Originally concocted when Philadelphia pharmacist Charles E. Hires blended a combination of 16 different wild roots and berries including sassafras, juniper, wintergreen and pipsissewa, root beer was introduced to the world in 1876 alongside other new offerings such as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and H. J. Heinz’s ketchup.
Never as popular as cola but fiercely beloved by the faction of the population who can’t get enough of a foamy head frothing out of a frosty mug, root beer is as American as apple pie but is a bit of a second-class citizen in the soda world due to its somewhat polarizing nature.
Joy Wilson, better known as Joy the Baker to her Instagram fans, is part of the vocal minority that finds root beer, which is expected to have a global market size of $1.09 billion by 2030, to be a tantalizing treat instead of a tastebud trick. When Wilson, who fell in love with the drink as a kid because it was her grandfather’s favorite soda, was looking for a new ingredient to add to a barbecue sauce she was working on, it was root beer that came to mind.
“I feel like root beer doesn’t get enough due in the culinary world and just gets relegated to floats,” Wilson tells InsideHook. “It’s such a nostalgic flavor for me. I was thinking about making a homemade barbecue sauce and needed to add an element of sweetness. What is dark and sweet? My friend root beer. It also felt very summery to me. So, I started experimenting.”
That experimentation took Wilson, a three-time cookbook author and baking instructor who also serves as the editor-in-chief of her own Joy the Baker magazine, a bit longer than she was anticipating because balancing the sauce’s sweetness without making it too syrupy was a tad tricky. “I had to find the right balance of root beer to tomato and Worcestershire sauce,” she says. “I ended up adding a little bit of ground ginger because I felt like the recipe was missing some warmth. Cinnamon was a bit over-the-top and too spicy, but I found the ground ginger to be really complementary to the root beer. Fresh ginger is really sharp, but ground ginger felt like the sweet spot.”
Typically used by Wilson for burgers, but versatile enough to work with turkey meatloaf or other savory leftovers that could use some spicing and sweetening up, the root beer BBQ sauce has been a pleasant addition to 41-year-old’s selection of summertime sauces.
“Maybe it’s perceived as childish or doesn’t feel like it has a natural place in a savory world, but root beer is a sweet ingredient that can add a nice surprise,” Wilson says. “It doesn’t have to be the most complicated thing to coax the most amount of flavor out of something. It was fun to take an ingredient that is silly, simple and close to my heart and make it into an unexpected summer staple. I’m just concerned I’m going to start drinking the straight barbecue sauce. That would be a problem.”
Sounds like a good problem to have. Here’s how to make it yours.
Root Beer BBQ Sauce (makes 4 cups)
- 2 cups root beer
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 1/2 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
- 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
- 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp. molasses
- 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp. onion powder
- 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp. fresh cracked black pepper
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- A few dashes of hot sauce, to taste
- Combine all ingredients in a medium, heavy bottom saucepan over medium heat.
- Bring to a simmer and lower heat.
- Allow mixture to simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, reducing until desired thickness. The sauce will thicken some as it cools.
- Taste and add additional seasoning to your taste.
- Allow the sauce to cool before placing it in a jar.
- Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
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