Summer Barbecue Inspiration

Regardless of where you BBQ, sugar is key

Published online: Aug 09, 2023 Feature
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As the weather warms up and the days get longer, Americans are firing up their barbecue grills. While barbecue styles and sauces vary throughout the country, there is one key ingredient that all barbecue has in common: sugar.

“Barbecue is the quintessential American food,” said Wilson Judice, an agronomist with the American Sugar Cane League in Franklin, LA. “Sugar gives barbecue sauce a stickiness to help it adhere to the meat better. It also adds in texture, because no one likes a runny sauce.” 

The term “barbecue” is derived from the Spanish word “barbacoa” and is defined as the process of roasting or broiling meat outdoors over an open fire or on a portable grill. The Taino people of the Caribbean roasted meat over outdoor grills in the 1400s, and the first recorded instance of the word “barbacoa” was in Spain in 1526. 

America is a melting pot of cultures and barbecue represents that. It was a convenient way for the early pioneers to cook outside with whatever they had,” Judice said. “Our barbecue in southern Louisiana reflects our cultural diversity. We enjoy the traditional chicken, beef, and pork, but also barbecue everything from alligators, oysters, and shrimp to wild game like deer and duck.” 

Balance Between Spicy, Sweet

Louisiana barbecue sauce is a balance between spicy and sweet, according to Judice. 

“We are known for spicy foods like Tabasco sauce. However, food shouldn’t be so spicy that it makes your mouth numb,” he said. “It should be well-seasoned so you can taste the flavors. Sugar balances the heat, so we use a lot of raw sugar and cane syrup in our barbecue sauces along with the signature peppers and onion.”

Zach Willis of Big Deck Barbecue in Fargo, ND, said sugar is one of, if not the most important, ingredients in barbecue sauce. 

“Some versions use more and some less, but the common denominator is always sugar. If you use more, you’ll get a thick sauce and if you use less, you’ll have a thinner, tangier sauce,” said Willis, 23. “It is all about preference but it’s not a question of if you’re using sugar. It’s a question of how much.” 

Big Deck Barbecue was born of the Willis family’s passion for delicious food. 

“My dad Tyson always knew his barbecue sauce recipes were better than what he could find in stores,” Willis said. “We had some downtime during the COVID lockdown in 2020 and I pushed him to start selling it. We’ve just been riding the wave ever since.” 

BBQ Born Out Of Necessity

Barbecue was born out of a necessity as way to cook inferior cuts of meat and still make them delicious, according to Willis.

“It was what people could afford and it tasted amazing. It’s only become a trendy thing very recently,” he said. 

What sets barbecue apart in addition to its diversity and accessibility, is the fact that there is no “wrong” way to prepare it. 

“There are some core ‘fundamentals’ you need to be good at, no matter how or what you’re cooking. You must be able to start and maintain a fire and keep the desired temperature throughout the duration of the cook,” said Willis. “You also must understand the process of what you’re cooking and stick with that. Other than that, it’s all up to you what you want to do when it comes to wood, seasonings, brining, basting and spritzing.”

Big Deck Barbecue feels the possibilities for innovation and improvement are endless. 

“Barbecue is an art form that can never truly be mastered, and I think that’s why it’s so popular. Everyone has their preference and thinks they make it perfectly. That’s beautiful because the farther you get from ‘the rules’ of barbecue, the better,” Willis said. “You can’t do that kind of improvising with French or Italian cuisine. The improvisation, access to the art and the fact that it’s never been perfect has made barbecue so huge in America.” 

Although North Dakota and the upper Midwest are not considered barbecue havens, Willis believes there are always opportunities to make unique and delicious barbecue sauce regardless of location. 

So Much Wiggle Room

“There is so much wiggle room in how you make your barbecue that there is still the ability to make something ‘uniquely us,’” Willis said. “There’s good barbecue up here, no doubt, but we experience adaptations of other regional barbecues. ‘Fargo Barbecue’ does not have the characteristics ‘Kansas City Barbecue’ has. I think it’s kind of unfortunate that our options are limited up here in the barbecue world, and we sometimes get stuck with a sterilized, commercialized version of something that is so incredible when done authentically. I’ve seen and tasted what’s out there in other parts of the country, and I want to be able to get that in my backyard.”

Barbecue is also a family affair for Curt and Donna Mark of Dalton, MN. “We started our business, Curt’s BBQ Sauce, 16 years ago, but the sauce itself has been in the family for over 20 years,” said Donna. “Curt is the sauce specialist, and it took us that many years to get the sauce recipe out of him.” 

The Marks, along with their four adult children, started producing their sauce at a licensed and regulated facility in January 2007.

“Our children, Molly Johnson, Jay Mark, Jill Carroll and Joshua Mark, and their spouses have all helped out with the business in one way or another, including selling, packaging, delivering, ordering and promoting,” Donna said. “In the beginning, we used canning jars and sealed every lid ourselves. We took our final products to craft shows, farmers’ markets and fairs. We really enjoyed this family project and sharing lots of laughs and hard work.” 

