I've always had a soft spot for good barbecue, and I include pretty much any meat cooked low and slow for long times when I say that. A key part of BBQ for me is the sauce, and there are many restaurants that do it really really well. In Tucson alone we have Mr. K's (easily the favorite, but quite a drive) and Brushfire BBQ, both of which have amazing sauce. I've been eating a lot of chicken over the past few years, as it's cheap, full of protein, and easy to make delicious. BBQ sauce usually finds its way into either the marinade or goes on top right before I eat it, but it's always been the store-bought stuff. After seeing fantastic results by dousing my chicken in some leftover sauce from Brushfire, it occurred to me that I should try to make my own rather than buy it pre-made. I looked around the internet for recipes and found that not only were the majority of the ingredients were already in my kitchen from making beef jerky, but every recipe (with minor variations) used the same core ingredients. I selected 11 different recipes and gathered all the ingredients necessary. For the preparation, every recipe had some variation on "mix the ingredients, bring to a boil, simmer for a while". To minimize the variance I'm applying the same preparation procedure to each run, whisk together everything on the list, bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat for 45 minutes. I'll be recording my commentary on each batch here, along with anyone I can conscript into giving their thoughts.
Ideally, once a good number of established recipes are tested, I'll have enough information to begin manually probing the phase space. While reading I've come across variations that merit investigation, such as using coffee in place of water, or making an entirely mustard-based sauce. Whiskey and honey variations are also on the list. From all this I hope to arrive at a recipe that I like the most, though I wouldn't be disappointed to accidentally replicate Mr. K's sauce.
Batch #1: The first recipe I tried had the slightly over-the-top name, "The Best Homemade BBQ Sauce Ever". Essentially just ketchup, apple cider vinegar, water, brown sugar (I used dark, other recipes call specifically for light), worcestershire sauce and spices. The first tastes, albeit on its own and with a tortilla chip, yielded lukewarm responses: "Very mild. Doesn't really stand out. More spices would improve it." and "Yep, that's barbecue sauce.". Over scrambled eggs it was totally usable, with just the slightest kick of heat, lots of sweetness and vinegar forming the base of the flavor. Several chicken breasts were marinated in the sauce, cooked at 350 F for 30 minutes and served with the sauce on top. On chicken (first day): It's got a good amount of sweetness, but the rest of the flavor is dominated by vinegar. On the second day I was looking forward to it, tasty, just not life-changing.
Batch #2: For the second trial I decided to go as far afield as I could. I selected this recipe, entitled simply "Absolutely Awesome BBQ Sauce". It drops the cider vinegar entirely and adds a comic amount of hot pepper sauce (I used Tabasco), which does indeed contain plenty of vinegar. In addition is uses rum (dark, I'm guessing), soy sauce, and crushed cloves of garlic, which make it rather unique among the ones I collected. My first impression while cooking it was that it smelled substantially more salty and spicy, and that definitely comes through in the taste. I first tried it over eggs. Quite spicy, especially compared to #1. Definitely more flavors running around, which gives it some depth, but the spiciness needs to come down for it to be competitive for most people. In future iterations I imagine I'll bring the Tabasco down by half and substitute additional ketchup, water, or rum. This one also came out surprisingly thin, consistency-wise.
Batch #3: The third recipe I tried involves yellow mustard, which was a first. Outside of that it held fast to the basic building blocks of ketchup, brown sugar, cider vinegar, and a few spices. It definitely didn't have the super-spicey problem of #2. Just like the others this was tried on chicken breasts and eggs. Strong tangy vinegar and mustard flavor at the fore, with just a hint of heat. My first thought is that this could use black pepper for a little more kick. The second taster confirmed that it was his favorite so far.
Batch #4: The fourth recipe, marketing itself as Big Daddy's Carolina BBQ sauce, was a second vinegar-and-mustard based attempt. In addition, it required an extra ingredient that I don't usually keep on hand: ground white pepper. I was able to pick up a few ounces at the local spice shop for about $3. The preparation also had a minor alteration, a handful of the unique ingredients had to be added in a second heating step, namely the butter, soy sauce, and liquid smoke. I did deviate from the published recipe by reducing the liquid smoke to 1 tsp from 1 tbsp. My initial reactions while preparing this included "Wow, that's really a lot of chili powder", and "this is a lot thinner than the other sauces". There was less apparent mustard taste compared to #3, and a slow building heat as opposed to the instantaneous heat of #2.