Barbecued chicken, ’Bama style

by Terry B on July 14, 2008

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.

Kitchen Notes

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?

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Hess July 16, 2008 at 1:00 pm

That. Sounds. Wonderful. What a fun change of pace!

carolyn July 16, 2008 at 4:31 pm

Hey, I’ve never heard of white barbeque sauce. But if its base is mayonnaise, I could do it!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) July 16, 2008 at 8:58 pm

White barbecue sauce — new to me. But if it’s tangy (there, I said it, too!) and packs some heat, I’m going to give it a try.

Mary Coleman July 16, 2008 at 9:55 pm

I’ve never heard of such a thing. And Groom’s family is all over the Mobile and Fairhope area. Sounds great. I’ll have to try this.

birdyrn July 17, 2008 at 12:06 am

I just cooked these up to take to an outdoor theater production this evening, and oh my goodness! they just get better with every bite!

Terry B July 17, 2008 at 12:52 am

Thanks, Jennifer! That’s exactly what it was.

carolyn and Lydia—I’d never heard of it either. If we saw it on the menu when we were at Big Bob’s several years ago, I probably saw the word mayonnaise and ran the other way.

Mary—Your comment perfectly demonstrates just how regional barbecue can be.

birdyrn—I’m so glad you liked it! We all often say something sounds great and we’re definitely going to make it [me included], but it’s always particularly gratifying when someone actually makes a dish and likes it. Thanks!

dave July 17, 2008 at 1:04 am

i’ve never had that Alabama white sauce but i’m totally intrigued! and love how this chicken looks. it’s been a while since i had chicken like this. grilled and perfect. man oh man am i missing out sometimes. x

diva July 17, 2008 at 1:05 am

whoops sorry Terry. realized i posted as Dave. didn’t mean to confuse you so thought i’d give u heads up that Dave is me — diva, poppin’ in from the sugar bar. :)

Terry B July 17, 2008 at 1:11 am

diva/dave—Not a problem. Maybe you can make some grilled chicken with white sauce for dave. Or get him to make it for you!

Mike of Mike's Table July 17, 2008 at 7:41 pm

I’d never heard of a sauce like this before. It sounds good and your photos look great–I’ll have to give this one a try for sure.

Donald July 17, 2008 at 8:09 pm

Being from Philly, I had never heard of this sauce. I have been here in Atlanta since ’89 and have since dated a woman from Birmingham, fired automatic weapons from a foxhole with any number of guys from Bama, and most currently, I work with a guy every day who is from Bama. I have had at least 10 different versions of this sauce. Most good.

I make a variation of my own that I like on wings.

It definitely is good stuff!

S for Kitchen Confit July 18, 2008 at 2:57 am

That will make an interesting flavor on the chicken.

Alanna July 18, 2008 at 11:02 am

Ha! And here I thought that ‘Bama meant you were declaring your political loyalty! Love the simplicity of this, I bet most kitchens have all the ingredients, even the horseradish — or SHOULD, even the horseradish! Very fun, Terry!

Terry B July 18, 2008 at 12:40 pm

Mike—This one sounds right up your alley. Do give it a try.

Donald—I hope the foxhole wasn’t in Atlanta. I’d love to hear about the wings; maybe you can do a post.

S for Kitchen Confit—It does indeed. Thanks for stopping by!

Alanna—Yeah, I thought some readers might take it that way, but what can you do? We usually do have horseradish in the house, but hadn’t for a while. Now that we do, I’m ready to find some interesting ways to use it.

dawn July 18, 2008 at 1:54 pm

I am new to your food blog. I love it here, and am bookmarking you. Thanks for the tip on the jazz; I am such a HUGE fan of jazz. That album is right up my alley.
Wonderful recipes.

evi July 20, 2008 at 3:22 am

I can’t wait to give this a try!! It sounds tangy and delicious!

Tim July 21, 2008 at 3:27 pm

Ooh that looks good. When I read the title I thought this was barbecued chicken, Obama style. That would definitely get me more interested in US politics :)

Terry B July 21, 2008 at 3:42 pm

dawn—Thanks! And especially thanks for visiting my kitchen boombox sidebar blog. It doesn’t get as much attention as I wish it did.

evi—There’s that word tangy again!

Tim—Yep, I didn’t even think about readers outside the US not knowing ’Bama is short for Alabama. My quick visit to your beautiful blog tells me I’ll be back.

Lisa July 21, 2008 at 5:18 pm

Glad you’ve stepped out of the kitchen and on to the deck. With recipes like this, what’s not to like? I’m definitely trying this one!!

Leslie July 24, 2008 at 10:57 pm

mmmm. that’s my kinda chicken!

Teresa August 1, 2008 at 9:46 pm

Yum! I love this dish! We had it for dinner last night. :-)

Cyndi August 12, 2008 at 9:09 pm

I’m familiar with Bob Gibson restaurant since I’m just across the river from Decatur (Huntsville). You can buy his sauce at any grocery store here in this area. I think this sauce is local to North Alabama and not known even in LA (lower Alabama). There are a lot of bbq joints here who do their own version of this sauce and my fave is actually from a place between Huntsville and Decatur called Greenbriar Bar-b-que. Here the way it is eaten is over regular bbq chicken (the red type of sauce) after it is brought to your table. The sauce is always on the table and is used like a condiment like ketchup on french fries. A lot is not required, just enough you know it is there. I’m always amazed at the looks I receive when I travel to other areas and ask for white sauce in a bbq place. I’ve never found it outside of this general vicinity. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

linda September 12, 2008 at 6:42 pm

I live in Alabama, B’ham area and I love white bbq sauce. I will definitely try this. I often have leftover butt after a big holiday and we started making bbq pork enchilada’s…. might have to use some white sauce and diced jalapenos to kick it up a notch….

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