KITCHEN TO KITCHEN: Make Your Own Flavorite Barbecue Sauce

Sidonie Maroon kitchen to kitchen
Posted 5/15/24

By Sidonie Maroon

Culinary Educator for the Food Co-op


Would you like to develop a signature barbecue sauce, but need help understanding what makes them tick? Well, I’m …

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KITCHEN TO KITCHEN: Make Your Own Flavorite Barbecue Sauce


By Sidonie Maroon

Culinary Educator for the Food Co-op


Would you like to develop a signature barbecue sauce, but need help understanding what makes them tick? Well, I’m here with flavor 101, and after this article you’ll be well on your way towards bottling your own.

The best barbecue sauces balance and amplify the five flavors, and what are the five flavors? Straight up, they are sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, but as I’ll explain, it gets a little more nuanced for a really something sauce.


Sweetness balances out other flavors and reduces bitterness.

Sourness adds brightness and contrast to the dish.

Saltiness enhances other flavors, improves taste perception, and helps to balance sweetness.

Bitterness adds complexity and depth to the flavor profile, making the sauce more interesting and sophisticated.

Umami adds a savory or meaty taste that is often associated with foods like meat, mushrooms, soy sauce, and aged cheeses.


What about spicy-hot, isn’t it a flavor?

Spiciness, like from capsaicin found in chili peppers, adds a fiery or spicy kick to the dish, and causes a sensation of heat or burning in the mouth, whereas the five flavors are perceived by the tastebuds. Spicy heat adds a lot to the complexity of a sauce, especially when not overdone.


Tip: Incorporate all five flavors to create a well-rounded sauce that stimulates multiple taste receptors on the palette.


Add Complexity

Typically, when purchasing a bottle of Stubb’s barbecue sauce at the grocery store, the label will list the ingredients in the following order: Tomato paste, distilled vinegar, sugar, molasses, salt, black pepper, paprika, chili pepper powder, cornstarch, brown sugar, onion powder, garlic powder, guar gum, xanthan gum, and natural hickory smoke flavor.

Referring to our five flavors: (tomato paste), sour (distilled vinegar), sweet (white sugar), mineral-sweet (molasses), salty (salt), the black pepper and chili pepper add heat, and the onion and garlic powder umami. The rest are thickeners. The hickory smoke is a spicy sweet.

Bitter is missing, unsurprisingly, while sweet is amplified. What does this do? It creates a flat experience. The first taste will be great, but then the taste receptors will keep searching for something to contrast to the sweet. Nothing, so your mouth will bounce back and forth between salty, sour and sweet in the typical way.

This is ok, nothing here to surprise the palette, but it relies too heavily on sugar and salt to satisfy. I don’t know about you, but I use distilled vinegar to wash my windows. The flavor significantly diminishes whenever you use powdered spices.


Let’s look at my Sassy Sauce, a Vietnamese inspired barbecue sauce.

It has seven distinct flavor categories

Acidic Umami: 6-ounce can of tomato paste

Minerally Sweet: ½ cup maple syrup.

Sour and Sweet: ½ cup rice vinegar

Umami: ¼ cup dehydrated onions, 6 cloves garlic, minced

Salty Umami: 2 tablespoons fermented black beans (this adds the bitter element), 2 tablespoons tamari, 1 tablespoon fish sauce

Spicy Heat: ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, ½ teaspoon Schezwan pepper, 1 tablespoon fresh ginger root

Spice: 1 teaspoon coriander seeds


Roughly 1 part sweet to 2.5 parts acid is the ratio. The umami incorporates the salty ingredients, resulting in a rich complexity. The recipe emphasizes balance with a strong umami and acidic backbone, supported by sweetness, and punctuated with spicy notes.

The key to an ultimate sauce is quality whole ingredients. Make sure that most of the ingredients provide more than one of the five flavors, and keep them in the correct proportions.

I’m posting more of my barbecue sauce examples on the Food Coop’s Blog “The Beet.”


Sassy Sauce

Makes 1 ¼ cups

6-ounce can of tomato paste (¾ cup)

¼ cup dehydrated onions

½ cup rice vinegar

½ cup maple syrup

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced

2 tablespoons fermented black beans

2 tablespoons tamari

1 tablespoon fish sauce

½ teaspoon Schezwan pepper

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon coriander seed


1. Grind dry spices together.

2. Add ingredients to a blender and puree
         until smooth.


For more recipes visit