Though purists will no doubt scoff, bottled barbecue sauce is not some great sin unto the world. Many of the best options are simplified versions of sauces made by pitmasters you or I could never hope to match.
But like most goods previously made in the home, store-bought sauce can also suck. Sometimes terribly so. The trap many fall into is excess in one of the four pillars of barbecue-sauce flavor — heat, smokiness, tanginess and, the most commonly abused, sweetness. We scoured the web, grocery stores and barbecue forums to find out which retail-available, bottled barbecue sauces are actually worth putting on the meat you’ve spend all day smoking.
Types of Barbecue Sauce
Kansas City Style
The most widely available style of barbecue sauce at grocery stores is at its best a balanced mix of tomato (ketchup, most of the time), sweetness, tang and smoke. This is the gloopy reddish-brown sauce you slather all over ribs — it’s great for its strong hold to meats and overall body as well.
Sometimes called “mop sauce” or “mop style,” these are sauces with a tomato and vinegar base. They’re typically much lighter in body than KC-style sauces, but not as light as a Carolinian vinegar sauce. They’re also applied with a lighter hand than most sauces, and feature lots of garlic, black pepper and Worcestershire sauce.
Memphis barbecue tends to be served sans sauce, but there has been an uptick in Memphis-style barbeque sauces. The sauce is similar to a Kansas City-style barbeque sauce, but with a richer sweetness thanks to molasses and a tad more brightness from a generous addition of vinegar.
Lexington Style (North Carolina)
Though some of North Carolina’s population may protest, this is essentially an earlier version of the uber-popular Kansas City sauce, sans-spiciness and with a lot more tomato product. If you don’t like the spiciness and bite that comes with a lot of KC sauces, this style is for you.
East North Carolina Vinegar-Based
It’s vinegar, pepper, salt and pepper flakes. The most fluid sauce there is gets most of its flavor from the tart vinegar and various pepper flakes and pepper powders added (cayenne being the most common). It may not be all that useful in caramelizing the outside of a pig, but it’s still delicious.
The Best Barbecue Sauces of 2022
Though Texans aren’t prone to using sauces in the first place, Stubb’s Texas-style original sauce is as good as anyone can hope for out of a bottle. The first thing you’ll notice is that it is decidedly unsweet for a bottled sauce. It also has zero high fructose corn syrup and doesn’t use any artificial ingredients.
Stubb’s opts instead for a tomato- and vinegar-forward sauce that’s way less overpowering than most things from a bottle. The longer you eat, the more smokiness and spiciness you’ll begin to feel, but it’s not what you’d describe as a particularly smoky or spicy. It simply balanced, as all sauces should be.
This is as smoky a sauce as you’ll find in a bottle, but not so much it drowns other flavors out; it’s fairly peppery and has a lot of body as well. If you like super-sweet sauces, this one might not be for you — though a quick simmer with a bit of honey and butter might do the trick.
It’s not that hot, which is just what it ought to be. Rufus Teague’s sauces are typically well-balanced and non-destructive to your health. They’re also available in grocery stores across the country. This one is made with totally natural ingredients (read: no high fructose corn syrup) and contains more interesting ingredients than most sauces do, homemade or bottled. The heat stems from chili peppers and chipotles, but it isn’t an overly aggressive burn. If the burn proves too much, consider tossing a couple pads of butter into a saucepan with it.
Though a bit heavier in high fructose corn syrup than you’d like, Bull’s Eye’s sauce is a great grocery store sauce pickup. Serious Eats, Cooks Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen spoke of it too, but the sauce is as balanced as it gets without making it yourself — it sits in the middle on the sweetness scale, it’s smokier than most store-bought bottles, it’s not overly spicy (but isn’t boring) and it has enough body to cling to whatever you baste it to. If you can get past the ingredient list, it’s great.
A bit sweeter than your usual fare, to the point it might remind you of a sweet and sour sauce. Fortunately, sweet and sour sauce is delicious, and this one has the added benefit of a mild hickory smoke flavor that manages to not taste like chemicals. It is a bit thinner than KC-style sauce, so if you want it to stick to ribs consider cooking it down for a few minutes on the stove.
Not as widely available as the others on this list, but a treat if you can find it — Sensuous Slathering sauce is one of the lowest-sugar bottled sauces out there and, frankly, it doesn’t need it. It gets a bit of augmented sweetness from bell pepper and it’s wickedly smokey and tangy. The consistency is such that it’s ready to baste right out of the bottle. There’s no corn syrup of any kind in it and you can probably pronounce every ingredient in its makeup.
Lillie’s Q is a Chicago-based barbecue restaurant with roots in Southern cooking. The brand’s barbecue sauces have made their way into supermarkets, so they’ve become easier to track down. The Smoky sauce is a Memphis-style barbecue sauce with a molasses-like sweetness complemented by a delightful smokiness. This sauce works well on pretty much anything, but Lillie’s Q recommends eating it with ribs and smoked chicken.
If you use the Traeger app for recipes, you might notice it calls for Traeger BBQ sauces quite often. The sauce’s consistency makes it versatile as a dip, marinade or glaze, and the addition of anchovy gives the sauce a savory umami flavor. This particular variety of Traeger BBQ sauce has hickory smoke flavoring, which is meant to pair well with Traeger hickory pellets.
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