For a Barbecue Sauce That Sings, Simmer Your Soda Pop

Soda finds delicious redemption as the base of lip-smacking barbecue sauce.
Photo of Cola Scotch Bonnet Barbeque Sauce With Grilled Pork Spareribs.
Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Christopher Barsch

Barbecue isn’t part of my DNA; as a Trinidadian, my heart beats more seawater than smoke. But I’ve fully embraced summer by the grill in my North Carolina home, cooking fish, poultry, pork, and hefty vegetables on the grates while I sip the easiest possible drink. Mine is a simple and straightforward approach to grilling, and the sauce formula I’ve used for years reflects that simplicity.

A few years ago, I walked down the supermarket condiment aisle in search of a barbecue sauce that would hit all the right notes and be a toast to whatever it was slathered and lacquered upon. There were too many choices, but none of them seemed to satisfy my specific preference for something deep, distinct, and dynamic. I craved a clean heat, penetrating sweetness, and an ever-present uptick of spice. There were the big-brand offerings, gourmet “chef-inspired” bottles, sauces with fruit or with heat, and various locally-made options. But I didn’t purchase any sauce that day, instead going home with a more substantive understanding of the commonalities among barbecue sauces. In that aisle, there were multiple sources of sweetness, such as brown sugar, cane sugar, and molasses; a pantry-load of savory spices; and more than one acid, from a mixture of tomato purée and vinegar (white, cider, or other).

Mustard meets ginger in this vibrant homemade barbecue sauce.

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Christopher Barsch

I reasoned that soda pop, with its rapid fizz of sweetness, tang, and spice, could make for an appropriate—and maybe unexpected—backdrop against which the other, bolder ingredients in the sauce could revel. By the time I arrived home, two soda-spiked barbecue sauces—one using Coca-Cola as a base, and the other employing ginger ale—had practically made themselves in my mind. These two carbonated classics capture a sweetness that gently buzzes more than it harshly burns.

In the Coca-Cola-based sauce, the cola is simmered with finely chopped Scotch bonnet chiles until it bubbles and thickens to create a bedrock reduction of fruity fire. The other ingredients—grated sweet onion, minced garlic, a heavy squirt of tomato ketchup, salt, pepper, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, and smoky, tropical ground allspice—layer onto that sweet, dark, fiery base to produce a sauce that is unapologetically lively.

My other barbecue sauce, made with ginger ale, shares a similar composition but embodies contrasting flavors. In this version, fresh ginger and pungent Dijon mustard are simmered with ginger ale, creating a rush of big, edgy flavors that’s followed by a quieter release of nuanced tastes. In this mustardy sauce that only slightly thickens, the gingery base awakens the mixture of apple cider vinegar, white sugar, red pepper flakes, honey, garlic, and grated sweet onion.

Summer after summer, I’ve come to respect that the joy of these two sauces is in their resplendence and their range. The ginger ale version, with its clean streaks of spice and acid, doesn’t outmaneuver the flavors of fish, whether it’s sturdy and fatty King mackerel or sweet, mild halibut. One might be inclined to think that milder-flavored meat or veg—lean chicken breast or a slab of cauliflower—would fall flat under the tomatoey heft and sweeping bands of tropical heat in the cola-based variation. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the dense barbecue sauce finds its way into the texture of the dish, imparting boldness, bulk, and brightness to the finished product. And ribs? Well, with ribs, both versions shine. I’ll leave it to you to choose a favorite.

Through these two sauces, I’ve come to appreciate that central to barbecue is an understanding of how opposites converge: the spicy and savory against the sweet; the hours-long process of preparation versus the minutes it takes to devour; and the juxtaposition of ethereally tender meat encased in a crust so crisp that it shatters at the first bite. These delicious diametrics make it almost impossible to have just one bite.

A sauce made from soda pop is a cohesive combination of opposites, too. Rather than a harsh rush of syrup and carbonation, the soda rallies around the other ingredients to create a release of flavors that you can taste in slow motion. When simmered, soda pop does the exact opposite of what it does when it’s drunk. It mellows out and pries open the essence of other ingredients, producing a lip-smacking sauce that’s both a surprise and a year-after-year summertime staple.