Demand for the sauce grew to a point where the Marks could no longer produce it themselves, and their sauce is now bottled by Full Service Foods in Hillsboro, ND. The mild and medium flavors are their best sellers.

Not Big Fans Of Spicy

“We have more Scandinavians here in the upper Midwest who don’t like real spicy foods, compared to folks in the southern states who enjoy hot and spicy flavors,” Curt said. “Along with this, our sauce is more of a tomato base while southern sauces are vinegar based.” 

Making good barbecue sauce takes a lot of time and testing, according to the Markses. 

“Getting the best taste and texture takes a lot of experimentation. We provide people with a high-quality product made with high quality ingredients, including sugar from the American Crystal Sugar Company in the Red River Valley,” Curt said. “Sugar makes our sauce sweet and sassy. With our sauce, if you grill it correctly, you can caramelize the sauce right to the meat for a delicious barbecue taste.”

No matter what region of the U.S. you live in, there are some great tips and tricks that will ensure your barbecue is always delicious. 

“Remember that barbecue is not a fast process. Time is a critical element, and a common mistake people make is rushing it,” said Judice, who helped barbecue 1,400 chicken halves on Palm Sunday weekend for his children’s annual high school fundraiser. Judice and his crew of fellow parents, coaches and community members started barbecuing at 8 p.m. on Saturday and cooked through the night to ensure the chicken, along with coleslaw and 100 gallons of barbecue beans in black iron pots, would be ready by 10 the following morning. 

“Barbecue is an experience. Enjoy a cold beer and visit with your family while you wait for it to be done,” Judice said. “Also, don’t forget technology. There are some great meat thermometers that can prevent overcooking. They attach right to your phone and send you an alert when your meat gets to the right temperature. And lastly, remember that your sauce should be your final step. Don’t put it on too early because the sugar can burn.”

Remove All Grease

Curt and Donna Mark advise removing all grease from the meat before adding sauce to ensure a wonderful final product.

“For example, when making smokies for an appetizer, heat the smokies first and pour off all the water and grease. Smokies have lots of grease,” said Curt. “Then warm the sauce and add it to the smokies at the end. This will keep your sauce from being runny.”

For barbecue newbies, Willis recommends starting off with cheap cuts of meat. 

“You can learn from trial and error on chuck roasts, spareribs, pork shoulders and whole chickens. Barbecue will make these cuts incredibly delicious, but because they are more economical, they won’t make you shed tears if something goes wrong,” he said. 

Josh Bissell of Crookston, MN, agrees that barbecue is all about perseverance. 

“Don’t give up after a few bad meals. It’s not easy to cook over fire and takes a lot of patience and perseverance to make good barbecue,” said Bissell, assistant packaging warehouse supervisor at the American Crystal Sugar Company’s Crookston factory. “I grew up in the Omaha area, so I was lucky to be close to Kansas City where Kansas City barbecue sauce is king. Over the years I have switched to more of the Carolina style barbecue, which is vinegar based.”

Crystal Sugar Is Key

Bissell enjoys experimenting with different ingredients, but always uses Crystal Sugar in his recipes. 

“In addition to breaking down acids in barbecue sauce, sugar rubs also help bring moisture out of the meat,” he said. “Another great sauce is Alabama white sauce with sugar, mayo, horseradish, vinegar, pepper, lemon juice and mustard,” Bissell said. “Try that and you will never have chicken without it again.” 

Finding a pro you admire and starting out with their recipes is a great way to get into barbecue, according to Willis. 

“Copy them at first and then you can riff from there,” he said. “Aaron Franklin, Jess Pryles, Susie Bulloch, Malcolm Reed and my dad are all people I looked to and copied from until I got comfortable enough to take off the training wheels and riff on my own barbecue cooks.” 

Simplicity is key to excellent barbecue for both new cooks and seasoned pros.

“Don’t overcomplicate it. I think it’s all about a good balance, simplicity and not trying to load too many flavors into one bottle,” Willis said. “You don’t have to do a million things to make something delicious. You can make as few ingredients as possible taste fantastic. If what you make tastes great, keep doing what you’re doing, however you want to do it.”

Friendly competition and camaraderie are also great parts of the American barbecue tradition.

“Barbecue is huge here and even more so in Texas. My maternal grandmother is from Texas and my cousins there think they have the corner on the BBQ market,” said Judice. “It gets competitive at family reunions over who has the best barbecue recipe. It’s a good time.”

Barbecue experts around the country all agree that the most important part of barbecue is having fun. 

“I think what intimidates a lot of people and keeps them from barbecuing is fear of messing up,” said Willis. “But you’re supposed to! That’s what this about. Keep messing up until you find the most perfect combinations of mess-ups that make the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted. You’ll never learn if you don’t just do.”