Thursday, February 10, 2005

Spent a good portion of this morning making barbecue sauce. Surely you've heard that the map is not the territory. More interestingly, the recipe is not the sauce.

I do know cooks who follow recipes very closely. I generally look at them more as inspiration. And in this case, I made up the recipe myself, so it's clearly a work in progress. Nothing to cling to there.

So -- I started a few years back to develop a barbecue sauce recipe. I knew it should have tomatoes and spiciness to it. A bit of vinegar tang. And I more often bake items with a sauce than actually barbecue over smoke. So a little smoke flavor could certainly help.

So one day, I opened a can of chipotles, took a sniff, and thought -- this smells like barbecue! Aha! Now I know how to get the smokiness and the heat into my sauce! Excellent!

I had a look at other barbecue sauce recipes. None had chipotles in them. Tomatoes, vinegar, sometimes mustard -- there's a lot of variation in them. I wanted one with relatively little sweetness -- no added sugar or corn syrup. I wanted one with a complex flavor. And I wanted to make it from ingredients I could keep on hand.

Onion is always good with meat. Many good recipes start: Saute an onion. Seemed like a good place to start. Butter always tastes rich, and I love garlic, but didn't want it to dominate. So, I started by sauteing half an onion and 2 cloves of garlic in 2 T (tablespoons) of butter. That softened them up nicely, the better to spread them on the meat, later.

In my first iteration, I tried adding some tequila here. Plenty of BBQ sauces seem to have bourbon or the like in them, and I prefer tequila. Didn't seem to add enough flavor to be worth the extra time. I dropped that step in the third trial or so.

Next, tomatoes. Since I wanted my sauce to be thick, and I wanted to make it from the pantry, I used canned tomatoes. Quite a few -- these add the most volume to the sauce. One 16 oz can was convenient.

Next, the chipotles. I didn't want fire alarm hot -- just a nice, tongue-tingling spiciness. Two chopped chipotles and two T of sauce from the can seemed about right.

Vinegar -- helps the sauce penetrate as well as adding flavor. Tasting bit by bit, I found 4 T about right.

Taste again. Tangy enough, but not sufficiently complex. Also, too bright a red -- barbecue sauce needs a dark, mysterious look. Taste -- hmm, do need a little sweetness. 2 T of molasses darkens it some, adds interest, and is ample sweetening for my palate. Still a little too bright, too simple.

So, I looked through the recipes some more. A lot of them called for Worcestershire -- something I don't keep on hand. I do have soy sauce -- aha! 1 T of soy, and I've hit it. This sauce will absolutely DO.

In a sudden excess of whimsy, I gave it the name Oregon Pantry Worcestershire we don't need no stinking Worchestershire Oven Barbecue Sauce. Far too long. Mostly goes by Oven Barbecue Sauce now.

Then -- I had to simmer it until all the pieces softened and the sauce thickened. Long periods on my feet, stirring -- has to be a better way. Blend it! But still too thin. So, I doubled everything but the tomatoes, and traded two 16 oz cans of tomatoes for a 28 oz can of tomatoes and a 7 oz can of tomato paste. More success!

But then -- what was I going to do with those leftover chipotles? They're pretty good chopped and scrambled with eggs. But wouldn't it be more elegant to use them all in the sauce recipe?

So, today's iteration -- tripled most ingredients, one extra garlic clove because they smelled better than usual -- two 28 oz cans of tomatoes and two cans of tomato paste, just because -- and the entire contents of the 7 oz can of chipotles, nicely minced.

It smells and tastes wonderful, and I'm giving it its final trial on some beef short ribs this evening. I can hardly wait.

Did I ever make it quite the same twice? Who knows! It's been good every time.

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