How Honey Can Help You Be A Better Barbecuer
Barbecue sauces can use literally dozens of ingredients, I’ve seen sauces flavored with everything from coffee to cranberry sauce to cough syrup. But whether you’re making a simple North Carolina-style vinegar sauce, a South Carolina mustard sauce (see below), or a Kansas City-style everything-but-the-kitchen sink sauce, there’s one component you can’t do without: balance.
The goal of any good sauce is to meld the contrasting elements—sour, salty, aromatic, hot, and of course, sweet—into a harmonious whole.
Long before I got into barbecue, my wife Barbara (girlfriend at the time) had a secret for turning any commercial barbecue sauce into an irresistible condiment. She’d mix the sauce with equal proportions of honey and orange marmalade. The marmalade added a bitter fruit flavor, while the honey smoothed the rough edges. And if you brushed it on the last few minutes of grilling, you got a sizzling, smoky, caramelized crust.
But don’t take my word for it. Travel the world’s barbecue trail and you’ll find fantastic honey-based barbecue sauces, marinades, brines, vinaigrettes, and glazes across Planet Barbecue.
This versatile sweetener has been enjoyed by mankind for thousands of years; cave paintings in Spain depict humans foraging for honeycombs some 8,000 years ago. It not only has the same relative sweetness as table sugar and keeps almost indefinitely, but it gives a satisfying viscosity and gloss to sauces and glazes, and promotes caramelization on smoked or grilled foods, including meat, vegetables, and fruits.
Like wine, honey is dependent on terroir and its region of origin. Even modest supermarkets now carry several varieties, including wild and raw. (You may still notice the little bear-shaped containers of our youth on shelves, too.) Many are quite floral, such as orange blossom or clover, while others, like manuka (a flower native to New Zealand), are more exotic. Honey infused with chile peppers is also popular with chefs and pit masters. One popular brand is Mike’s Hot Honey.
Honey Barbecue Recipes
Below are a few of my favorite honey-based recipes. Note: Because honey is inherently sticky and sweet, it scorches easily. Apply any sauces or glazes on food the last few minutes of direct or indirect grilling, and keep a watchful eye on it. You can always serve more sauce on the side.
A trio of sweeteners—honey, brown sugar, and molasses—pair with ketchup, rum, and warm-flavored spices for the kind of sauce much appreciated in American barbecue circles, especially Kansas City. (Actually, the recipe was shared with me several years ago by the Kansas City Barbecue Society and first appeared in my book Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades.) Brush it on pork ribs, brisket, ham, salmon, oysters, shrimp, chops, or chicken the last few minutes of cooking. See my Note above.
These wings (which would be perfect for Super Bowl Sunday) take on a distinctly Asian flavor profile thanks to a marinade featuring honey, soy sauce, ginger, and Chinese five-spice powder, likely one of the most aromatic spices in your pantry. (Be sure to pick up a fresh jar if you suspect yours is more than 6 months old.) I like to use whole wings for this recipe, stretching them out on skewers to maximize their surface area. But feel free to substitute drumettes and flats, if desired. Provide plenty of napkins! These wings are sticky. But oh-so-good.
North Carolina is known for its thin, mouth-puckering vinegar sauces, while in South Carolina, they prefer a piquant, mustard- and honey-based sauce sold commercially as Carolina Gold Barbecue Sauce. Both were championed by German immigrants in the 1800s and are intended to cut the fattiness of pork—pork shoulder, a whole pig, a loin, ribs, chops, etc. Try this sauce on ham, chicken, or salmon, too. Also good mixed into potato salad or baked beans. I prefer to make it with Dijon mustard, but Cheap Yellow Mustard works, too. The choice is yours.
This simple recipe, which takes only minutes to make, combines Merlot (feel free to use another good red wine, if desired), honey, balsamic vinegar, and sugar for a glaze that complements duck, salmon, pork tenderloin, or chicken.