I’m a woman of many secrets, or at least I try to be, and my barbecue sauce recipe is by far one of my most valuable. Luckily for you, I’ve decided to cash it in.
Knowing what ingredients to combine and in what quantities is one aspect to a delicious barbecue sauce, but more importantly it’s about the reduction process. After all, most sauces are, in actuality, reductions. Before we can do so, however, we must understand (and respect!) the difference between heat and temperature.
Contrary to popular belief, heat and temperature are not one and the same, although they are strongly related to one another. If you look at the microscopic level of an object, you will see that it is made up of atoms, which are very tiny little units of matter (although not the smallest units of matter; those would be quarks, which make up atoms). Now, atoms can hold a certain amount of energy that can be split up into two categories: potential and kinetic. Potential energy is the amount of energy that a unit of matter has stored and has not used yet, while kinetic energy is the energy of the unit of matter as it is moving.
When you check the temperature of something such as, say, my delicious barbecue sauce, you are in actuality measuring the amount of kinetic energy that the object has at the moment you are measuring it. Temperature is a representation of the amount of kinetic energy present in the object or system of objects at the time of measurement. Heat, on the other hand, is the transfer of kinetic energy from one object to another due to their difference in temperature, a.k.a. their difference in amounts of kinetic energy.
Reducing a sauce is, in essence, partially or completely evaporating water molecules from a mixture. However, if your first instinct is to crank up the heat to get the evaporation process going, maybe you should take a few deep breaths. Although higher temperature will indeed make the water molecules evaporate more quickly, it will also cause important molecules that contribute to flavor and aroma (such as aromatics and esters) to break down more quickly, and that would result in a very flat sauce and a very sad barbecue sauce recipient. The key to properly reducing a barbecue sauce (and any sauce for that matter) is low and slow, allowing it to simmer gently for as long as it takes so that the various ingredients can meld together. If you’re overly meticulous like I am, the best temperatures for reducing a barbecue sauce is approximately 140-160 degrees Farenheit.
Next time you fire up the stove to make barbecue sauce, remember these words of wisdom: respect the heat!