Food & Drink

Ask the Test Kitchen: Talbert’s BBQ sauce recipe is one for the ages

Baby back ribs with Carolina-style sauce.
Baby back ribs with Carolina-style sauce. Tribune News Service

QUESTION: I am a fan of Bob Talbert’s Carolina-style ribs. Do you have the sauce recipe?

– Debra Carlin, Harrison Township, Mich.

ANSWER: I searched our archives and found the column and recipe from Free Press columnist Bob Talbert, who died in 1999. In Talbert’s column, he talked about vacationing in the South and enjoying “down-home eatin’.” He also mentioned Carolina ‘cue, as in barbecue. Talbert described the differences in barbecue sauces and wrote, “one that really brings the pork to life without overwhelming it, is a thin, but strong pepper and vinegar barbecue sauce which is famous in North Carolina.”

This vinegar-based sauce hails from eastern North Carolina, according to many barbecue sources.

After finding the column and recipe, which Talbert said was an adaptation of one he found in an article on Southern barbecuing in a Playboy magazine, I gave the recipe a try in the Free Press Test Kitchen at Great Lakes Culinary Center in Southfield, Mich.

The sauce makes enough for one good size pork shoulder or pork butt if you’re making pulled pork. Carlin mentioned in her email that she used the sauce on country-style ribs, marinating them in it for 24 hours and then slow-roasting them.

I made the sauce and used it on one small slab of baby back ribs — a personal favorite — baked in the oven. But you can easily cook these low and slow on the grill.

Because I was making one slab of ribs, I decided to cut the recipe in half. At first glance, I thought 1  1/2 tablespoons of ground black pepper was way too much (the original called for 3 tablespoons). But when I tasted the sauce, I decided the amount was just fine. It has a really good spicy punch, thanks to that black pepper and crushed red pepper. But the spiciness doesn’t linger. Ditto with the vinegar. Both the spiciness and vinegar flavor mellow out thanks to the molasses. So what you end up with is a thin almost watery sauce that’s spicy, tangy and sweet — in that order.

The sauce works great as a marinade, but you can also use it as a basting sauce to continually brush on meats while cooking. If making ribs, for example, you can use some of the sauce to marinate the ribs and reserve the rest to brush on.

Barbecue, basting or mop sauces have traditionally varied by region. Vinegar-and-mustard-based sauces are favored in South Carolina, while tomato-based sauces are common in St. Louis. Kansas City, Mo., boasts a sweeter version of the tomato-based sauce, and Alabama even has a mayonnaise-based white barbecue sauce.

But Jamie Purviance, author of “Weber’s New American Barbecue: A Modern Spin on the Classics” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.99), says that’s changing. “It’s no longer found in those traditional areas, it’s all over the country as chefs and barbecue cooks are putting their own spins on barbecue according to who they are and where they’ve come from.”

CAROLINA EASTERN-STYLE BARBECUE SAUCE

Preparation time 15 minutes, Total time: 15 minutes

3 tablespoons crushed red pepper

3 tablespoons freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons of salt

 1/4 cup molasses

4 cloves of garlic, minced

1 quart of white vinegar

In large bowl, mash together crushed red pepper, ground black pepper, salt, molasses and garlic. Stir in the vinegar and mix. Allow to stand for several hours. Use as a marinade or basting sauce for pork.

Makes 3 cups.

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