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How to Make BBQ Sauce: Finishing Sauces

Looking for the perfect finishing sauce for chicken, pulled pork or beef? We’ll teach you how to make barbecue sauce that suits your style.

In our previous DIY barbecue installments, we showed you how to marinate steak and to make a dry rub for ribs and other meats. Today, you’ll learn how to add the crowning touch of flavor with a finishing sauce for chicken, pulled pork…even a steak!

Tasty grilled chicken breasts with an herbal garnish on a platter accompanied by grilled zucchini squash wedges.

How to Make Barbecue Sauce

Oh, if it were only that simple. Actually, it is…but first you have to know what kind of sauce you want. And there are diverse styles that differ from region to region:

  • In Memphis, pork is the thing—especially pulled pork seasoned with a dry rub and finished with a thin, tangy, tomato-based sauce.
  • North Carolina also loves its pork (usually pork shoulder or ribs), but prefers to mop it with a spice-and-vinegar mixture while cooking and serve it with a ketchup-based sauce.
  • South Carolina cooks pretty much the same way, except their pork butt is usually finished with a mustard-based sauce containing brown sugar and vinegar.
  • In Kansas City, where beef and pork (especially beef brisket) are cooked extra low and slow over hickory wood, the sauce is thick with tomato and sweet with molasses.
  • Brisket is also king in Texas, where regions are mostly defined by which type of wood they use. In East Texas, where they love their chopped brisket, the sauce is sweet and tomato-based with plenty of hot sauce. South Texas prefers a thick, molasses-like sauce. Central Texas sauce is thinner and less sweet, and West Texas cooks add Southwestern flavors like cumin and chili powder.

Homemade Barbecue Sauce Recipe

While sauces vary regionally, most commercial brands model theirs after a generic fallback style. Making your own will give you much better flavor than store brands, and this basic recipe can serve as a springboard for other styles with just a couple of additions. It makes an excellent finishing sauce for chicken, pulled pork or ribs.

2 cups ketchup

¼ cup cider vinegar

¼ cup packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons molasses

2 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons Basic Dry Rub

1 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a nonreactive saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until sauce darkens and thickens, about 15 minutes.

Kansas City-Style Barbecue Sauce

2 tablespoons bacon drippings

1 cup chopped white onion

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Basic Barbecue Sauce

Melt drippings in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook another 1 minute. Add above sauce, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer 30 minutes.

Memphis-Style Barbecue Sauce

Make Kansas City-Style Barbecue Sauce as above, with the following changes:

  • Replace ketchup with basic tomato sauce
  • Increase vinegar to 2/3 cup
  • Reduce brown sugar to 2 tablespoons
  • Increase molasses to 1/3 cup
  • Reduce mustard to 2 teaspoons
  • Add 1 tablespoon Louisiana hot sauce

Texas-Style Barbecue Sauce

Make your choice of Kansas City or Memphis-Style Barbecue Sauce as above, replacing dry rub with chili powder (use a blend containing cumin) and replacing hot sauce with 2–4 chipotle chiles in adobo, finely minced.

Just remember, a barbecue sauce is not meant to soak the meat like a marinade, or be applied while cooking like a “mop” would be. The sugars in a barbecue sauce will burn if applied too soon in the cooking process—especially on a grill—so it should only be used as a finishing sauce for pulled pork and other meats. If anything, only brush it on for the last few minutes of barbecuing.

Four selections of seasoned, grilled Black Angus steak on a white serving platter with a steak knife.

Finishing Sauces for Beef

Of course, you’re not always in the mood for barbecue…and most people wouldn’t dream of putting barbecue sauce (or any sauce) on a steak anyway. But there have been many sauces created just for beef over the years, with certain ingredients designed to enhance and complement the fine flavor of a premium cut.

A classic béarnaise sauce has long been a popular accompaniment for steak, and there is nothing like a mushroom-wine sauce for filets mignons. Along the same lines, a mushroom-Madeira sauce is a huge step up from plain brown gravy for a fine beef roast.

These finishing sauces are never applied during cooking, even for a few minutes. As the name implies, they are used only as a “finishing” touch, to be passed around the table like gravy, or artfully applied when plating the final dish.

And if you simply don’t have the time to prepare your own sauce but want to offer something that’s much more special than the plastic squeeze bottle from the supermarket, there are excellent gourmet finishing sauces that complement a wide variety of grilled fare, or make an excellent finishing sauce for chicken, pulled pork, and other barbecue.