Forget Store-Bought: This Easy Barbecue Sauce and Rub Combo Has You (and Your Ribs) Covered

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Let's say, for argument's sake, that you've already sworn off store-bought salad dressing for good. Wise move. Here's your next one: Ditch the store-bought spice rubs and barbecue sauce. The rubs come at a huge markup for what is essentially a container full of salt and sugar, with a touch of spice. Sauces might be a better value, but almost inevitably, they're achingly sweet, with built-in cruddy smoke flavor.

Here's the good news: If you barbecue or grill with any frequency, it's easy (and cheap!) to make big batches of homemade spice rub and sauce that will keep in your pantry and your fridge (respectively) for several months, saving you money while simultaneously delivering flavor that's superior to anything you can get premade. I set out to make a balanced rub and sauce that would work well with a wide range of grilled meats and vegetables, whether you're slow-cooking ribs or pulled pork, or grilling chicken or even tofu.

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For the rub, I use equal parts paprika and brown sugar, along with kosher salt, ground mustard seed, black pepper, ground coriander seed, dried oregano, granulated garlic, and granulated onion. This produces a blend that's equal parts savory and sweet (but not overly sweet), with just a minor hint of heat. Of course, you should feel free to adjust the seasonings as you see fit—a small pinch of cayenne wouldn't be out of place. This is the spice rub I keep in a deli container in my pantry at all times.

For the sauce, I start with a classic Kansas City–style base of molasses, to which I add some ketchup, mustard, chicken stock, some Worcestershire sauce, some cider vinegar, and some hot sauce. I originally started by sautéing an onion in butter before adding the liquid, but found that for a short simmer, an onion grated on the large holes of a box grater provided the right pungency and was much faster, too. To really add depth to the sauce, I add a couple of tablespoons of my spice rub and simmer it all together. If you plan on using this for foods cooked indoors (like this Oven-Cooked Pulled Pork), a touch of high-quality liquid smoke, like Wright's, works great.

With the rub and sauce on hand at all times, you'll be ready for anything that your grill might throw at you.