We had some friends over last night, and I made a pork shoulder according to my standard method when there’s not enough time to slow-smoke it to a giving succulence: a couple hours in the smoker and then a couple more braising in various liquids until it attains a passable tenderness. While the spice rub (coriander, fennel, cumin, garlic, black pepper, fermented chili powder, salt) contributed significant flavor to the meat, it’s the components of the sauce—those various things that made up the braising liquid—that I want to write about.
One of the happiest results of making all sorts of condiments at home is that using them as cooking liquids can lead to pretty spectacular results. It’s easy to make your own barbecue sauce by mixing, say, store-bought ketchup, honey, vinegar, fruit juice, and hot sauce (with a million possible variations) together and cooking it down a bit, and it can taste pretty great. But when you make all of the various parts from scratch and then assemble them, especially to enhance a beautiful hunk of pastured pork, you’re winning at sauce.
The components of the sauce were, in approximately descending order of percentage:
- The goat whey resulting from some cheese I made a couple of days before using a half gallon of raw milk given to me by some people I know who raise goats. I had left it out at room temperature so it would get extra tangy.
- A pint of my smoked tomato-jalapeño salsa from last summer. It also has onion, garlic, coriander, and vinegar in it.
- Some maple syrup made at the end of the season after the weather warmed up and the sap began to ferment in the buckets before we boiled it. It’s sweet, but has a funky, slightly sour edge to it that’s pretty nifty.
- Some of my homemade hoisin-esque sauce made from a pile of plums I bought a couple of summers ago. It sits right in the pocket between sweet, sour, and savory; I tend to use it on chicken liver pâté. It’s basically plums, vinegar, maple, and fish sauce.
The shoulder simmered in this mixture for about two hours; by the time the meat was tender the liquid had reduced to a perfect thickness. I served it with cornbread that I enriched with pickled jalapeños from last summer and some good local cheddar.
And here’s the thing: this wasn’t some transcendent, revelatory experience. The sauce was not some sort of Platonic ideal that rocked our worlds after lives spent eating merely the flickering shadows of sauce. It tasted exactly like barbecue sauce, but really, really good barbecue sauce with no cloying sweetness or too-sharp vinegar, no icky tongue-coating texture or two-dimensional spice simulacra. It was deep, and sweet, and tangy, and hot, and we couldn’t stop eating it. Four adults made a three-pound piece of meat disappear.
When you make your ingredients with ingredients you grow or acquire from gifted farmers, not only do you have a granular understanding of their natures but you also get to mix all your cool projects together to make a sauce that the most traditionalist of carnivores would enthusiastically devour. Whey is just another kind of acidity, albeit one with added complexity, and combined with the vinegar in the salsa helped to impart a multi-layered tang the same way that the sweetness of plums and maple (which also added its own funk) built the counterbalancing sweetness. Fermented chilies and black pepper heat your mouth in different ways, so the spice presented differently up front than it did on its elegant finish. And the meat and fish sauce contributed plenty of umami. How you get these various essential flavors into your sauce is not as important as making sure they’re in there in the most interesting and honest ways possible.
I have enough plum sauce left to reproduce this about twice more, though whether I have goat whey on hand will be an open question. It doesn’t matter; my barbecue sauce is always different. This one was good enough, however, that I’m considering using the rest of the hoisin and funky maple to make a dedicated batch and can a bunch of it.
The photo is one I took at Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena, where Zak smoked a pig for 100 people near the end of our book tour out there. I didn’t take pictures yesterday, so this post gives me a reason to use the shot.