Food & Drink

Make your own barbecue sauce by starting with the basic steps from Chef Tibbs

Few secrets are kept closer than your own special spice blend when making your own barbecue sauce. (Joshua Tibbetts phot
Few secrets are kept closer than your own special spice blend when making your own barbecue sauce. (Joshua Tibbetts photos)

So here we are, in the dead heat of summer. The acrid stench of last week’s fireworks lingering in the neighborhood is finally transforming into the undisputed champions of summer smells: charcoal and wood chips and grilling meat. It’s time to get our char on, and that means time to get together with neighbors, friends and family to argue about who makes the best barbecue sauce.

Few recipes are so prized as one’s own take on barbecue. Few secrets are kept closer than your own special spice blend. Barbecue is intensely personal. There are regional variations such as the mustard and vinegar style from South Carolina. But even within a region, every chef has his or her own take on it. This is as close as it gets to putting your own personality in a bottle.

The word “barbecue” itself came from the Taino Arawak people of the Caribbean: “barabicu,” which meant to grill and smoke meat on a grid of sticks over a fire. Early “barbecue sauces” were nothing like today’s rich, smooth tomato sauce. They were just a marinade of vinegar, salt and pepper to brush on the meat as it cooked. Sugar and ketchup didn’t make their way into the sauce until the 1920s, and the first modern barbecue sauce as we know it today was bottled by Heinz in 1940. Unlike their ketchup, which has remained the gold standard for it’s style, its barbecue sauce was more of an opening shot. The race was on to see who could be the best.

Barbecue sauce is easier to make in a bigger batch than for a single meal, so you should always make a couple extra jars to give away. Besides, nobody wants to listen to how great your sauce was last night. They want to taste it for themselves, so they can truly appreciate how awesome you are.

In a fascinating way, the sauce also illustrates the three basic reasons why people go to restaurants or buy prepared foods.

• No. 1 is convenience. You don’t have time or are in a place where you can’t make your own food, such as when traveling. Most bar and grills, diners and fast food chains fall into this category. Nothing special, no fuss, but quick and reliable. This is buying a big commercial brand sauce at the grocery store.

• No. 2 is secret recipes. You can’t make it if you don’t know the secret. I used to work in a chic Italian restaurant in the ’90s where they put Lawry’s seasoning salt in almost everything. The chef thought the customers were too snobby to know what Lawry’s tasted like so they’d never think to add it at home. A lot of small restaurants make their own sauce with ketchup, vinegar and brown sugar plus a top secret spice blend that only the chef or owner puts together.


• No. 3 is ridiculous extremes. You could make it, but boy that was a lot of work. Most fine dining restaurants land in this category. They tend to be pretty transparent about their recipes, so you know what sort of herculean efforts they went through to make you the best dinner you’ve ever had.

I’ve never been a secret recipe person. This recipe is basically a blueprint to help you explore the wide wonderful world of barbecue and find your own flavor. This will be a No. 3 style recipe, with shortcuts if you like. You’re not going to make my sauce here. You choose your own adventure with this one.

Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua “Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been a professional chef for 28 years. He now is in the banquet kitchen at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.


Makes roughly 2 quarts

This recipe is broken down into sections, where you can choose your own adventure.


1 cup beer (I like a darker malty beer for this, like Lion Bridge’s Compensation)

1 cup sugar (I prefer raw turbinado sugar, but light or dark brown sugar works well also.)

— or —

4 ounces beer

8 ounces sorghum (Sorghum is an earthy sweet syrup. You can find jars of it at New Pioneer or Stringtown grocery.)

Stir your beer and sweetener in a saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Let it cool to room temperature


3/4 pound red bell peppers

1/2 pound yellow onion

28 ounces canned diced tomatoes

3 ounces apple cider vinegar

1 to 2 teaspoons (to taste) pickling spices, finely ground (store-bought blend, or see below for spice ideas)

— or —


substitute 32 ounces ketchup for the tomatoes, onions, peppers and vinegar and spices and skip the charring fun

Char bell peppers whole on the grill or directly on a gas burner, until they get a good amount of blackening on them. Remove seeds and stems and chop into rough dice.

Slice onions into fat rings and blacken them on the grill, then chop into rough dice. Or dice them first and char without oil in a cast iron pan until they get nice black spots on them.

Fill a 10-inch cast-iron pan with tomatoes, cider, onion and bell peppers. Place, uncovered, in 350 degrees oven or over the grill. Let half the liquid evaporate, stirring so it doesn’t scorch.

Pickling Spices

If you choose not to use store-bought ketchup, here is a sample of pickling spices to add to your tomato mix. Blend your spices together in a spice grinder, and then add it sparingly to your recipe. You will have extra. Put the extra mix in a small jar and add it to your spice rack. Smell the spices as you add them to the blender. If they smell good to you, put a little extra in. If you’re not feeling it with this one, leave it out or put less in.

This is your secret blend right here. Take it personally and make it personal. For instance, I love coriander, so I double it to 8 grams. I don’t like cardamom, so I leave that out.

I list them in grams because they’re small, small amounts. I gave some rough teaspoon measurements, also, but that’s not going to be nearly as accurate as grams. Still, it’s a decent starting point regardless.

15 grams (1 teaspoon) yellow mustard seeds

7 grams (1/2 teaspoons black peppercorn

5 grams (1/3 teaspoon) dill seed

4 grams (1/4 teaspoon) coriander seed

3 grams (1/4 teaspoon) cinnamon

3 grams (1/4 teaspoon) allspice

1 gram (1/8 teaspoon) bay leaf

1 to 2 grams (1/8 teaspoon) cloves

2 grams (1/8 teaspoon) cardamom


6 ounces canned chipotles in adobo

— or —

1 1/2 (3 ounces) mild dried chiles, any blend of Ancho, Pasilla, Guajillo, New Mexico or California


De-seed chiles and soak in a sealed Mason jar with just enough hot water to cover them. Ancho chiles are well rounded. New Mexico or California chiles are very fruity and mild. Guajillo chiles have an awesome earthiness that goes great in barbecue. Pasilla chiles have a sort of raisin flavor that will give a steak sauce tang.

Let chiles soak for an hour (or as long as overnight), then puree in a blender. You can push them through a fine strainer afterward to get the little skin particles out. But I will warn you, straining the skins out is messy and takes quite a bit of effort.

The Other Stuff

6-ounce can tomato paste

Few dashes Worcestershire sauce

Few dashes liquid smoke (optional)

Salt and pepper (to taste)

Apple cider vinegar (to taste)

Hot sauce (to taste if you’re into that)

To Finish

Put everything in a small stockpot: Tomato/ketchup, beer caramel, chiles, tomato paste. Go easy on Worcestershire, liquid smoke, vinegar and hot sauce.

Bring it up to temperature over medium low heat. Season with salt and pepper. Taste it a lot. There will be some bitter flavors that will start to transform into savory flavors when it gets enough salt in it.

Once it’s nicely seasoned, you can tweak and tinker with the Worcestershire, vinegar and liquid smoke. Let it almost simmer for half an hour. Next, blend it using a food processor, blender or immersion wand. Taste it again, tinker a bit if you want. The sauce will taste better after sitting in the fridge overnight and the flavors marry.

Don’t forget to take notes, so you can tweak it a little next time you make it. Just don’t let anyone find them. That’s our secret, right?

Source: Joshua Tibbetts

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