Make Your Own BBQ Sauce From Scratch

Happy Holidays! We’re in the middle of a snowstorm here in Martha’s Vineyard. (But that won’t prevent us from grilling.) So naturally, our thoughts turn to how to combine our great love of barbecue with holiday gift giving.

Walk down the condiment aisle of any grocery or gourmet store, and you’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of different barbecue sauces, incorporating everything from watermelon to premium brands of bourbon.

So why would I propose—as I’m doing now—that you set aside an afternoon or evening and make your own barbecue sauce from scratch? Simple. It makes a truly original gift (more on this below), it’s fun, and it’s a badge of honor, as the seasoned grillmeisters on the Barbecue Board can tell you.

Before I reveal my strategies for making great sauces, let me tell you about one afternoon that will go down in BBQ U history.

My friend, Dr. Rich Davis, accepted an invitation to be a “visiting professor” to conduct a sauce seminar at a recent session of BBQ University. If you’ve read BBQ USA (see page 694), you’re familiar with Dr. Davis: He is an icon in the barbecue and business worlds. In 1977, he left the medical profession and founded KC Masterpiece, the most successful premium barbecue sauce in the country. The brand was later sold to the Kingsford division of Clorox.

Dressed in a shirt that plots the American barbecue trail, the genial Dr. Davis had his audience in the palm of his hand from the moment he started discussing the history of barbecue sauce. (According to Rich, the first American barbecue sauce was salt water.) His knowledge of barbecue culture and lore astounded. And the fact that he looks at least a decade younger than his 80 years had everyone in the room wondering if the “Fountain of Youth” might be in Kansas City-style barbecue sauces.

A sauce tasting followed. Then we divided the BBQ U students into teams. We issued butane burners and basic recipes and a pantry of potential ingredients. The assignment? Develop a winning barbecue sauce, creatively named and labeled. First prize? A bottle of KC Masterpiece, symbolically spray-painted gold and autographed by Dr. Davis. And the once in a lifetime opportunity to have their recipe published in my next book, Raichlen on RIBS! (due out next spring). I’ll print a preview of the recipe for “Bunker Blast Barbecue Sauce,” which triumphed in the contest, in a future issue of this newsletter.

The event was educational and very entertaining—and talk about a theme for a party!

If you’re interested in developing your own barbecue sauce, here are Raichlen’s six simple rules for sauce success:

  • GET OFF TO A GOOD START: Many barbecue sauces begin with ketchup—the pit master’s equivalent of a blank canvas. Other pit masters start with a basic commercial barbecue sauce and “doctor” it up. Use only the best and freshest ingredients you can buy. Shop for spices where there’s a lot of turnover, and replace them every six months.
  • LESS IS MORE: Use restraint when adding strong seasonings such as hot sauce, cumin, Worcestershire sauce, etc. Position a container of disposable tasting spoons near the stovetop and taste your sauce often, making incremental adjustments. If you’re not sure an ingredient will be compatible, ladle a small amount of the master mixture into a cup, add a proportional amount of the new ingredient, and taste. That way, you won’t ruin the entire batch.
  • KEEP IT BALANCED: Like wine, the best barbecue sauces have parity between their sweet and acidic elements. Play the sweetness of brown sugar or honey against the tang of vinegar, wine, or lemon juice. Pair the fruitiness of apple cider or marmalade with the pungency of garlic and onion. Use water—yes, plain water—to smooth out the flavors.
  • THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX: Some of the best barbecue sauces I’ve tasted contained something completely wacky or unexpected, like coffee, grape jelly, soft drinks, and in one case, cough syrup! An oddball ingredient will give your sauce personality.
  • LET THE FLAVORS DEVELOP SLOWLY: Use a heavy pot over low to medium heat. (Sauces with sugar can burn easily.) A pancake turner or spatula used like a spoon maximizes contact with the bottom and sides of a pot, and works well with viscous, easily scorched ingredients. Most barbecue sauces improve with age. Try to give your sauce two or three days, or even a week in the refrigerator, tightly covered.
  • KNOW WHEN TO APPLY THE SAUCE: Generally, barbecue sauces should be applied the last 5 to 10 minutes of cooking so the sugars don’t burn. Alternatively, they can be served (warmed or at room temperature, please) on the side.

