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A year ago I made my first Carolina-style BBQ sauce (specifically a Piedmont-style sauce). It was perfect, exactly what I was looking for in every way. I've never been able to replicate it.

The first batch was made with whatever red-cider vinegar we had in the cupboard; I didn't take notice of the brand, but I believe it was a supermarket generic brand, possibly either Giant or Harris-Teeter. The second batch I made was very, very harsh, and through trial and error I determined that it was the brand of vinegar that I used (Heinz red cider vinegar). The next batch was made with red wine vinegar and it was much better, but still not as good as the first batch (I still have a tiny bit of the first batch left). My latest batch is even better still, using the Giant-brand red cider vinegar -- but it's still not as good as that first batch.

I don't have words for why the first batch is better, other than "less harsh". Logically I know that vinegars can vary tremendously, and if I use a store brand, that will likely vary even more from batch to batch than a name brand; how can I make something that consistently excels if I can't define what I'm looking for?

My husband jokingly told me to find someone with a mass spectrometer, but I'm seriously considering it. Is there a better way? How do I go about figuring out what is different about that first batch? My supply is rapidly dwindling, just a few tablespoons, now.

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    Supermarket vinegars range in concentration, typically 5% by weight, but I have seen as low as 3% and as high as 9%. Vinegars are more complex than just pH though, like all fermentation products. Traces of higher alcohols, other acids and aldehydes, let alone flavour./aroma producing molecules can make a huge difference, good and bad. You are much better off with an HPLC than a mass-spec if you really want to go that far. – user110084 Jun 13 '17 at 9:17
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The way that brands of the same kind of vinegar can vary is often water content, i.e. the concentration of acid in the vinegar. Some will be more concentrated and therefore more acidic than others, when you switch to a vinegar that is more concentrated than another your result is more acidic and therefore harsh. There's no real standard or rule that I know of when it comes to vinegar strength, and it's not on the labelling, so it's hard to know what you're getting. In general I've found store brands to be weaker than more expensive brands, so I think you're getting inconsistent results because of inconsistent acidity in the vinegars you buy.

If you are going to get a consistent result you need to develop a method which will compensate for the inconsistency, there's more than one possibility that comes to mind:

  • Be scientific and use PH strips to measure the acid content of the vinegar you are using. Measure the acidity of the vinegar you've had the best success with and then add water to a stronger vinegar in order to make the PH match. You could also get an expensive electric tester for this but PH strips are cheap (a hundred for less than $10), reliable and accurate
  • Use your sense of taste. If you are using a stronger vinegar you'll need less of it, so start with a lower amount, say half, then add small amounts until it has the flavor you want. The consideration with this method is that adding less vinegar means less liquid overall, giving you a thicker sauce. You'll probably want to add a bit of water to compensate for that, but when you do it will dilute the flavors, including the acidity

The scientific method's main benefit is that it gives you the most consistency, you'll get the right acid balance every time without guesswork. One's sense of taste can change significantly depending on many factors, for instance if you have a cold, what you've eaten recently, even mood, so if absolute consistency is what you want then a bit of chemistry is the way to go.

  • Cheap pH meters are fiddly, need too many recalibrations. Far better off with strips. With a bright light, it is amazing how you can tell even subtle colour differences. Taste sensitivity is not consistent from day to day or even moment to moment, made worse by how badly we remember exact tastes and flavours. – user110084 Jun 13 '17 at 9:12
  • I purchased a narrow-band pH strip (0-6 as opposed to 0-12) and tested the acidity of both batches and they came up identical, so that's not my issue... – Joe Casadonte Jun 20 '17 at 20:22
  • It's good you were able to eliminate that as a factor @JoeCasadonte, now you can look at other aspects. – GdD Jun 21 '17 at 7:23

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