For some time now, commercial barbecue sauce has been progressing from its Dark Ages, when slow-smoked meats were tortured with bland, sweet, corporate slathers, to a more enlightened era of complex boutique sauces flavored with ingredients from habaneros to peaches. The homemade sauces in our second annual barbecue sauce recipe contest reflect that evolution.
We received sauces that contained a pantry full of ingredients: cocoa powder, cider jelly, fresh plums, mangoes, apricots, chipotle peppers, tamarind paste, smoked beer, Asian pear, Mexican chocolate and more.
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Such enlightenment -- better than the bad old days, to be sure -- has its own problems. It was tough sometimes to determine whether something could be considered a barbecue sauce, per se, or a different kind of sauce entirely.
The sauces seem to exemplify a paradoxical trend in contemporary barbecue. On one hand, the craft sauce makers create flavors for niche tastes. On the other, taken as a whole, the anything-goes sauces speak to the homogenizing of this once fiercely regional cuisine.
This year, we changed up things. Rather than pick the top three vote-getters from among all entries, we selected a tomato-based sauce winner, a mustard-based sauce winner and an alternative sauce winner.
It is argued that you cannot taste a barbecue sauce without barbecue. Fair enough. But which barbecue? The sauce takes on a different flavor depending on the meat it accompanies. We looked, first and foremost, for a good-tasting sauce. We'll figure the meat part out later. It was my call to use plastic spoons for judging.
The readers responsible for the winning recipes are a varied lot. They bring their experiences to their cooking, which is reflected in their sauces.
The winner of the tomato-based category is Betty Newell, a retiree "in my seventies" who lives with her husband of 55 years in the Shenandoah Valley town of Massanutten, Va.
Her zingy, thinnish red sauce, which she says goes especially well with ribs, owes its origin to the pepper-vinegar sauce she tasted during summertime visits to Ayden, N.C., home of one of America's barbecue temples.
"I kind of grew up with barbecue," says Newell, who worked various health-related jobs in the nonprofit sector, "because my cousin, Pete Jones, ran the Skylight Inn."
She remembers not just the flavor but even the sound of that hallowed barbecue shack that opened in 1947 and traces founder Jones' family history in commercial barbecue back to the 1800s. Southern Living magazine recently named the Skylight Inn one of the South's 10 best barbecue restaurants in its 2012 'Cue Awards, the latest in a long line of accolades.
"A sound I will always associate with being a kid on summer vacation is the chop, chop, chop, chop, chop of that meat cleaver on the wooden chopping block," she says.
She developed her sauce shortly after moving to the Northern Virginia suburbs with her husband 55 years ago. In a nod to the Skylight Inn, she begins with fresh chili peppers, which are chopped and submerged in vinegar for a week. Drawing upon the sweeter, thicker style favored in the Washington area, she adds ketchup, molasses, soy sauce, Worcestershire and (gulp) liquid smoke.
"I liked the barbecue (of North Carolina), but the sauce was so twangy and spicy," she says. "I wasn't crazy about the whole thing.
"Of course, in Virginia, when you get barbecue you pour ketchup on it," she continues, laughing. "I took the best of both."
The mustard sauce winner is Janelle Thomas, 29, a 911 dispatcher who lives with her husband and their 4-year-old son in Suitland, Md. Her thick, spicy-hot sauce, spiked with horseradish mustard, is a little chunky with minced garlic and ochre-colored from a splash of ketchup.
"I've been cooking since I was a little girl," says Thomas, who was grew up in D.C. "My grandmother was from Columbia, S.C., and I spent a lot of time just watching her."
Thomas' sauce, though, owes at least as much to television. "I learned from the Food Network," she says. "Bobby Flay. 'Boy Meets Grill.' Other shows, too. But mainly Bobby Flay."
No long-held family secret, the sauce Thomas developed was made an hour before she sent in the recipe. "I remember my grandmother always had a mustard-based sauce and I never liked it," she says. "But I thought, let me try my hand at it. I wanted to do something different. When you put those flavors together, it's like an explosion in your mouth."
The winner of the alternative category is John Scofield, who moved to Washington from his native Oregon about 20 years ago to intern with then-U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield. "My plan was to leave after three years," says Scofield, 39, who owns a government-relations firm. "But I guess I'm a typical story. I stayed around."
He credits his wife's heritage for the Asian accent of his thick, nicely balanced sauce and his Oregon roots for his overall barbecue sensibility.
"My sauce is a hybrid," he says. "My wife is second-generation Chinese-American, so I love Asian-influenced barbecue. But I also love Texas barbecue, North Carolina barbecue. I don't have a violent allegiance to Texas or east or west North Carolina. If it's smoked, I like it. I like throwing everything in the mix."
Scofield created the sauce one evening a few years ago when friends were coming over for barbecue and he realized he didn't have any sauce in the house. He grabbed ingredients he had around, such as Sriracha, hoisin sauce, an orange, some seasoned rice wine vinegar, ketchup and Dijon mustard to create what he says works especially well as a finishing glaze on pork tenderloin.
"I just took all the good things about barbecue and put them together," he says.