Dispatches From Whitcomb Street

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homemade barbecue sauce for canning

Barbecue sauce drives me nuts. It’s expensive—$6 or $7 for a jar, which you can easily use up in one meal’s worth of chicken-grilling. A given jar is too sweet, or not spicy enough, or too Memphis-y when you need it to be Texas-ish, or vice versa. The solution is to keep like a dozen slightly different open bottles in your fridge. 

Or you can make your own!

In a pinch, you can always stir up a perfectly respectable barbecue sauce with good ketchup, brown sugar, and seasonings. But this is a recipe for processing fresh tomatoes into a beautiful shelf-stable sauce that you can make very plain and then dress up when you use it, or make into the sauce of your dreams from the get-go.

I will tell you a secret: I never buy tomatoes specifically for barbecue sauce-making. Instead, I use the good, sound leavings (peels, pulp, cores, and under- or overripe specimens) from canning tomatoes—they all break down with long cooking and add lovely body and deep tomato flavor to the sauce. Can your tomatoes and then make sauce the next day, or freeze the trimmings and make sauce at your leisure. Zero-waste preserves, huzzah!

Homemade barbecue sauce

This recipe makes a very plain, basic sauce that you can dress up to your specifications. It has great body, but not the slippery unctuousness of commercial barbecue sauce—if you want that, try adding some honey, molasses, or corn syrup instead of sugar. See more add-in ideas at the end.

Begin with at least two quarts of collected tomatoes and parts—skins, cores, over- and underripe discards from canning are fine. Make up the bulk with fresh tomatoes if you need to. Chop roughly.

Put them all in a big pot along with one minced onion, two cloves of garlic, and one diced green pepper. I added a frozen chipotle, too, because I like that. Bring everything to a simmer and cook for half an hour or so, until the vegetables are very soft. You should not need to add water—the vegetables should yield enough to keep things moving after a few minutes of heat—but splash in just a little at the beginning if your mixture is too dry to simmer efficiently.

Once the vegetables are soft, hit the pot with an immersion blender to break the vegetables down into a more-or-less uniform puree (or process in batches in a regular blender or food processor, or pass it through a food mill. But an immersion blender is easiest).

Now add your basic seasonings: For two quarts of tomatoes, you will want

  • 1/2 cup of brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tsp dry ground mustard (or .5 tbsp whole mustard seed)
  • 1 tsp canning salt
  • 1 tsp cracked black peppercorns
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne
  • 3/4 cup white or apple cider vinegar (5%)

Stir these into the pot.

Let the sauce simmer slowly, now, until it is the consistency you want. You can do this in a crockpot overnight (easiest) or over a very slow burner for several hours (you will want a spatter screen, and to stir frequently as the sauce becomes thicker). Blend again if you want a more uniform sauce.

When the sauce is ready, sterilize your pint jars, rings, and lids. Fill them to within 1/4” of the top, wipe rims and sides, seat lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes, counting from when the water comes back to a boil. Put any jars that fail to seal once cool in the fridge and use soon.

This basic recipe is very plain on purpose. I make it this way and then doctor each jar when I use it, depending on what I want to do with it. But you can tweak it however you like before or after canning—just don’t cut the proportion of vinegar or add a lot of vegetable bulk without upping the vinegar amount.


  • Replace some or all of the sugar with molasses, honey, or corn syrup. Or use agave nectar, or make it completely without sugar and stir in your sweetener of choice when you go to use it. 
  • Add up to 100% more sweetener for a KC-style sauce. 
  • Omit the salt and season with Worcestershire or soy sauce instead.
  • Stir in a heaping tablespoon of prepared Dijon-style mustard instead of powdered.
  • Add chili powder or chipotle for a smokier sauce
  • Add more cayenne or Tabasco, or some powdered ginger for subtler heat.
  • Add some dried herbs—in small amounts, oregano, sage, and thyme can add a little roundness to the sauce without screaming “HERBS!”.
  • Unusual seasonings, in small amounts, can make a traditional sauce interesting all over again. Try a slice of star anise, maybe. Or Sichuan peppercorns. Orange zest. Your favorite dry rub! Anything goes.
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