light brown sugar works fine in this recipe)
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (I sometimes double this amount)
- ¼ cup dried ancho chile powder
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons yellow mustard (the ballpark kind)
- ~2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper (or to taste; see Notes)
- ~2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon celery seed
- 1 tablespoon liquid smoke (optional)
- Peel the onion and cut it into chunks. Place the onion chunks in food processor.
- Peel the garlic and chop roughly; add to food processor. Process onion and garlic until it forms a paste.
- Sauté the onion-and-garlic paste in oil (in a 2-quart sauce pan on medium heat) for about 5 minutes. Turn the heat down if the mixture begins to brown.
- Add the can of tomato paste and sauté for an additional minute.
- Add the remaining ingredients and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. After 10 minutes, taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. If the sauce seems too thick, add some water towards the end to thin it out. If too thin, cook longer to reduce it.
- Cool sauce. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container until ready to use.
- This sauce is better for eating than for basting meat — the tomato and sugar it contains will burn if exposed to heat for too long. If you like to coat barbeque meat with sauce before taking it off the heat, I suggest applying this no more than 10 minutes before you’ll be removing it.
- If this sauce isn’t sweet enough for you, by all means add more sugar.
- If it isn’t hot enough, add some hot sauce, or hotter dried chilies.
- If it’s too hot, cut the amount of ancho chile powder in half, and replace it with sweet paprika.
- I sometimes increase the amount of black pepper in this sauce to a tablespoon (or two). If you like black pepper, this is worth a try.
- Liquid smoke adds a hit of real smoke flavor (it’s a natural product made through a process that captures and distills wood smoke into an extract). If you crave that smoky flavor, and your barbecued meat doesn’t have enough of it, liquid smoke is worth trying.
Cookouts Coming Up!
Tomorrow we celebrate Memorial Day in the US, and many of us will be hosting a cookout or picnic. This barbecue sauce would be a great accompaniment to many cookout favorites, like Slow-Cooked BBQ Spare Ribs or Barbecued Pork Steaks. You could even use it to top Grilled Hamburgers.
But what about the rest of the menu? Well, here at Kitchen Riffs, we’ve got you covered.
Let’s start with potato salad. If you’re brand new to making potato salad, you might want to read my Potato Salad Basics. Then maybe contemplate making a great American (Mayonnaise) Potato Salad or my favorite variation on that, Mustard Potato Salad. Other great potato salads include French Potato Salad and German Potato Salad with Bacon.
Coleslaw is another popular picnic dish. If you like spicy, try my Jalapeño Coleslaw with Pimentón. Worried about vampires? Then my Garlic Coleslaw is the ticket. If you want a more traditional slaw, it’s hard to beat Creamy Cole Slaw.
To round out the menu, you might want to cook up a batch of Southern Green Beans with Bacon or Baked Beans.
Save room for dessert! I’m always ready for a classic Root Beer Float.
And to drink? When the weather turns warm, it’s hard to resist a Pimm’s Cup. This isn’t a drink everyone knows — but you should.
Speaking of drinks, Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer in the US. And to celebrate, we’re bringing back our Summer Sippin’ Series. Every week, starting this Wednesday and extending through Labor Day, we’ll feature a different, summer-appropriate drink on Kitchen Riffs. There will still be plenty of food posts — at least one a week. But it’s always fun to cut loose in the summer and enjoy an adult beverage. Or two.
I can’t wait! So see you again after Memorial Day (have a great weekend).
You may also enjoy reading about:
Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Spare Ribs
Barbecued Pork Steaks
Jalapeño Coleslaw with Pimentón
Creamy Cole Slaw
Southern Green Beans with Bacon
German Potato Salad with Bacon
Mustard Potato Salad
French Potato Salad
American (Mayonnaise) Potato Salad
Potato Salad Basics
Root Beer Float