Thursday, June 27, 2013

Test Kitchen: Making Bourbon Whiskey BBQ Sauce

By Dru Chai

It's always fun to experiment in the kitchen, even for backyard smokers and grillers. I'm sure a lot of BBQ enthusiasts use the same rub or sauce over and over, because let's face it -- most people are too comfortable (or lazy) to stray outside the norm of what they like. Take BBQ sauce for instance. It's just so easy to just go to the market and pick up one of a dozen or so brands and types of BBQ sauce and call it a day. No fuss and no extra work.

I'll admit, out of the 2 years since I delved into the world of low and slow BBQ, I probably only tried making BBQ sauce from scratch a total of 6 times. That's definitely not very many, compared to the dozens of smoked meat that I produced. Making BBQ sauce is fun, no doubt. But it just doesn't have the sexy appeal of smoking a brisket, pork shoulder, or ribs -- drawing the oohs and ahhs from those waiting to taste the result of your hours of work.

When tasting BBQ sauce, it's a more subtle and subdued reaction -- like "oh that's good," "love the tang," or "that's got a kick to it." That was the reaction I got when I recently made some bourbon whiskey BBQ sauce. I was lucky enough to have some Four Roses Bourbon (Single Barrel) at my fingertips, so I decided to whip up a batch of BBQ sauce laced with the bourbon whiskey.

I put my homemade BBQ sauce back inside the bottle

Using alcohol in recipes can be a tricky thing. If not done correctly, it can overpower or even ruin whatever it is that you're making. I've see alcohol used in all sorts of recipes, but I think it's best used in sauces. Alcohol has such a strong flavor, that it needs to be reduced down -- whether a lot or a little -- but just enough so that it's not the dominating flavor. Think of a red wine reduction, for example. Alcohol should be an accent, or compliment to your recipe.

The ingredients that I used for my whiskey bourbon BBQ sauce:

- Water, ketchup, tomato paste, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, chili powder, cayenne, paprika, worcestershire, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, and of course -- some Four Roses whiskey bourbon.

You can adjust the level of spice by adding red chili flakes, Sriracha, or whatever hot sauce you prefer. One of my favorites is the Tabasco chipotle pepper sauce. I added a few liberal dashes into the BBQ sauce.

So how did the BBQ sauce taste? After immediately mixing all of the ingredients together, it basically tasted like glorified ketchup, to be honest with you. The bourbon whiskey was too strong in flavor and overpowered everything. I felt like I needed some french fries to dip the sauce with. But after letting it simmer on low heat for a few hours, the alcohol burned off a little, and it tasted more like BBQ sauce. I refrigerated it overnight, and the sauce tasted even better the next day. All of the flavors and spices just melded together as one.

It was sweet, tangy, tart, with a little kick at the end. The bourbon whiskey was nice and subtle in the background, and the little heat at the back of the tongue was perfect. I bottled up some of the BBQ sauce back into the Four Roses sample bottle to save for a later use. I've got a versatile BBQ sauce that I can use on just about anything. I'm thinking of trying out some bourbon whiskey BBQ meatballs!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Eating Out: Smitty's Market BBQ in Lockhart, TX

By Dru Chai

Several months ago, I embarked on a Texas BBQ mini crawl and I loved every minute of it. Franklin BBQ in Austin already set the bar pretty high with its mouthwatering brisket and turkey, but I wanted to feel and experience old-time Texas history. That's why I scheduled a visit to the city of Lockhart. About a half hour drive south of Austin, Lockhart was declared the Barbecue Capital of Texas. According to the city website, it is estimated that over 5,000 people visit the city each week -- just for BBQ. So what would I think about the BBQ that Lockhart has to offer? Let's explore Smitty's, first.

Smitty's has been around since the turn of the last century, and it really felt that way from the moment I stepped foot inside. While my wife thought the place was a little creepy, I thought the place had character.... just very, very OLD character. Most people will enter Smitty's Market through the front with the dirt road parking lot -- you'll likely see a line spill outside the door during peak hours. But through the back, it's a whole different "small town" feel. There's a long and narrow hallway with creaky-looking wooden benches against the smoke-stained wall. This was the original dining room back in the day. They've since opened up a larger and brighter dining room.

Another memorable sight at Smitty's is their pit and fire set up. I've seen it countless times on TV, but it was finally in front of my eyes. The smoker is very distinct looking -- it basically looks like a dumpster with an open flame pit off to one side. You can see the wood burning right in front of you, and there's no barrier or gate to prevent anyone from stumbling on it. Safe to say, you do not want to be horsing around that area or you'll be burned to a crisp. Plus, I can just imagine how hot and humid the place can get on a summer day.

I ordered the fatty brisket and their signature sausage. They serve the meat on butcher paper, along with some saltine crackers and several slices of white bread. With the first bite of the brisket, all I could taste was a lot of fat. I don't mind fat with BBQ, but it has to be rendered down enough so that it melts in your month. At Smitty's, I had to chew the fat -- and it was very tough to eat. Slicing the brisket along with the grain didn't help either. I also noticed that there was very little smoky flavor in the meat. I did enjoy the smoked ring sausage -- it was juicy and full of flavor, which was peppery and beefy.

I heard so much about Smitty's, so I was a bit disappointed in their undercooked, tough, and fat-laden brisket. Many of the BBQ bloggers and critics have said the same thing. I just think the level of BBQ has gone up dramatically over the last several years -- especially in Austin -- that BBQ taste buds are just more refined. Perhaps I had just gotten a bad batch, but I think it's just how they like to do their brisket. They've been doing the same thing for years and years, so I'm sure they're thinking -- why change anything? That's one thing I can appreciate about Smitty's -- you can't replace history.