Every time I’ve traveled in Italy, I’m impressed by the micro-regionalism of the food. For example, in Romagna, near Bologna, they make a flatbread called piadina. It’s always the same ingredients: Grade 0 flour, lard from the prized moro pigs, sea salt, baking soda and water. But in one town it’s maybe 5 mm thick, and in the adjacent town it’s more like 6 mm thick, and on and on through the province. And, of course, each of them is the right way to do it.
There aren’t too many hyper-regionalized foods like that in America, but there is one biggie: barbecue. The word evokes clear and specific things depending on where you’re from. Through much of the south it’s pork, slow-roasted and smoked until extremely tender, then pulled and tossed with sauce, though in western Kentucky you’re prone to find mutton, and in Texas it’s brisket and nothing other. (And for those of us who grew up in the Northeast, “barbecue” just means grilling.)
The sauces vary the most. In the Carolinas, they favor a thinner, more vinegary “mop.” In Memphis it’s thicker and sweeter, and smokier in St. Louis. And in Texas you can bet it’s spicier.
It doesn’t stop at a regional level. Q aficionados toil and tinker to develop their own signature recipes, striving to develop the very epitome of their local sauce.
Even here in San Francisco, a place not at all famous for its barbecue culture, my friend Michele makes her own special blend. She gives a nod to the classics, but folds in flavors iconic of San Francisco: Coffee, chocolate, red wine vinegar.
Why not make your own masterpiece? The basic building blocks of barbecue sauce are not esoteric; it’s all about how you put them together. Put your own stamp on it, and develop a microregional cuisine all your own.
Nicely Spicy BBQ Sauce
Grace note: The use of different chiles brings depth and roundness to this sauce. If you like it even spicier, feel free to leave in some or all of the seeds from the chipotles and ancho.
Total time: About two hours
Prep: About 20 minutes
Inactive: 10 minutes
Cook: About an hour and a half
Yield: About 3 pints
2 qts tomato puree
2 c. chopped onion
3 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp hot pepper flake
1 ancho chile, stemmed and seeded and cut into ½” strips
2-3 dry chipotle chiles, stemmed and seeded and cut into ½” strips
1 tsp. celery seed
3 Tbsp salt
1/4 c. bourbon
1 1/4 c. brown sugar, lightly packed
1 1/3 c. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp dry ginger
1 Tbsp dry mustard
10 whole peppercorns
1/2 c. maple syrup
Infuse the sauce. Combine the tomato puree, onion, garlic, hot pepper flake, ancho, chipotle, celery seed and salt in a large, nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until all the vegetables and dry chiles are soft, about 30 minutes.
Prepare the jars and lids. Wash all jars and lids thoroughly with soap and water and rinse well. Fill your canner with enough water to cover the jars by at least 1” and bring to a simmer. Using a pair of canning tongs, lower the jars in gently, tilting them to fill with the hot water. In a small saucepan, keep some water warm but not boiling; place the lids in the water. Have an additional kettle of water on to boil.
Strain the sauce. Ladle the sauce into a fine-mesh sieve over a large bowl or other container, pressing with the back of the ladle to extract as much sauce while leaving solids behind. Alternatively, use a food mill for the same effect. Once strained, return the sauce to the saucepan.
Finish the sauce. Place the peppercorns in a tea infuser or cheesecloth sachet, and add to the sauce. Add the bourbon, brown sugar, vinegar, ginger, mustard and maple syrup. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently to prevent sticking or scorching, until thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove the sachet of peppercorns, and remove sauce from heat.
Fill and close the jars. Using canning tongs, remove the jars from the canner, carefully pouring the water back into the canner. Set next to the sauce in the saucepan. Turn the heat under the canner to high. Use a ladle to pour the sauce into the jars through a canning funnel, leaving 1/2″ headspace at the top. Run a clean chopstick around the inside of the jar to dislodge any trapped air. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp paper towel. Place the lids on, and screw on the rings until just finger-tight.
Seal the jars. Using canning tongs, gently transfer the jars to the canner, taking care to keep them vertical. When all the jars are in the canner, there should be at least 1” water covering them; if you need more, add water from the kettle until the jars are sufficiently covered. Bring the water to a full rolling boil, and process for 10 minutes.
Remove and cool. Using canning tongs, gently remove the jars from the canner and transfer them to a kitchen towel or cooling rack, again keeping them vertical. Do not set hot jars directly on to cool counter surfaces. Leave to cool, undisturbed, for at least 12 hours. If any of the jars do not seal when cool, reprocess using the method above, or refrigerate and use immediately.
Label and store. Add a label to the lid or side of your jar, noting the date it was canned. Remove the rings and store jars in a cool, dark place for up to one year. Refrigerate after opening.
Sean Timberlake is a professional writer, amateur foodie, avid traveler and all-around bon vivant. He is the founder of Punk Domestics, a content and community site for DIY food enthusiasts, and has penned the blog Hedonia since 2006. He lives in San Francisco with his husband, DPaul Brown, and their hyperactive terrier, Reese.