Just in time for Fourth of July, I’ve checked another from-scratch food attempt off the list: barbecue sauce.
I’ve been obsessed for a while with making a barbecue sauce based on bourbon and vanilla bean. I like bourbon in barbecue sauce quite a lot, for the smoky-woody kick it provides. The vanilla is vastly less traditional, but there’s some method to my madness: “bourbon vanilla” is so-called, after all, because it smells an awful lot like bourbon. So I figured that the vanilla would bring out the sweet-and-mellow of the bourbon, and vice versa. If nothing else, it would be an odd little deviation from the barbecue sauce norm.
I also knew I wanted to do a sauce that wasn’t ketchup-based. Nothing against ketchup–a burger’s not a burger without it–but I wanted to play with cleaner, less-processed flavors, the better to show off the flavors of whiskey and vanilla. So I decided to base my sauce on tomato paste instead. I opted for honey over molasses or brown sugar as a sweetener, to keep the flavor profile light and unmuddied. And though I was tempted to toss in a mess of spices, to make up for the complexity lost by not using ketchup, in the end I decided to keep things simple: smoked paprika, cumin, salt.
The result of all this experimentation is a thick, bright, brick-red sauce. This one is more on the sweet-and-tangy side than the smoky-spicy side. I chickened out and only used a little vanilla, so that the flavor got a bit lost in the final sauce; I’ve adjusted the recipe to call for a whole bean. I’ve also been waffling back and forth about whether this sauce is too tomato-y–one taste and it’s fine, the next and it’s a little off. I may play around with that proportion next time.
So for a first try? Not bad. Room for improvement? Yes. Bourbon and vanilla playing well together in barbecue sauce? Seems that way.
Bourbon Vanilla Barbecue Sauce (makes about 2 cups)
1/2 white or yellow onion, diced
3-4 garlic cloves, lightly crushed with a knife
1 jalapeno, serrano or habanero pepper (depending on your heat preference), halved and seeded
3/4 cup (one 6 oz can) tomato paste
3/4 cup honey
1/2 cup bourbon whiskey
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped OR 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
Salt to taste
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently to dissolve the tomato paste and honey. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes, or until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the sauce from the heat and pour it through a fine mesh strainer to remove the solids. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
Use immediately while still warm, or let cool to room temperature and store in the refrigerator in a covered container for up to a week.