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Memphis-Style Barbecue Sauce

Updated February 23, 2016

John Willingham is a legend on the American barbecue circuit: He’s a winner of dozens of grand championships, at the Memphis in May, Kansas City Royal, and Jack Daniel’s Invitational barbecue competitions; he’s an inventor (one of his cookers is on display at the Smithsonian Institution); a successful restaurateur; an acclaimed author; a teacher; and an irrepressible raconteur. People speak of him in reverential tones and crowd around his booth whenever he sets up shop at a barbecue festival. His disciples have opened restaurants from Louisville to Dallas. As befits a barbecue king, Willingham calls Memphis home and his sauce—or one I watched him make—contains something for everyone: tomato sauce, steak sauce, mustard, even Coca-Cola. (“I figure with this many ingredients, everybody’s bound to like something,” Willingham quips.) The addition of a rub to the “wet fixin’s” gives a blast of flavor typical of Memphis-style barbecue sauce. This recipe is just a rough approximation of what Willingham does, as no rib meister would share all his secrets with another barbecue man.

Try This!

In Memphis, pork shoulder ribs are king, and thus are logical destinations for this sauce. But don’t stop there. Brush the sauce on grilled chicken, turkey, even vegetables during tile last 10 minutes of cooking serve plenty of sauce on the side for slathering and dipping.

Makes4 cups

CostModerate

Easy

Total Timeunder 1 hour

Make Ahead RecipeYes

Kid FriendlyYes

Dietary Considerationegg-free, gluten-free, halal, kosher, lactose-free, low cholesterol, low saturated fat, low-fat, peanut free, vegetarian

Taste and Texturegarlicky, hot & spicy, savory, sharp, smoky, spiced, sweet, tangy, tart, umami

Type of Dishbarbecue sauce, sauces

Ingredients

  • 4 cups tomato sauce
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 cup Coca Cola, or other cola
  • ¼ cup steak sauce (such as A1)
  • ¼ cup yellow mustard
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon Juice
  • 3 tablespoons molasses
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
  • ½ teaspoon liquid smoke
  • ½ cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons Basic Barbecue Rub (John uses a rub he manufactures called "W’ham")
  • 1 tablespoon pure chili powder (not a blend)
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon mustard powder
  • 2 teaspoons garlic salt

Instructions

  1. Combine all the wet fixin’s in a large, heavy, nonreactive saucepan and slowly bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium heat.

  2. Meanwhile, combine the dry fixin’s in a bowl and mix with your fingers.

  3. Reduce the heat and stir the dry fixin’s into the sauce mixture. Gently simmer the sauce until thick, concentrated, and richly flavored, about 30 minutes. Use right away or transfer to jars, cover, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate. The sauce will keep for several weeks.

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