BBQ gets people riled up. It’s all about the sauce, and declaring which one is the best induces heated conversations and invitations to try rival concoctions with friends old and new. Whether it’s the mayonnaise-based Alabama white sauce, the vinegary North Carolina style, or the tangy Memphis style, people have their favorite they swear by.
But the most replicated BBQ sauce style is Kansas City, the thick smoky-sweet brown sauce with a touch of heat. It’s popular; millions of bottles are sold annually and featured on tables at every BBQ restaurant and home cookouts.
According to Visit KC, a man named Henry Perry ushed in Kansas City’s barbecue craze when he started barbecuing in an outdoor pit adjacent to his streetcar barn in the early 1920s. In this early iteration, Perry served slabs of food wrapped in newspaper. His food was an instant hit and led to others opening their own outfits, imitating Perry’s technique while developing their own recipes.
Later, a group of families – Bryant, Gates, Boyd, Harris, and Thompson – brought in the next wave of Kansas City BBQ. By this time, KC was famous for its stockyard and meat-packing industry, so it was the ideal location to perfect pitmaster techniques. BBQ culture was born, and it is hard to imagine living life without it as it has migrated worldwide.
Kansas City boasts more than 100 barbecue restaurants and even has a Kansas City Barbeque Society to advocate for Kansas City-style BBQ worldwide.
This recipe from Food52’s Kelly Vaughan recreates the Kansas City style BBQ sauce by taking favorite elements of famous sauces:
I used a combination of light brown sugar and honey for sweetness and just six ground spices (I liked the little bit of heat that ground cayenne pepper brought to the sauce but if you prefer a sweeter sauce, you can omit it altogether). Liquid smoke was necessary and surprisingly easy to find in my local grocery store, and using smoked paprika, rather than sweet paprika, added another layer of, well, smokiness that’s an essential part of good barbecue.
Mason jars are ideal for storing the sauce as they look great and stack easily. However, any airtight container will do. As the sauce cooks on the stove, the smell it produces is mouthwatering, and no doubt you will find yourself tasting it again and again during the cooking process, as only good cooks do.
So avoid the temptation to use store-bought sauce and make this version at home today!
- 10 3/4 ounces canned tomato purée
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 1/2 tablespoons liquid smoke
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)
- Combine all ingredients in a 1½-quart saucepan and whisk to combine.
- Cook over medium heat until bubbles break across the surface, about two minutes.
- Continue to cook for 5 to 7 more minutes until the sauce thickens, whisking frequently.
- Cool completely before transferring to an airtight container or mason jar.
- Store in the refrigerator for up to seven days.
You can watch how to “freestyle” BBQ sauce here.
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