Forget Ketchup & Mustard: My New Obsession Is Chicken Sauce
Our columnist tastes Sweet Baby Ray’s new sauce and falls in love. He then tries to reverse engineer the secret to its flavor.
I’m not ashamed to admit this, but I’m currently obsessed with Sweet Baby Ray’s Chicken Sauce.
Okay, maybe I’m a little ashamed. I’m not really a dip guy. My condiments tend towards fiery or fermented. I’m into nuoc cham, not honey mustard.
So what does this magical concoction taste like anyway? Chicken sauce is tangy and smoky and sweet. Kind of like a mix of barbecue sauce, mustard and mayonnaise. It’s close to the sauce that comes on a Shake Shack burger, but with more mustard and more smoke.
Needless to say, in the name of research I have tried it with many different types of food. My son and I smeared it on burgers and ham sandwiches, and dunked French fries into it. We, of course, also fried strips of chicken (brined in pickle juice and dredged in masa flour) and pulled them through puddles of the sauce.
It’s reminiscent of other sauces, but it is clearly a variant of its own, and my first question was one of origin. Who eats chicken sauce? I figured it must hail from a corner of American food about which I know little, and that it would turn out to be a staple of Wisconsin supper clubs or from the Minnesota fair food. As far as I can tell, this is not the case. I asked around, but nobody has an answer. I’m not asserting that it doesn’t exist in the wild, I’m just saying I can’t find it.
Tom Murphy of Ken’s Foods, the company which makes Sweet Baby Ray’s products, told me that they didn’t, in fact, tap some long cherished regional specialty to develop the sauce, but looked within the company.
Basically, he says they wanted to combine the traditional flavors of honey mustard and barbecue sauce into something new. It doesn’t hurt that they have a very successful line of dipping sauces and have noticed how people actually now use condiments. “They don’t just use it in traditional barbecue applications,” he told me. “They are putting it on the side of their plate, using it as a sandwich spread, to dunk chicken nuggets.”
This is exactly the way that Mississippians talk about comeback sauce, which is the closest thing I can think of to chicken sauce.
There is a comeback sauce mentioned on a menu in Florida in 1906, according to a story in the National Herald by Steve Frangos. Others have found a comeback sauce used on barbecue in Kansas City around the turn of the century.
But the comeback sauce known in Mississippi is rooted in Alex Dennery’s 1936 recipe for house dressing at his famed Rotisserie Restaurant. It is basically a stop on the spectrum between thousand island dressing and remoulade sauce. It quickly spread to the other Greek-owned restaurants in Jackson, such as The Mayflower and Crechale’s. (While The Mayflower is often credited with the invention of the sauce, its owner credits Dennery for the recipe.)
At Dennery’s the sauce shows up before appetizers and is first drizzled on saltine crackers. It is then showered on a house salad and I don’t think it ever leaves the table. The condiment leapt from those Greek-owned restaurants to ubiquity at some point.
So much so that celebrity chef John Currence, owner of Oxford’s award-winning City Grocery, writes in his book, Big Bad Breakfast, that the sauce is, in culinary terms, “one of the very few things that Mississippians can claim as their own.” In fact he thinks comeback sauce “goes great on fried pickles, fish, shrimp, and chicken or drizzled over a salad.”
My impression—and I hope that I am correct—is that comeback sauce is not exactly holy ground. I’ve eaten and read about a number of variants. I started thinking that Sweet Baby Ray’s Chicken Sauce was a lot like what you’d get if you made a comeback sauce but used a Kansas City style barbecue sauce in place of ketchup and chili sauce. I soon tried it, and the result eclipsed the whole spectrum of shake sauce/special sauce/fry sauce riffs we do around my house, especially when we make burgers.
I’m not saying my sauce is just like Sweet Baby Ray’s Chicken Sauce—it isn’t—but it certainly was inspired by it. Ken’s Foods is rolling out Chicken Sauce across the country over the next few months, and a lot of grocery stores have it already. We’ve all been eating a lot of our own cooking, and finding small ways to change things can be really refreshing. So, give it a try.
And if you feel like making some of my now signature BBQ Comeback Sauce, here is the recipe:
Grate a clove of garlic into a bowl, I used a Microplane, but you could squish it with a press or crush the garlic with salt. Add three or four dashes of a straightforward hot sauce (Sweet Baby Ray’s makes one, in fact, or use Crystal, or Louisiana, or Frank’s or whichever one you like). Add a tablespoon of pickle juice, a quarter teaspoon of onion powder, a half a teaspoon of smoked paprika and two teaspoons of yellow mustard. Stir in a quarter cup of Kansas City style barbecue sauce (again, I had a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s), and a quarter cup of mayonnaise (do I have to say it’s Duke’s? You know it’s Duke’s.) I don’t put Worcestershire in there, but feel free to drizzle some. Stir it all up and use it liberally.