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Taste Test: Barbecue Sauce
Best Kansas City-Style (Sweet, Thick): Bull's-Eye and Trader Joe's
Best Vinegar-Based (Tangy): Stubb's
Have you ever been full from barbecue sauce, not actual barbecue? Yeah, we hadn't either—until this tasting. It was a strange feeling, and not one we recommend, but necessary in order to find our favorite brand of barbecue sauce.
We tried 16 nationally available brands, in search for one that had the right amount of tang, smokiness, and lingering heat, without being pancake syrup sweet.
If you've been reading Josh Bousel's Sauced column lately, you know that making it from scratch isn't all that hard. Throw a few cupboard staples together in a pot, stir, wait a bit, and bam, you've churned out barbecue sauce. But for many of us, it ends up being whatever we pick up at the grocery store, and thankfully there are some decent ones out there.
We divvied up the sauces into two styles: the spicy, vinegary variety, and the sweeter, thicker Kansas City style sauces. For the full break-down on sauce styles, read James's sauce guide, as well as this one on regional styles. For the purposes of our storebought tasting, the two categories covered them all.
What Makes a Good Barbecue Sauce?
- Texture: They can be anywhere from thin and runny to molasses-thick. There's no right or wrong with thickness and texture, according to Josh, but it can help define the best use for the sauce.
- Aroma: The smell can make or break a sauce. You can have a perfectly cooked rib or pulled pork, but top it with an off-smelling sauce, and the whole thing becomes an unfortunate experience.
- Flavor: For the Kansas City-style sauces, we expected sweeter and thicker, but still needed the balance of tang and heat. For the more vinegar-based sauces, we were looking for the acidic tang, but thickened and slightly sweetened with tomato paste, and peppery heat to round it out.
We scored the sauces on a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best).
Best Kansas City-Style (Tie: 5.7): Bull's-Eye
We've all squirted Bulls-Eye onto our plates at some backyard barbecue at some point, right? It immediately tasted familiar, and probably earned some nostalgia points for that. There's some acidity, some smokiness, some heat, and a generous amount of molasses sweetness. Too sweet for some palates, though. Overall it's a little artificial tasting, in a standard chain BBQ restaurant kind of way, but y'know, it's really not that bad. Labeled "the bold choice" for barbecue—and compared to the others it sure packed a bold wallop—Bull's Eye can be found it just about every supermarket, and comes in nine varieties. (We tried "Original.")
Best Kansas City-Style (Tie: 5.7): TJ's Bold & Smoky
This is a touch less sweet than the Bulls-Eye brand. Vinegary, tangy, and some sweetness to be sure, but with enough bitterness to keep it balanced. We really liked the smooth texture—it wasn't gloppy or runny. It could use a little more heat but had a pleasant balance nonetheless. We liked it much better than Trader Joe's other available barbecue sauce: Trader Joe's All-Natural Sauce (more on why below).
Best Vinegar-Based Sauce (5.2): Stubb's
You might be familiar with the Stubbs story. A man named Christopher B. Stubblefield, nicknamed "Stubb," opened a barbecue joint in Lubbock, Texas, back in 1968, which doubled as a live music hotspot. In the 1980s, Stubb relocated his restaurant-cum-venue to Austin (which is still open today) and in 1992, gained some national fame after an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. He went on to start a line of barbecue sauces and rubs, now available at many supermarkets. Stubb's smiling, cowboy hat-wearing face (he died in 1995, rest his soul) is still on every bottle with this quote: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm a cook."
Alright, now onto the sauce! There's a lot of tomato and vinegar happening here, but it's not ketchupy sweet as with many others. More of a deeper tomato paste. This fades into tangyness, and the smoky spice lingers. The Stubbles man sure put some bite into this one. There are visible specks of black pepper and garlic, too.
