Nothing gets me craving sticky barbecue sauce-coated chicken thighs or pulled pork like a warm evening. There’s just something about the heat—maybe it’s the near-constant earthy aroma of other grills at work—that screams “slather everything in barbecue sauce”! And it’s a year-round favorite too—barbecue is just as much of a welcome addition to a Super Bowl spread as it is a summer cookout. Apparently, other food writers and chefs think so too, so I asked some to tell me about their favorites.
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So what exactly qualifies as “good” barbecue sauce? First and foremost, it must be flavorful and representative of the regional style. A Kansas City-style barbecue sauce will not taste or look like an Alabama White sauce in any way. KC barbecue sauce will be a perfectly balanced sweet and spicy sauce; you should taste equal hints of brown sugar, black pepper, and a little bit of tang from apple cider vinegar. It should be thick enough that you can baste ribs or toss pulled pork with it using equal ease. Alabama White sauce should be thick, tangy, and creamy, thanks to a combination of mayonnaise, vinegar, and pepper. Head over to the Carolinas and you’ll find two more styles of sauce—Carolina Gold, which is a mustard-based sauce popular in South Carolina, and a tangy, vinegar-based sauce known as Lexington-Style Sauce.
Beyond being regionally accurate, a good barbecue sauce should offer a little bit of versatility (it should work with pork and chicken, over grilled meats just as well as low-and-slow cooked cuts).
And finally, we will always have a bias towards small-batch makers and sauces straight from some of our favorite barbecue joints across the country like Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que and Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin.
Whether you’re into a vinegar- or mustard-forward, tomato- or mayonnaise-based sauce, you’re bound to find a new favorite in this list. Here are 9 killer barbecue sauces, recommended by food writers and chefs. Grab a few bottles and then all that’s left to decide is burnt ends or pulled pork mac and cheese?
“Our family was introduced to Carolina Tangy Gold BBQ Sauce several years ago by one of our neighbors who was originally from South Carolina. And it has been a staple in our house ever since. There’s just something about that sweet mustardy tang that we just love.” —Michelle Braxton, recipe developer and blogger at Supper with Michelle
“I’m pretty partial to the Stubb’s Mesquite Bar-B-Q Sauce. I’ve tried other brands but nothing beats the smoky-tangy-sweet balance of Stubb’s.” —Amelia Rampe, food stylist and Studio Food Editor at the Kitchn
“I consider this an all-around versatile sauce for pulled pork or chicken—when I want something that’s mostly sweet with some depth, this is what I grab. It has layers of smoke and spice but not so much that it’s overpowering.” —Kelly Vaughan, staff writer for Food52
“This is the current favorite in our house! Whether it’s going on baked tofu, shredded chicken, or smoked pork shoulder, it’s our go-to—and our daughter loves it, too.” —Hannah Karns, sales director for Food52
“I’m from Alabama, and the barbecue style there is something of a hybrid. You can find both the tomato-based Memphis-style sauces and the more mustard-forward Carolinas one. My very favorite sauce is from my friend’s pit, Rusty’s BBQ, where he makes it in sweet, spicy, and house varietals. But barring that, my favorite widely-available sauce—the one that reminds me of home and instantly transforms a pile of pulled pork—is Dreamland barbecue sauce, from a mini chain of pits started in Tuscaloosa.
“It has a good balance of vinegar, heat, and the umami from the tomatoes, and it isn’t as sweet as many of the sauces I’ve tried from the grocery stores up north. it’s popular enough that you can grab 32-ounce jars of it once you pass airport security in Birmingham, which I do when I have the chance, but barring that, you can order it from Dreamland’s website or at a considerable mark-up from Amazon.” —Margaret Eby, Editorial Lead
“My other favorite barbecue sauce more unique to Alabama is Big Bob Gibson white sauce, a mayonnaise-based concoction that’s particularly great on grilled or roasted chicken. It has this wonderful creamy-tangy-sweet-garlic thing going on, and it’s also very versatile. You can thin it out to use as a salad dressing with excellent results.” —Margaret Eby
“Sweet Baby Ray’s Sweet n Spicy is the perfect flavor combo for any type of barbecue. Whether I use it as a dipping sauce or a marinade, I know it’s always going to be a crowd pleaser.” —Sam Cowit, email marketing manager for Food52
“I’ll second Sweet Baby Ray’s! It’s my go-to store-bought sauce for chicken and ribs.” —Joe Maldonado, engineer for Food52
“I’ve been pretty obsessed with Bachan’s Japanese barbecue sauce. It’s made with soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, and other spices making it the perfect meld of sweet, savory, and tangy. I love using it as a glaze on ground chicken meatballs under the broiler, an immediate flavor boost. The origin story of Bachan’s is also very touching, the sauce was created by Justin Gill in honor of his Japanese-American grandmother (“bachan” means “granny” in Japanese), and her prized recipe that has been passed down in his family for years.” —Noreen Wasti, recipe developer and food stylist
“Truthfully I’m not a huge barbecue sauce person, but I would happily douse any protein with this sauce. So tangy and delicious. It’s great as a marinade too when I’m not feeling super creative!” —Sara Tane, food editor and private chef
“My dad makes the absolute best ribs. Like, so good that recently a vegetarian friend had to make an exception to try one. Needless to say they involve a top secret recipe, but the part I can share is our favorite barbecue sauce: Bone Suckin’ Sauce. The perfect balance and sugar and vinegar, both the sauce and dry rub are fundamental to a good rack of ribs.” —Courtney Kassel, food writer
“I always grab a bottle of Richard’s Vermont Made Barbecue Sauces when I’m in search of barbecue sauce. The hot version is my favorite—properly spicy, balanced, and not too sweet. —Christine Clark, writer, cheese educator, and co-host of “Is This a Brie” podcast
12. We Rub You
“An unexpected but then totally obvious brand I love is We Rub You, the Korean BBQ brand with a few different flavors and a great price point. My favorite is the Original Korean BBQ Sauce flavor that has great umami from the ginger and sesame, and still has the sweetness, kick and tang you want in a sauce. I love it over fish, juicy charred chicken, and steaks!” —Fatima Khawaja, freelance chef
“My only choice for ribs and it has a special place in my heart because the design looks like something out of an Achewood comic.” —David Flood, CID manager for Food52
We couldn’t let you get away without sharing a few must-make barbecue recipes to pair with these sauces. First up: pulled pork. When you cook pulled pork (this one is made in a Dutch oven), the process sort of naturally creates a sauce with the steam, plus brown sugar, ground spices, a little bit of water, and cider vinegar. But everyone will probably ask you for just a little bit more sauce to put on top of the pork between a potato bun, so make sure you have an extra bottle of your favorite sauce on hand!