Back to Basics Vegan-style: BBQ Sauce

By KD Traegner, Founder & Editor-in-Chief

The weather is warming up, and whenever it does I’m reminded of how much I love to grill.  Actually, I am very fortunate to have two charcoal grills at my house (thanks Mom and Dad) and they get used- a lot.  Incidentally, whenever I start to talk about grilling people seem surprised that vegans like to barbecue- it’s like if you aren’t roasting animal you can’t use a grill.  Psh! There are tons of options for vegans. Some of my favorites are; seitan skewers, corn on the cob, fruit, and marinated mushroom caps, potatoes- I could go on and on.

I am also a self-admitted BBQ sauce addict. I will, and have, eaten on nearly everything. BBQ tofu? Yes, please. BBQ tempeh? Yup. Eggplant? Sure. Pineapple. Why not? I have always made my own BBQ sauce for two reasons; one, I like the way I make it and two, it’s way cheaper than that store bought junk. Now listen, making sauce is a snap so don’t worry if you’re not particularly savvy in the kitchen. Once you know the basics, you can tailor the flavors to suit your own tastebuds.

The Basics

First things first, choose the flavor profile for the BBQ sauce to suit the food it’s going on. For instance, I don’t like to use a sweet barbecue sauce on pineapple since the pineapple is so sweet on it’s own. I pair super spicy sauces with super sweet foods and sweet sauces on savory foods because I like the contrast of flavors- but go with your gut. In this case I mean that literally, go with what your belly likes. That’s the great thing about making your own sauce, you can tailor it to you.

The Base

Let’s talk the base.  Barbecue sauce usually has some type of tomato base. I typically use ketchup.  I know, I know- some folks shudder at using ketchup because of the added sugar, but for barbecue sauce the added sugar really works out well.  If you prefer, you could use a mix of tomato sauce and paste to the same consistency as ketchup. Be sure to use unsalted tomato sauce since you’ll be adding salt later in the form of soy or shoyu sauce. If unsalted tomato sauce is unavailable, you can leave out the soy or shoyu sauce later.

To the ketchup base you’ll add: apple cider vinegar and olive oil. The oil binds the sauce and makes it extra smeary and the apple cider vinegar is the acid you’ll need to balance the sweet ketchup.

Choose Your Flavor Profile

Now that you have a base, you have to choose what type of sauce do you want. Do you want something spicy? Sweet? Maybe a mix of both? Remember, choose a sauce that compliments the food you’re using it on.

I thought it might be helpful to give you a list of ingredients that you can mix and match to help you create the perfect barbecue sauce flavor. Choose one or two components from each category and mix together- don’t just add everything from one category. This list is meant to help give you ideas, it is by no means an exhaustive list or a recipe:

The Salty

  • Soy or shoyu sauce, salt

The Sweet

  • Molasses, maple syrup, agave syrup, fruit jam

The Heat

  • Chilies, jalapeno or other hot peppers, onion, garlic, red chili flakes, cayenne pepper, hot sauce

The Spice Rack

  • Sweet paprika, oregano, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, salt

The Smoke

  • Smoked paprika, liquid smoke

Patience is a Virtue

Once you have your sauce put together, put in in a glass jar (or other air-tight container) and place it in the fridge. The longer the sauce sits, the better the flavors will be. I like to prepare barbecue sauce in big batches so I always have some on hand when I need some.

Now that you know the basics of how to make a barbecue sauce, it’s time to make your own. I’ve given you a first-timers recipe below to help get you started. Once you master the basics you’ll be off creating combinations of your own.

Homemade Vegan BBQ Sauce

  • 2 cups ketchup
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1/8 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup dark purple jam such as blueberry or blackberry
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup or agave
  • 1 tablespoon shoyu sauce (or soy sauce)
  • 2 cloves garlic – minced or pressed
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano (use more if fresh)
  • two dashes hot sauce (or more to taste)
  • fresh cracked pepper to taste

Whisk together until fully combined.  Put in a saucepan, cover and simmer for 20 minutes on LOW.

This recipe is part of our Vegan 101 Basic Recipe Series. Check out the full series to learn the basics of vegan cooking.