The Rest of the Kansas City-Style Sauces
Sweet Baby Ray's (5.5)
The spice hits immediately with this one, then progressively gets stronger. It's balanced with both a sweet and sour background. Though not particularly unique in flavor profile, it's what we've always thought of as "barbecue sauce," at least in the world of supermarket varieties. If you want something to have that ubiquitous "barbecue" flavor (and hey, we're not judging) then this one's for you.
KC Masterpiece (5.5)
Lots of dark molasses with a hint of maple. Thick and sweet to be sure, but not enough tang or heat. "Reminiscent of hoisin sauce," said one taster. Though it wasn't all that special, it scored pretty well because it was familiar for many of us, much like Bulls-Eye.
Guy Fieri (5.25)
And here you thought he just had his own signature line of shades! Fieri is a pretty busy guy (har har). Of his four sauces available, we tried the Kansas City barbecue sauce. It's pretty one-dimensional with a black pepper kick (you'll see the black flecks in there) and a heavy hand of molasses. "Not a lotta complexity," said one taster.
Trader Joe's All-Natural (4.67)
As noted above, if you're at TJ's and shopping for barbecue sauce, this isn't the one. You want the Kansas City style sauce, which tied for first place in this category. This product, on the other hand, is trying to burn your mouth off. Don't get us wrong, we like a good mouth sizzle when it belongs there, but not so much for 'cue sauces. It was the only woah-there-turn-down-the-heat sauce of the 16 brands. Hot with an ashy, acidic flavor. "Dirty tasting," said one taster.
Jack Daniel's Original No.7 (4.67)
Like the Budweiser sauce (see below), this also gets booze into the mix. Very smoky and sweet, almost beefy, but you won't really detect the whiskey. Unless you count the burnt finish. "Tastes like a candle," said one taster. "Christmas eve with the fireplace burning the cold house!" said another.
Very ketchupy with a slight fruitiness. No smoke, acid, or heat to balance it all out, though. Not very complex.
"The most generic tasting," said one taster. It's sticky and candy-sweet with no heat. Closer to a salad dressing (coincidentally enough; we had no idea it was Kraft in the blind tasting!) than a barbecue sauce.
Too ketchupy and gloppy. Vaguely plum-flavored, but more reminiscent of sticky plum sauce than the actual drupe fruit. Thick and too overpowered by the fruity sweetness.
Wait, Budweiser makes a...barbecue sauce? And there's beer in it? Yes and yes. Speckled with dehydrated onion and garlic flecks, it's pretty funky, but not in a good way. Vinegary and spicy up front with an off-putting aftertaste. "Tastes like stale beer mixed with Italian dressing," said one taster. Eekers. We'll just stick to drinking Budweiser, thanks.
Annie's Natural (3.17)
Tomatoey, lemony, celery-y. Very vegetal, and way too much dried spice. Not what we want when we want barbecue sauce. Needs more vinegar bite. Needs less tomato paste action. Needs to probably stay away from our grill.
The Rest of the Vinegar-Based Sauces
Lip Lickin' (4.8)
Barbecue sauces sure love the word "lick." Well, this is the second brand with it in the title (see Salt Lick below). Of the two, we'd rather lick this one. It's big on vinegar. Tart, peppery, and tangy. The texture is thin, not gloppedy thick, which was appreciated. While we liked the not-too-sweet factor, it could have used a smokier edge.
Salt Lick (3.17)
"Out here in Driftwood, Texas since 1967," the label says. The barbecue joint is still there, too, right outside of Austin. The "lick" part in this case comes from the deer who used to lick the salt and minerals off the ranch's large rocks. Well, we weren't so much of the licking deer types with this sauce. It tasted more like honey mustard than barbecue sauce, and looked like it too. "Not what I think of as barbecue sauce," agreed tasters about this mustard-based sauce. Sweet and sour (check, check) but not smoky or spiced.
Bone Suckin (3.17)
This reminded us of Asian sauces like hot and sour or even duck sauce. Uh, should we dip an egg roll in here? "All I taste is sweet," said one taster. There's vinegar hiding in there somewhere, but it's mostly a sweet takeover.
Or, Make the Sauce from Scratch!