For more information on making barbecue sauce, see Steven’s Barbecue Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades

As I mentioned earlier, homemade barbecue sauces make unique and appreciated gifts for friends and family. I asked my assistant, Nancy, to suggest some creative packaging ideas which you’ll find below the recipes. (I figured she’d be better in that department than me.)

Use the guidelines above, and you could be the next Barbecue Sauce Mogul. If you prefer to start with a tried and true recipe, my gifts to you this holiday season are two previously unpublished recipes for barbecue sauces from my new book, Raichlen on RIBS! (Workman Publishing).


Source: Raichlen on Ribs by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing, 2006)
Yield: About 2 cups

1/4 cup dark rum
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup ketchup

Place the rum, soy sauce, honey, sugar, lime juice, orange juice, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a heavy nonreactive saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until syrupy, 3 to 5 minutes.

Stir in the ketchup and 2 to 3 tablespoons water and gently simmer the sauce until thick and flavorful, 6 to 10 minutes. Correct seasoning, adding more soy sauce if salt is desired, more brown sugar if sweetness is desired, more lime juice if tartness is desired, and more rum if you agree with Mark Twain’s claim that “too much” liquor is “just enough.”

Let the sauce cool to room temperature for serving. It can be refrigerated, covered, for several days. Bring to room temperature before serving.


Inspired by Diana Fick of “The Princesses of Barbecue” team.
Source: Raichlen on Ribs (Workman Publishing, 2006)
Yield: About 2-1/2 cups

1-1/2 cups ketchup
1/4 cup Jack Daniels or your favorite Tennessee whiskey
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1-1/2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon pickled jalapeño pepper juice, or more to taste
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 to 3 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon chili powder
1-1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon celery salt

Place the ketchup, Jack Daniels, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, mustard, vinegar, water, pepper juice, brown sugar, cayenne, chili powder, garlic powder, and celery salt in a saucepan and whisk to mix. Place the pan over medium heat and gently simmer until thick and richly flavored, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often. Cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate if not using immediately.


  • Collect cool-looking canning jars. Two good sources are Kitchen Conservatory, which stocks old-fashioned Ball canning jars, and Weck Canning, which sells European jars with clamped lids and rubber gaskets. If using Kerr canning lids, dress them up with circles of fabric or medium-weight art paper; cut circles 2 inches larger than the diameter of the jar lid, shape, and secure around the collar with jute twine, butcher’s string, ribbon, or copper or brass wire. Label the jars—and don’t forget to advise refrigeration. (Manila tags from office supply stores are large enough to write on and/or decorate.) Or design your own label and print it on a peel-off mailing label.
  • Suitable containers for your gift includes sturdy boxes, wine totes, plain handled gift bags decorated to order and stuffed with tissue paper, tin pails or lunch boxes, baskets, wooden boxes, pottery mixing bowls filled with excelsior, even an empty six-pack carton, spray painted and lined with tissue (tie a basting brush to the handle with ribbon or raffia). Tie a bandana, hobo-style, around a pint jar and affix it to a long-handled basting brush.
  • Combine your sauces with compatible gifts such as basting brushes, skewers, homemade or purchased barbecue rubs or brines, cookbooks, an instant-read thermometer, tongs, a rib rack, apron, insulated barbecue gloves, etc.


Many of you have written in requesting suggestions for barbecue “stocking stuffers.” We checked in with Jeff Wallace, who runs the Barbecue Store for us. Here’s what he recommends:

Extra Long Suede Glove Set: Use these extra-long gloves as Christmas stockings! They’re a full 18 inches long, and will protect your hands and arm from heat all the way up to the elbow. You’ll want to keep an extra pair by the fireplace.

Instant Read Meat Thermometer: Professional pit masters leave nothing to chance. They rely on meat thermometers when grilling or barbecuing. An oversized dial makes this thermometer easy to read.

Insulated Food Gloves: If you’ve ever “pulled” a pile of hot pork with your bare hands or tried to ease a barbecued chicken off a beer can, you’ll appreciate how useful these heavy-duty rubber gloves can be.

All of us at wish you happy holidays and a healthy, smokin’ 2006.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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