Here’s the journey that led me to Black Vinegar Barbecue Sauce:
Lately, I’ve been reading Taylor Holliday’s wonderful blog The Mala Project documenting her personal challenge to cook authentic Sichuan in her American kitchen. Part of her motivation is the sweet story about her own Chinese/American family as she cooks for her adopted Chinese daughter. It’s a fun adventure to read about.
The ingredient section of the blog is particularly interesting to me because I find shopping for Asian ingredients confusing and intimidating, almost immobilizing. Taylor has coaxed me away from fear at least a little.
That’s how I learned about black vinegar. The opening paragraph in the blog post hooked me:
“If I had to choose just one Chinese ingredient that everyone should have in their pantry (other than Chinese-made soy sauce, of course), it would be Zhenjiang black vinegar. In our household we use as much Chinese black rice vinegar as soy sauce. We even use as much Zhenjiang vinegar as chili sauces and oils, which is saying something. In fact, the three mixed together are our go-to dipping sauce for dumplings. And many Chinese use just black vinegar as their dipping sauce of choice.”
I haven’t been so excited about trying a new product in years. Once again, I’m humbled and thrilled by how much the food world has to offer. There’s always something new to learn and someone interesting to introduce you to it. After 30 years of studying, writing about, and making huge messes in my kitchen, black vinegar was not even a blip on my radar. So, on my next trip to Nashville’s K&S market (the Costco of Asian ingredients but with absolutely no staff to help you–you’re completely on your own), for the first time, I knew exactly what to buy.
I couldn’t wait to taste it. Black vinegar is liquid smokiness, sweetness, bitterness, and sourness like nothing I’ve ever had. It is umami in a bottle, just like we say about liquid smoke.
Then the second thing that happened on my journey to Black Vinegar Barbecue Sauce was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s essay The Ketchup Conundrum. Gladwell identifies Heinz ketchup as a very nearly perfect food, one “pushing all five primal buttons”–sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and umami. Food sensory experts call a food like Heinz ketchup as rating high in amplitude, one that’s well blended and balanced that blooms in your mouth. I agree.
That brought me to consider Nashville Crossroads Barbecue Sauce from our book Cheater BBQ, a high amplitude powerhouse that I can confidently say hits every sensation and more. The secret to the sauce is equal parts ketchup, brown sugar, and vinegar accented with Worcestershire sauce and grated onion. After years of judging barbecue sauces for Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, I’ve seen everything thrown into barbecue sauce, most of it awful and producing very unbalanced sauces. I strongly believe that more is not better.
Back-to-basics Nashville Crossroads sauce is an exercise of restraint–about equal proportions of ingredients aimed to hit the flavor buttons. Good barbecue sauce is meant to enhance, not cover up, the smoke and unctuous character of slow cooked meat. This recipe may not seem like a big deal, but it is one of my most lasting contributions to the world. Everyone who tries it LOVES it.
So, my Nashville sauce modified with Taylor Holliday’s secret ingredient and there goes R.B. off to the grill caramelizing his famous Cheater Oven Ribs with Black Vinegar Barbecue Sauce for the neighborhood Super Bowl party. “What’s in that terrific sauce?” we heard all night. Replace the cider vinegar with black vinegar and the Worcestershire sauce with a good dose of soy, add some garlic, ginger, and sesame oil and you’ve got a pot of full-on, high amplitude, black umami. The ribs looked spectacular piled in our big Nascar crock-pot with a sprinkling of green onion and sesame seeds.
It’s not authentic Sichuan, but it’s authentic The Mindy Project. Uh-oh, I think that name has been taken.
- 1 small onion, grated
- 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
- 1 clove garlic, mashed into a paste
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup Chinese black vinegar
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or 1 tablespoon hot chile paste, or minced fresh hot peppers, to taste
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- Salt, to taste
- Cook the onions, ginger and garlic in the oil a small saucepan over medium heat until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the remaining ingredients except the salt. Bring to a boil and simmer until slightly thickened. Season with salt to taste.
- Feel free to double or triple the recipe, but it will take more simmering time to slightly thicken.
- The black vinegar gives this sauce an interesting smoky flavor. Sprinkle green onion slices and sesame seeds over your barbecue.