By Sunny Conley
The days of innocent finger-licking while savoring grilled meats slathered in barbecue sauce may have ended. Watch out, there may be chile in that sauce! In the past, barbecue sauce was predictable. Traditional sauce was mostly prepared with six main ingredients: tomatoes, onion, mustard, garlic, and brown sugar offering a palate-manageable, sweet taste. Later, the Rolodex of ingredients expanded, and beer or wine gave the sauce a spirited kick.
But finger-lickin’ had never been an exhilarating experience–until recently–now that chile, spelled with an “e,” constitutes a small but significant ingredient. The chile pod shows up everywhere these days as an addition to conventional recipes including barbecue sauces, rubs, bastes, and marinades. And the adopted chile is not always of the mild variety. Grocery store shelves and e-commerce sites are now stocked with barbecue condiments that sizzle with the effects of specialty chiles like jalapeño and habanero. Finger licking has become taste bud challenging, and the heat goes on. As baby boomers’ taste bud acuity wanes, chile marches in with just the right jolt.
“There’s definitely a growing trend to enhance grilled and smoked meats with chile sauces, bastes and rubs,” says Lee Henry, editor of BBQ Today. And “some barbecue connoisseurs like it hot,” according to Andrew Jepson, President of the National Barbecue Association. He says that “habanero sauces are for fanatics that seek a more concentrated heat level. But generally, people are looking for a chile specific flavor without all that heat. They’re looking for a new kind of barbecue but with a Southwestern twist.” The “Southwestern twist” is, of course, conferred by Mexican chiles.
Jepson, owner of the BBQ Company and Avante Grill restaurant in Phoenix, says there is a “trend for Southwestern cuisine using traditional flavors.” Rather than igniting his sauces with the hottest chiles, like jalapeño and habanero, he searches for “a rich, unique middle-of-the-road chile flavor – a harmonious balance that isn’t too hot.” Jepson uses what he describes as “a comfortable and memorable balance of chipotle and ancho/poblano chiles to please the masses. The extra zip brings out the flavors and taste of the meat.” His restaurant roasts their own chile but “sometimes we cheat,” he admits. “Sometimes we deep fry the chiles, which accomplishes the same effect but has just a little less of a roasted flavor.”
“Nevertheless,” continued Jepson, “when customers leave my restaurant, I want them to remember where they got their taste bud tingle.” His nationally acclaimed and award-winning Freerange Red and Spicier Rattlesnake Red sauces are used in marinades, basting, and finishing sauces for pork, beef, poultry, and seafood. Jepson said “not only are barbecue sauces being infused with dried chipotle but so are spice rubs and marinades Jepson augments his regular Rattlesnake chipotle sauce with raspberries to “offer a sweet heat.”
Mike McMillan, owner of Buck Creek, Inc., Columbia, Missouri, agrees with Jepson and Henry. “There seems to be a growing number of people enjoying spicier foods. Some guys try to be macho. Hot sauces have no appeal to me. It’s all heat and no flavor.” McMillan cools off some of his hot sauce by counteracting the heat with fruit. Buck Creek’s Berry Hot Bar-B-Que Sauce was the Grand Prize winner in the Tasting Division at the 2000 Scovie Awards Competition. McMillan’s habanero sauce placed first in the same category.
Chile macho is simply the latest trend in the barbecue culture. “I find the barbecue business absolutely fascinating,” observes Ann Wilder, president of Vanns Ltd. Spices located in Baltimore. The long-time company offers “a world of spices” that includes a variety of chiles. Wilder explains that most of her career was spent “in fine foods. Then I got caught up in the barbecue business. It’s a culture of which most people aren’t aware.” And, according to Wilder, barbecue “is for all walks of life.” She recalls one of her first barbecue judging contests. “Sitting at my table were movie stars, linemen, and ditch diggers. No one gave a damn who the other person was as long as they knew their barbecue,” laughs Wilder.
Chile, Wilder continues, is the biggest secret in a rub. No one can figure out anyone’s recipe because each uses a variety of chiles that comes from different places. She did, however, share that the award-winning Trim Tabs Pig Powder Dry Rub, which her company sells, contains “mainly ancho chile—I think. Ancho tends to be a favorite base for rubs. So does pasilla and chipotle. Chipotle isn’t just for barbecues; it’s also used in the fine food industry. It has a delicious smoked flavor.”
Wilder theorizes that, in the early 1980s, people became more aware of spices because of their travels. “They weren’t just going to Europe any more. They were traveling to Asia, Central America, and South America, spicy places they hadn’t been. After sampling their recipes, they wanted to duplicate them back home.” And when Americans began worrying about their bulging bellies they turned to spices to beef up bland dishes. “Spices like chile,” she continued, “don’t contain fat. People are willing to eat smaller portions only if that portion really tastes wonderful. They’re interested in big flavors and chile offers that.”
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