Readers who were brought up on commercial barbecue sauces, which contain as much as 43% sugar (!), may be puzzled, even alarmed by my unwavering opposition to sweet barbecue sauces. Do not scoff.
Here’s an article from Texas Monthly that backs me up, and explains why you really need to skip the sugar in favor of something acidic, such as vinegar, to balance the richness of the meat. Bear in mind that this is the Texas viewpoint, which reflects a beef-centered approach to barbecue. The principle that you should add vinegar rather than sugar is all the more important with pork, which is much richer than beef. Basically, chicken is to beef as beef is to pork.
The nut of the article is that it’s all about the meat, and sugar masks the meat flavor. I repeat: sugar masks the meat flavor. Sure, sugar tastes good, and is an important element in desserts like pecan pie, and even in some vegetables, such as banana pudding. (Well, it’s a vegetable on some Alabama meat and three menus.) But with your meat course, you want the flavor of the meat. If you want something sweet for lunch or dinner, you might as well order pecan pie for your entree. I’ve certainly had pecan pie as a meal, not to mention Liza Tanner Boyd’s Coconut Cake, more than once: both lunch and dinner actually, but mainly breakfast. But I wouldn’t do that every day, any more than I’d eat a Crown Burger every day.
While sugar masks the flavor of meat, vinegar and other acids balance the flavor. They cut the richness of the meat — that is, the fat — and bring out its full flavor. Traditionally, the acid is vinegar, but there are other sources. In Texas, brisket traditionally is served with no sauce, but with commercial dill pickles, onions, and pickled jalapeños. You can get sauce, but the brisket shouldn’t need it (although it can enliven the white bread that comes with the meat.) The first Texas sauces were vinegar-heavy, as described by a 1937 Dallas recipe:
It is made simply of vinegar and hot water, melted butter if the purse allows, or rendered beef suet if not, black and red pepper and salt (pioneer sauce stopped there) and generous dashes of catsup and Worcestershire sauce. Onions and sometime lemons are sliced into it… thicken it slightly with flour and water as thin gravy is thickened.
And new chefs are adding other sources of acid, such as pico de gallo, pickled daikon and carrots, and kimchee, although I would think that kimchee could overpower brisket.
The need for acidity is even more important with the richer pork barbecue. I add commercial dill chips to barbecue sandwiches (house made pickles never have enough vinegar, and they usually have a flabby texture). Mainly, I add this —
And, of course, my Recipes for Barbecue Sauce involve vinegar, as do recipes for white barbecue sauce. Vinegar is integral to North Carolina barbecue, and the South Carolina mustard sauces are mainly vinegar. And a vinegar sauce can be the key to one of the world’s great appetizers.
So enjoy the flavor of the meat, the wonderful flavor enriched by slow cooking over a low, wood-smoke fire. There’s no need to gild the lily.