Barbecue sauce does not belong in the top tier of condiments. It certainly doesn’t crack the top five (ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, hot sauce, and ranch are all superior). However, barbecue sauce—typically a reduction of tomato, sugar, vinegar, and spices—is still a practical and enjoyable condiment. Often thick, tolerably sweet, and with a glimmer of spice, it’s an adequate partner for anything that’s warm, salty, possibly grilled, and maybe a bit greasy. Think: typical barbecue offerings like ribs, chicken, pulled pork, baked beans, but also fried foods (nuggets, fries, wings, etc.), pizza, and burgers.
Unlike ketchup or mayonnaise—which thankfully maintain fairly standard tastes and consistencies (the eradication of watery mayo is one of society’s greatest feats)—barbecue sauce covers a wide spectrum of flavors and textures. Within the United States, this condiment has many different regional iterations. For instance, in North Carolina, the sauce is thin, vinegar-forward, and orange in color. If you head further south to Alabama, you’ll find a mayonnaise-based, “white” barbecue sauce. Of course, there are international variances as well, chiefly represented by the rich histories of Japanese and Korean barbecue sauces, often flavored by soy and mirin.
Despite its range, typically when someone asks for “barbecue sauce,” they’re referring to the sauce’s most centrally casted self: dark brown, viscous, sweet, and spicy. You can find some version of this barbecue sauce wherever you buy your groceries. With that in mind, we figured it would be helpful to taste—and rank—the barbecue sauces available to us.
From Our Shop
The premise for this taste test is as follows: You’re opening a restaurant and your kitchen can only stock a single barbecue sauce brand. You’re factoring in flavor, but also cost, appearance, and brand recognition. Essentially, we’re picking the Heinz 57 of barbecue sauce.
It’s worth noting that to be eligible for consideration, the sauce needs to be available for purchase via Amazon. Local, regional, and homemade barbecue sauces are amazing, but are beyond the scope of this research.
8. Guy Fieri BBQ Sauce, $10
Here are some of my notes: “Tastes like paper,” “Actually really bad,” “Unnatural red color,” “Flavortown meets Chernobyl.” I’ll never not love Guy (I dream of “rolling out” in his cherry-red convertible), but his barbecue sauce does not bring the heat. Clocking in at $10 a bottle—the hypothetical restaurant is going to skip this, always.
7. 365 Barbecue Sauce, $3.29
A surprising disappointment from a Whole Foods brand whose products often punch above their weight. If it wasn’t for its favorable pricing, this would likely be off the list. It is cloying to the point that its most comparable flavors are candy and children’s medicine.
6. Traeger Classic BBQ Sauce, $7.95
Traeger makes fantastic grilling equipment and very average barbecue sauce. Of the eight sauces we tried, this was among the thickest and sweetest. While neither of those qualities are inherently bad, for this to become a versatile condiment, it needs a bit more balance.
5. Stubb’s, $7.99
Tomato and black pepper are the two most-prominent flavors in Stubb’s—and it works really, really well. You could slather this onto ribs and chicken or serve it alongside a bowl of onion rings; either way you’re having a good time. Also, from a visual standpoint, the sauce’s bright, but natural, red hue is very appealing.
4. Sweet Baby Ray’s, 2-pack for $10
An iconic sauce, Sweet Baby Ray’s loyal fans would undoubtedly love to see their preferred condiment at this hypothetical restaurant. However, the emotional attachment and brand recognition is what’s doing most of the heavy lifting here. From a flavor perspective, SBR is fine. It’s greatest attribute? Texture. It’s just so dippable.
3. Kraft, $1.49
The biggest surprise of the bunch. Kraft strikes the right balance of sweetness, acidity, heat, and texture. This is the gold standard for widely distributed, always-accessible barbecue sauces. Also, you can pick up a bottle for less than $2.
2. Primal Kitchen Classic Barbecue, $6.49
We love everything about this sauce. Texturally, it’s smooth and luxurious without being overly thick and grabby. In terms of flavor, cumin does most of the (really good) work, adding spice but also a smoky earthiness. It’s dippable, but likely best used for marinades and glazes. We would happily accept this in our make-believe kitchen.
1. Bachan’s Hot & Spicy Barbecue, $6.83
Although slightly on the thin side, this sauce from Bachan’s is nearly perfect. It is, by far, the most complex in flavor—immediately offering notes of soy, brown sugar, and spice—and its deep, natural-red color has the most appetizing appearance. If you’re serving anything hot, salty, and greasy, this is the sauce you want alongside it.