When I asked Ben what he wanted to eat on his birthday, he asked for smoked ribs.

That put a smile on my face.

He also requested a special sauce, “Something a bit hotter than usual.” The following recipe is the result. It’s great with ribs, and I suspect it’d go down pretty well with all kinds of meat, smoked or otherwise, as well as anything else that would benefit from a bit of a kick.

Before I give you the ingredients, I should say a couple of things about sauces, much of which I picked up from Cheryl and Bill Jamison’s amazing book Smoke and Spice: Cooking with Smoke, the Real Way to Barbecue, p. 374.

Making a good hot sauce isn’t just a matter of slapping a handful of chillies in a pan and hoping for the best. That’ll give you plenty of heat, but it won’t give you a really good flavour. To make a really tasty sauce, it’s important to think about the different elements that contribute to the overall taste.

Roughly speaking, there are three components to the taste of a sauce: sweet, sour, and spicy. Some sauces (like Tabasco, for example) are pretty much just pure spicy. Others are pure sweetness. But for a really top-notch sauce, with a flavour to savour, you really want a mixture of all three.

Here are some of the ingredients that can give you the different flavours (there are thousands more, obviously; these are just examples):

  • Sweet: sugar (white, brown, etc), honey, maple syrup, molasses, golder syrup, Coca-Cola (!), star anise, etc.
  • Sour: lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar (wine, cider, malt, etc.), tamarind, etc.
  • Spicy: all the obvious spices, mustard, pepper, garlic, etc.

(Besides these categories, you probably also want a little salt, just as a flavour enhancer, but go easy or you’ll end up with glorified seawater.)

Now here’s the clever bit. When you get the balance right between the different components, you notice that the flavour develops on your tongue: first it tastes sweet for a couple of seconds, then you get the sourness for a second or two, and then finally you get a spicy kick at the end. I don’t know why this is – perhaps it’s something to do with how quickly our different tastebuds react. Not sure. But the bottom line is this: By playing around with the proportions of the different ingredients, you can vary both the intensity and the length of each of the sweet / sour / hot flavours as the taste develops in your mouth.

After a bit of tinkering, I think I’ve got this one just how I want it.You get a couple of seconds of sweetness, then about two or three seconds of sour sharpness, and then finally a great hot-and-spicy kick at the end.

The tricky part is getting the hot pepper sauce right, both because different sauces vary so much in strength, and also because different people have very different tastes. If you’re not sure, I recommend starting with less and then adding more to taste.

Ingredients

  • 3/16 cup honey
  • 1 tbsp muscovado sugar
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp hot pepper sauce (reduce by 50% if you’re using something as hot as Tabasco)
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 0.5 tsp ginger powder
  • 0.5 tsp ground black peper
  • 0.25 tsp salt

Recipe

  1. Put all the ingredients in a pan.
  2. Heat gently to reduce to about 50% or the original volume. (Once cooled, it should have the consistency of runny honey or golden syrup.)
  3. Allow to cool, and refrigerate. With those ingredients, it should keep for weeks.
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