Monday, May 05, 2008

Gettin' saucy!

So my guy and I were doing the grocery shopping the other day. He decided we needed barbecue sauce - quite rightly, because the weather is getting nicer at long last, and I've started making pretty much every meal on the grill. Before the big move-in-together, I lived for three years in an apartment that was nice in every way but one - there was no access to the outside. (Oh, and the water pressure was terrible, and the girl upstairs starting turning tricks in her apartment about a year ago. But really, the no-outdoors thing was the biggest problem.) So, no garden and, tragically, no grill. During the hottest months of the year, I was loathe to use the stove for anything, given the way the afternoon sun would beat on the uninsulated roof of the kitchen. I ate nothing but frozen fruit bars and cereal for two months a year.

So, of course, I found a guy who owned a grill and convinced him to move in with me to an apartment with a porch. Problem solved.

Now, generally, I'm not crazy about the traditional barbecue sauce you buy in the stores. It's too sweet for my tastes. I prefer the vinegar-based sauce usually called "Carolina-style." But I don't object overly to the thick, sweet red sauce occasionally. I do, however, object to high-fructose corn syrup.

"What's the first ingredient?"

"High fructose corn syrup."

"Put it down. What about that one?"

"High fructose corn syrup."

And so it went, bottle after bottle. Finally, I spied a jar of Bone-Sucking Sauce, a brand I've tried before and liked. Ingredients: Tomato Paste, Apple Cider Vinegar, Honey, Molasses, Mustard, Horseradish, Lemon Juice, Onions, Garlic, Peppers, Natural Hickory Smoke Flavor, Natural Spices, Salt & Xanthan Gum.

Now, that I could live with. I started to put it in the cart.

"Um, babe? It's $5.99."

And so it was. For 16 oz. I put it back, but not before I had looked again at the ingredients: tomato paste, onions, garlic, vinegar, sweeteners, and spice. Really, how hard could it be?

So I bought a can of tomato paste (ingredient: tomatoes) and another of crushed tomatoes (ingredients: tomatoes, salt), and was on my way.

Now, I can't really give you a recipe, because I was winging it. I looked online, but lost patience, because almost every recipe I found started with ketchup. You know what almost all ketchup has? You got it, high-fructose corn syrup. I was starting with tomatoes, damnit, and no one seemed to have pointers for doing that. Even my beloved Helen Witty, whose cookbooks have lead me through the home preparation of banana ketchup, real grenadine, and potted cheese, had nothing to say on the subject. I was on my own.

I started with mincing two onions and about six big cloves of garlic, then cooking them until translucent in a little olive oil. Then I add the can of tomato paste (12 oz) and the can of crushed tomatoes (28 oz). At this point I was pretty much making tomato sauce. I figured that barbecue sauce was just tomato sauce with different spices, vinegar and sweetener. Which turned out to be right, but I underestimated the importance, or rather the quantity, of vinegar and sweetener involved. After everything has simmered for a little while and started to reduce, I added some dry mustard, chile powder, black pepper, cumin and salt. I didn't want to use liquid smoke, because the whole concept of liquid smoke kind of freaks me out. Instead, for smokiness I used the sauce from a small can of chipotles in adobe and a goodly-sized spoonful of smoked paprika. Then I added about 1/4 cup of light brown sugar and about 1/4 cup of cane syrup I had left over from making a pecan pie, plus about 1/2 cup of white vinegar.

Then I tasted it. It tasted very much like tomato sauce that had taken a vacation in Texas. First you tasted tomato, then smoke and spice and heat. But mostly, tomato.

More sugar. More vinegar. Taste. More sugar. Simmer it longer. More vinegar. Simmer. Simmer some more.

At this point, J. started saying that the kitchen smelled delicious. And it did. But the sauce still didn't taste quite like barbecue sauce.

I added a little more sugar.

In the end, I ended up using about 2 cups of sweetener, plus somewhere between 1 and 1 1/2 cups of vinegar. I would have preferred a nice dark molasses to sweeten, but I was out. Instead, I used up some dried-out dark brown sugar that was no longer usable for baking, the end of the cane syrup and some light brown sugar.

The sugars were the most expensive part of the mix. The paste was $1, the crushed tomatoes $1.50, the sugars altogether about $1.50. Add another 50 cents or so for the spices and vinegar, and I estimate the whole batch cost less than five dollars. I filled three pint containers. Given the minimal work involved, I would definitely say it was worth the effort.

And the flavor? I like it very much. It takes some simmering for the flavors to meld. I would say I let it go on very low for two hours, total, stirring whenever I remembered to. But the end result was exactly was I was hoping for - definitely bbq sauce, but not so sweet as the supermarket variety, with more complexity of spicing and more tomato presence. I froze two containers and kept one in the fridge. Given the high sugar and acid levels, I suspect it will keep for some time. Of course, if the weather holds, it probably won't have to.