It happens every summer, after the sixth cookout or so: The sauce gets old. You've been using the same one at every barbecue, and even if you made it yourself (using, of course, our recipe), your palate is begging for something new. We hear you, and we're here to help.
So what if you don't want to start from scratch? Not a problem—there's plenty you can do to gussy up whatever you have on hand, whether it's store-bought or homemade. We talked to Charlie McKenna, owner of Chicago barbecue destination Lillie's Q, which bottles no less than 11 regional styles, about how to tweak your BBQ sauce.
Fruits and Vegetables: Add some sweetness to tangy, smoky, tomato-based sauces (most "classic" barbecue sauces) in the form of fruit. "Peach and apple go really well with smoky flavors," says McKenna. "You can heat jarred preserves a little to liquefy the pectin and mix that directly into the sauce, or grill the whole fruit and blend it into a puree." Fruit juices and frozen concentrates (try cranberry or orange) add a quick blast of flavor, too. Vegetables are also fair game: "As you grill garlic and onions, you get these great charred and sweet flavors that work really well with a smoky tomato-based sauce," says McKenna. Cook the aromatics until they're soft, then puree and mix in.
Herbs and Heat: The flavor or fresh herbs are easily transfused into thinner vinegar-based sauces. "For tarragon or thyme, use a simple, clean vinegar like champagne or white wine, and let the herbs infuse for a few weeks," McKenna suggests. "A heartier herb like rosemary pairs really well with apple cider vinegar." Hot pepper vinegar is another winner: Steep cayenne or Thai chili peppers in apple cider vinegar for a fiery kick.
Citrus and Spice: Fresh-squeezed juice from oranges (and their cousins, tangerines and clementines), lemons or limes are savvy additions to mayo-based, Alabama-style white sauce, which is traditionally served on barbecued chicken. "The sharp citrus flavor helps cut some of the richness," explains McKenna. Fresh horseradish serves a similar but more nasal-clearing purpose.
Whatever you do, don't get stressed about sauce: "Despite what some barbecue purists might say, it's okay to mix and match a little," says McKenna. "If you like to eat it, then it's right."