Mayonnaise, cider vinegar and horseradish come together in the surprisingly subtle, tangy Alabama White Sauce first created by Big Bob Gibson in 1925. It adds great flavor to pork, beef or—as you’ll see here—grilled chicken. Recipes below.
Seems I’m always quoting comedian Steven Wright’s line, “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.” Recently we were at our friends Allen and Sharon’s house for a barbecue. When I asked about the origin of the promising-smelling Alabama White Sauce Allen was slathering on the chicken, he said it was from Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, a fixture in Decatur, Alabama, since 1925. We’ve not only been to Big Bob’s, Marion has an oversized T-shirt from there that she sometimes uses as a sleep shirt!
The chicken was absolutely delicious. When I asked Allen for more sauce details, he said that this was actually purchased from Big Bob’s website. [Is it just me or is there something inherently wrong with a venerable Southern barbecue shack having a website?] But he also had a recipe he’d found online; he’d made it in the past and thought it was pretty close. I immediately knew what I’d be posting this week.
Big Bob came by the nickname honestly, according to his website, clocking in at 300 pounds and standing six-foot-four. With his equally big personality and addictive tangy White Sauce, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q kept moving to ever bigger quarters around Decatur, and it’s stayed a family affair, with the fourth generation now running three locations—two in Decatur and a new one in Monroe, North Carolina. With barbecue being such a fiercely regional thing, it will be interesting to see if Big Bob’s style translates well in North Carolina.
Variations on a saucy theme. Big Bob may have invented Alabama White Sauce, but that hasn’t stopped people from reinventing it, again and again. Just Googling the term turned up 49,300 results. Two constants were mayonnaise and vinegar. Cayenne pepper often showed up, but in tiny quantities, for the most part. But the one that sounded best was the recipe Allen had supplied, from GroupRecipes. I of course had to tamper with it. Not just to mark my culinary territory—the original recipe sounded like it would be a little too sweet and that there wouldn’t be enough cayenne pepper for my taste. Marion and I stood there sampling as I tweaked [and yes, we used clean spoons each time].
There were nearly as many variations on how to cook the chicken and deploy the sauce. Alabama White Sauce does not work as a marinade—the mayonnaise would break down when cooked from the beginning and the sauce overall would burn—so no one suggested that. Most recipes call for basting with the sauce the last few minutes of cooking, which I did. Some recommend brushing it on the still hot chicken once it’s removed from the grill, as it rests before serving. One recipe even directs you to toss the cooked chicken in a bowl with the sauce. Now, that sounded absurd to me. With all the mayonnaise in the sauce, that would be like a big, poorly mixed chicken salad.
One of the coolest things for me about this sauce is that the flavors all meld together into a nice, slightly tangy [how many times have I used that word in this post now?], slightly spicy finish that complements the grilled chicken’s smokiness. None of the flavors takes center stage—I would challenge you to even identify horseradish if you hadn’t read the ingredients list, for instance. it’s a wonderful, light-tasting change from your typical red barbecue sauce. Hey, Big Bob built a multi-generation empire on it.
Alabama White Sauce, with Grilled Chicken
For the White Sauce
Makes about 1-1/2 cups
1 cup good-quality mayonnaise
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish [see Kitchen Notes]
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cayenne [see Kitchen Notes]
Make the sauce. Combine all of the ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and whisk well to combine. Cover bowl and store in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
Grill the chicken. Honestly, if you’ve grilled chicken in the past, you can use whatever method works for you and just pick up where I say, “Sauce the chicken.” Here’s what I did. I salted and peppered a dozen leg and thigh pieces, then started cooking them with the indirect grilling method I used for these Grilled Hoisin Chicken Thighs. Then I moved the chicken over the coals to brown and finish cooking uncovered, turning it occasionally and moving it away from flare-ups.
Sauce the chicken. When an instant read thermometer registered 165ºF, I began slathering the chicken liberally with the White Sauce, again turning it a couple/few times and saucing it each time. After 5 or so minutes, I declared this bridge open and transferred the chicken to a serving platter, let it rest for maybe 10 minutes, then served it.
When did horseradish become exotic? We’ve bought plain, simple prepared horseradish on occasion in the past, and it’s always been readily available, right there with all the other condiments. But this weekend what I found at the supermarket were kind of Epcot Center versions of horseradish—sort of a horseradish experience, only artificial and watered down so as not to offend anyone. The frighteningly long list of ingredients even included high-fructose corn syrup! Finally I found genuine prepared hot horseradish at a kosher deli and bakery. Hold out for the real thing.
How much cayenne pepper? Most recipes for Alabama White Sauce called for a mere 1/4 teaspoon, which falls firmly into the why bother category for me. The recipe I started with called for 1/2 teaspoon. Tasting as I mixed it, this still didn’t seem like much, so I goosed it up to 3/4 teaspoon. Still, the heat was subtle to Marion and me. Marion’s sister thought it had some definite heat. So know your own tolerance level as you add the cayenne.
And yes, Lisa. I am grilling more this summer, even though I profess to not be a big fan of grilling. I figured it was about time I got over myself.
Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 7/16/2008
Small Bites: 101 picnic dishes, mayo safety & food memories. An inspired picnic list from the Minimalist, a surprising study about mayonnaise and food poisoning and the emotional power of food, at WTF? Random food for thought.
Ornette Coleman: Change of the Century. Early avant garde jazz just gets better with each listen, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?