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Recipe: Thin Barbecue Sauce

This sauce is for smoked meats—not chicken fingers or French fries.

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This is not a recipe for a sweet barbecue sauce. If you’re like me and are hankering for more acidic flavors in barbecue, this is the sauce for you. It’s meant to sink into the meat, not coat it—and, if I’m being honest, this sauce really isn’t all that good on its own. The flavor is meant to complement the barbecue, relying on the canvas of smoked meat to shine. If you’re looking for something to dip your fries into, look elsewhere.

I’ve toyed with this basic recipe for some time after learning the secret behind the beloved barbecue sauce at Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It’s not an ingredient—it’s the way he built the base, which began with a stock of lemons and onions. The stock provides a lemony acidity that doesn’t fade like the early addition of lemon juice would. Nor does it have the overpowering brightness of squeezing in lemon at the end.

I adapted this recipe by adding garlic to the lemon-onion base, which gives it the pleasant smell of a crawfish boil. The infused water holds on to the lemony flavor, making a thin sauce that’s unlike anything on the store shelves.

Honestly, I wouldn’t call this a recipe. Think of it instead as a guide. I made it simple so the ingredients could be switched up to cater to your personal tastes. Instead of white sugar, try brown sugar, molasses, or honey. The cider vinegar could be traded out for any number of other fancy vinegars. (I used a new maple vinegar in a test batch that turned out beautifully.) If you have ketchup on hand, use it instead of the pureed tomatoes—just know that it’ll be sweeter—or try chili sauce. Mustard would work too (not the full three cups), but you might want to up the sugar in the recipe to counterbalance the high acidity. You might even get wild and use pickle juice instead of bottled vinegar.

As I said before, it’s a thin sauce. If you’d like it to be thicker, reduce the base liquid down further. If you’d like a little less lemony kick, use just one lemon. Maybe add in some butter (which will shorten its shelf life) lard, suet, bacon fat, or even schmaltz at the very end if you like a silkier texture. Riffing on it is kinda the point. Make it your own.

The ingredients.


1/2 gallon of water

2 lemons, halved

2 medium onions, peeled and quartered

1 small head of garlic, halved

Bring all of the ingredients to a rolling boil. Boil uncovered until reduced by half, at least thirty minutes. Strain the liquid. If it has over-reduced, just add some water back it to get it up to a quart of liquid, and put it back into the pot.

Boil the water, lemons, onions, and garlic together, uncovered, and reduce by half.


The cloudy, strained liquid



3 cups (26 ounces) tomato puree

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup white sugar

1 cup Worcestershire

5 tablespoons salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper, preferably fresh ground

Stir to combine and bring back to a boil for about five minutes until everything is throughly incorporated. Use immediately, or let it cool then place in refrigerator. Makes two quarts of sauce.

Boil the entire mixture for about five minutes to fully combine.


Finished sauce. Photo by Daniel Vaughn

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  • Mokketubbe

    This looks really good, but there’s plenty of sugar in the Worcestershire sauce. I usually don’t change recipes the very first time I make them, but I have a fixed determination to try it with less sugar and red wine vinegar rather than apple cider vinegar. After all, I drink red wine with barbecue and I don’t drink apple cider with barbecue.

  • Heath

    I made the sauce this weekend for some pulled pork. It was fantastic! The only switch I made was raw cane sugar for the white sugar. I can see several way to spice this up, too. So experimenting we will go!

  • Tim B.

    I really like the concept of the boiled lemon/onion base for a thin sauce that doesn’t mask the flavors of expertly smoked brisket, beef ribs, or pork butt. I followed the recipe exactly and found it way too salty as a sauce. Tomato puree also seemed to dominate, so I’m going to play with lowering the salt and the tomato puree, upping the black pepper, throwing in a touch of cayenne, and maybe even trying a bit of yellow mustard, not inconsistent with some of the early Texas sauces.