Shortly before my wife and I departed the Northeast to move back home to North Carolina, we took a final farewell trip to our beloved Vermont, where I invested in a substantial amount of maple products from the Vermont Country Store — we picked up four bags of pure granulated maple sugar, several quarts of dark and amber Vermont maple syrup, about six bottles of smoked maple syrup by Sugar Bob’s of Londonderry, Vermont (amazing stuff with many uses, from ice cream to cocktails), rye whiskey barrel-aged Vermont organic maple syrup by the phenomenal Runamok Maple of Cambridge, Vermont, maple candy, and maple butter.
I had pitched my NC Boys group chat on a barbecue sauce-off when I came down, and I was planning to deploy these tasty maple products as my secret weapon. But I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to make, other than something vaguely sweet, smoky, and maple forward.
Well, last night, I finally had the opportunity to experiment! And I’m pretty pleased with how my first batch turned out. Here’s how I made some pretty dope maple barbecue sauce, which I hope to produce more of in the near future so that Vermont Barbecue can get put on the map down here in the barbecue capital of North Cackalacky!
I knew vaguely that barbecue sauce was a combo of vinegar, tomato sauce, mustard, and spices, but wasn’t sure of where to start. Luckily Derrick Riches (https://twitter.com/derrickriches), a “barbecue and grilling journalist” from Austin, Texas, published a very helpful Barbecue Sauce Starter recipe on The Spruce Eats, available at this link: https://www.thespruceeats.com/barbecue-sauce-base-333677. I followed this, but did my best to double it, because as written — using only 16 ounces of tomato sauce — it does not create enough sauce to marinate and cover a whole rack of baby back ribs! It’s a solid starter, and I subbed in Texas Pete for Tabasco and also added 2 tablespoons of the maple chipotle rub from Green Mountain Goodness LLC of Swanton, Vermont.
Once you get the starter going and simmer the tomato sauce, vinegar, and starter spices for 15 minutes to thicken and break down the tomato, that’s when the fun part — spicing and flavoring — begins!
What follows here is a step-by-step process of what I added to the tomato and spice starter:
As soon as the starter had simmered for 15 minutes, I turned the heat to medium-low and stirred in 2 tablespoons of granulated maple sugar and 3 tablespoons of Sugar Bob’s Smoked Maple Syrup, which is a dark syrup with a very robust taste. Next, I added about 6 drops of liquid smoke.
At this point it was still very tomato-forward, so to counter that acidity I stirred in 3 tablespoons of dark robust Vermont maple syrup, and let it stew for a couple of minutes.
It was missing something, so I poured in 1 ounce of Blade and Bow bourbon whiskey and 1 ounce of the Runamok rye barrel-aged maple syrup, and stirred. Then I added about 6 more drops of liquid smoke to deepen the whiskey notes.
We were getting there but it still needed something caramel-esque to counter the lingering tomato forwardness, so I added 2 tablespoons of light brown sugar.
Now we were in business, but it needed more smoke, so I added about 12 more drops of liquid smoke and 3 tablespoons of the Sugar Bob’s smoked maple syrup, then poured in a little bit more to finish the bottle.
Now we had a sauce!
Before we began this adventure in saucy goodness, I rode my bicycle to Ingles, the local supermarket with a very good deli, and picked up a full rack of baby back ribs to be our fare for the evening. I had never bought or cooked raw ribs before, but have ample grilling experience with other meats, so I knew that I would just need to marinate them for about an hour in whatever sauce I came up with before getting these bad boys to 160 degrees.
Verdict: the sauce took a lot of adapting to cut the tomato-forwardness of the base, which used 33 ounces of Hunt’s tomato sauce in addition to sautéed onion, garlic, and spices. I added bourbon and liquid smoke and a few dashes of Texas Pete to cut the increasing sweetness and add a bit of heat, and it worked — the resulting sauce is a sweet sauce with discernible maple notes but also a slight tang of heat from the tomato, whiskey, hot sauce, smoke, and lemon juice. This became a thick sauce, with a consistency very similar to the bottled mass market sauces you can buy in stores, but, since there was no corn syrup and the only sweeteners were maple and brown sugar, the sweetness it possesses retains a depth to the flavor profile that corn syrup-based sauces typically overpower. All in all, this is a very excellent barbecue sauce for basting, marinating, grilling, and dipping, and I look forward to making more in the future, as long as I can get my hands on those precious and relatively rare and hard-to-find authentic Vermont maple products!