Smoky and a Little Sweet: Barbecue sauce styles converge in St. Louis

Just saying the word “barbecue” brings to mind social gatherings, grilling outdoors and the culinary art of meat slowly cooked and flavored with smoke. Cooking methods and styles vary from region to region, and even the spelling of the word is up for grabs. But one inarguable component of the barbecue experience is that most contentious and closely guarded topic: the sauce. What may come as a surprise is that St. Louis-style barbecue sauce is considered a hybrid of sorts, yet is every bit as distinctive as the highly touted styles of Memphis and Kansas City. It’s easy to be fooled by the casual atmospheres in barbecue restaurants here, but make no mistake – St. Louis barbecue is taken very seriously. St. Louis-style barbecue sauce is the result of a convergence factor. Rivers and highways connect the city to other parts of the country, allowing us to savor many regional styles of sauces. Distinctive barbecue styles – sweeter and thicker sauces of Kansas City, spicier sauces of Texas and the generally thinner sauces with vinegar or mustard bases of the Southeast and Memphis – tend to converge here and become fine-tuned to exhibit a best-of-all-worlds charm. The range of ingredients barbecue devotees use – some expected and some downright surprising – is mind-boggling. Sauces generally can be categorized by the base, which can include any combination of ketchup, tomato sauce or paste, vinegar (cider, balsamic or rice) and mustard. Some recipes add pork, beef or chicken stock, along with olive oil or butter. Barbecue enthusiasts add chiles of any variety, from jalapeños to fiery habañeros, and any number of pepper sauces. What most sauces do have in common is a sweetener. It can be in the form of white or brown sugar, honey, molasses or even maple syrup. Some signature sauces include fresh-squeezed orange, lemon or lime juice; soy sauce; and Worcestershire sauce, along with bourbon, full-bodied red wine, rum, brandy, beer or dry white wine. The base is augmented with a variety of additions, such as garlic, onions or chives. Spices and herbs might include parsley, poultry seasoning, dry or hot mustard, pepper flakes, oregano, chili powder, crushed green or pink peppercorns, paprika, mint and ginger. (Yes, in barbecue sauce, too – is there any recipe that doesn’t add fresh ginger these days?) While there is much discussion about whose sauce is the best, everyone seems to agree that the variety of barbecue sauces is a vital component of our St. Louis tradition. Mike Mills, owner of the 17th Street Bar & Grill in Murphysboro, who’s set to open another restaurant in July in O’Fallon, Ill., characterized barbecue sauce in St. Louis as “a mixture of different-style sauces.” “I would say we favor a predominately red sauce, more along the ketchup line, and not as sweet as the Kansas City sauce,” said Mills, who 12 years ago switched careers from a dental technician to focus on his passion for barbecue. “My sauce is also thinner and without MSG – it should be as natural as it can be.” Mills’ method calls for seasoning the meat at various times during the cooking process and then saucing the meat at the end – procedures that tremendously affect the character of the barbecue sauce. The sauce should be applied toward the end of cooking, not only for flavor but also for appearance. “Most sauces are ketchup, mustard and sugar, which caramelizes, and the sauce blackens if it is put on too soon,” he said. “It tastes better and looks better when it is added at the end. “Everyone has their own secret blend of spices, and even though we may be using the same spices, there can be differences in the quantity of each,” he added. “In addition, the type of wood and cooking time – I cook it slow and low, and I like to baste with apple juice.” The recipes for his spice mix, called Magic Dust, and his sauce, which passed through generations from his great-grandmother, are divulged in a book co-written with his daughter, Amy Mills Tunnicliffe, called “Peace, Love and Barbecue: Recipes, Secrets, Tall Tales and Outright Lies From the Legends of Barbecue.” The 17th Street Bar & Grill sells its barbecue sauces, bottled in both regular mild and spicy versions, at the restaurant and at grocery stores in the Murphysboro area. On a hunch that they too could prepare better barbecue using a family recipe as a base, Craig and Laurie Hunter opened Big Mama’s BBQ in Belleville. “We always had barbecue at family gatherings, and we have members of the family who have been in the barbecue business and in catering,” Craig Hunter said. “I grew up with barbecue.” Recently the couple added two additional Big Mama’s locations, at Clinton Hills Golf Course in Swansea, and a Big Mama’s BBQ Express at Scott Air Force Base near Mascoutah. Big Mama’s sauces have grown from Sweet and Mild – the original and still the most popular – to include Sweet and Spicy, Hot and Spicy and Kickin’, a low-carb jalapeño sauce. “I come up with a flavor idea in my head,” Laurie Hunter said of her saucing methodology. “Then I keep working at it until it’s the way I want it. Then I have to remember to write it down.” Craig Hunter characterized St. Louis-style sauce as milder and sweeter, definitely with a tomato base, and not as tangy as other styles. He is expecting to retail his sauce by early June; bottles will be available for purchase in the restaurants. Chris Theerman bases Cowboy Chris’ Barbeque Sauce on a recipe he got from a woman at a barbecue fundraiser. “She finally gave me part of the recipe, an old family recipe,” he said. “She told me the base and that I could add the flavoring until it suited me.” Theerman, who markets his Warrenton-made sauce when he’s not working full time as a mechanic, “experimented with the recipe for a couple of years” before coming up with a sauce that met with his approval. “A sauce has to have balance and have a bite – not too much pepper burn or not purely sweet like some Kansas City sauces,” he said. “I don’t want to taste the sauce and know it has a lot of this ingredient or that – it shouldn’t be overwhelmed by any flavor.” Theerman sells his Cowboy Chris’ Original Hot Barbeque Sauce and Cowboy Chris’ Mild Barbeque Sauce at around 30 stores throughout Missouri. Local barbecue enthusiasts can purchase his sauce at Missouri Mercantile at St. Louis Mills in Hazelwood, Freddie’s Market in Webster Groves, Cornucopia in Kirkwood and Figuero’s in downtown St. Charles. His hotter, spicier sauce has proven to be the favorite. Theerman, too, characterized St. Louis-style sauce as “sweet and smoky,” but said that can vary within the region. “We don’t seem to like it as sweet as Kansas City,” he said. “But I am finding some people definitely want more bite to their sauce, more peppery.” Bandana’s Bar-B-Q, a chain of 17 restaurants headquartered in St. Louis, offers customers four different sauces: original, developed by Bandana’s founding Seitz family and described as mustard-based and spicy; a hot sauce, similar to original but spicier; Memphis spicy, a spicy red sauce; and a sweet-and-smoky sauce. “The sweet-and-smoky sauce is favored by 70 percent of our customers,” said CEO Rick White, who noted that can change if diners try the original mustard-based sauce. “If they try the original, then that’s what they end up preferring,” he said. With the varieties of sauce almost endless, perhaps barbecue-loving folks here will continue experimenting and discussing it – hopefully, over a plate of steamy barbecue.