In my experience, barbecue sauce is an extremely personal decision. Much like ordering a coffee at Starbucks, everyone is looking for something different in their BBQ–sweet, salty, smoky, etc. For example, I’m really not a fan of the liquid smoke taste in my barbecue sauce. In my opinoin, too much faux smoke taste can ruin a juicy ribeye faster than you can say, “Kansas-City style.” Other people hate a pervasive vinegar flavor or lingering sweetness.
That said, shopping at a discount chain where only one (or maybe two) varieties make up the entire barbecue sauce section can be a little bit discouraging for a trained and picky palate. But I hope with these tips you’ll be able to make the best of a bad situation without too much hard work using items that are probably already in your panty or refrigerator.
Problem #1: This sauce is too sweet.
Chances are, if you’ve got a super-sweet sauce it’s particularly dark in color and has almost a thick, jelly-like consistency to it. This usually means they’ve stumped their toe on a fake honey flavoring, like corn syrup. To remedy this problem, you have to balance its natural flavors. And what do we always pair with honey flavoring in our teas, chicken and other tasties? That’s right! Lemon juice. Heat the sauce a little (not too much, as excessive sugar tends to scorch) and slowly add lemon juice (a teaspoon or less at a time), tasting often to determine when balance has been achieved. If the sauce waters down too much, you can either add a little cornstarch to the heated sauce, or leave it on heat for a few minutes to evaporate out excess liquid. Either way, it should thicken a little when you cool it anyway.
Problem # 2: This sauce has a strong vinegar taste.
If the sauce tastes more like a vinagrette than a marinade, you can generally “pH balance” your sauce with a little bit of brown sugar to mask the acidity. (Or if you want to make a fun science fair volcano, you could try adding baking soda and lemon juice to a bottle of BBQ and watch it explode all over your kitchen walls! Hmm. I wonder if that could really happen. Probably not. Let’s ask Bill Nye.)
Or, if you don’t want to make the sauce necessarily sweeter when lessening the vinegar taste, you can always whip out your unsweetened cocoa powder (I’m a huge fan of using this in weird ways…see “cooking with TVP” if you don’t believe me). Seriously, though, it works. Try it.
Problem #3: This sauce has too much liquid smoke flavor.
Okay, whoever thought up liquid smoke should, as far as I’m concerned, be shot. Unless they are already dead, in which case I hope hell has fake smoke fumes instead of real ones so they finally get their come-uppance via wicked karma. Not only does it taste nasty, it’s actually currently under scientific investigation in Europe after having been labeled as genotoxic and linked to DNA damage within animal cells and possible lymphoma in test mice. Cancer sauce, anyone?
That aside, here’s what you do when there’s way too much smoky crap in there. Heat up the sauce, add a little tomato paste or ketchup (whichever you have on hand), and stir. Continue heating and stirring between additions and keep addition portions small (about a tablespoon or two at a time) until the smoke flavoring has dissipated a bit. If sauce has become bland in the process, consider adding a mixture of other common ingredients like those above (brown sugar, vinegar, lemon juice, etc) in small doses until the spice is back up to par.
Granted, all of this doctoring looks like a lot of work when it’s listed out like this, but these are good tips to have on hand when cooking with any sort of sauce, not just purchased barbecue, as quick fixes when you’ve accidentally added a strong flavor to a half-finished recipe and don’t want to start over.
Good luck, and happy Q-ing!