We tried 22 traditional barbecue sauces, but only 2 had us singing, "I want my baby back, baby back…"
Barbecue sauce does for meat what butter does for mashed potatoes; one can't be its best self without the other. This statement may be exaggerated, but oftentimes grilling isn't right without barbecue sauce, and a bad one can really mess up your meal. You can always make your own, but for quick and hassle-free cooking, many Americans turn to bottled sauces. So we decided to taste the offerings and choose our favorites.
We found some superb versions, but also some that were appallingly bad. To make things more complicated, there are more types to choose from out there than Lady Gaga has outfits, including regional variations like thin, tangy North Carolina-style and flavors like mesquite, honey, and sweet 'n' spicy, to name a few. To keep things simple, we stuck with each brand's "original" or traditional version. Most fell into the smoky-sweet category that's come to be thought of as "classic" barbecue sauce.
Regardless of regional preferences, we found that there were certain traits we all were looking for in a barbecue sauce. It should taste of real ingredients, not artificial flavors or thickeners. It should have depth, not just one-dimensional flavor. And, as with any sauce, BBQ sauce should enhance but not overpower whatever grilled steak, pulled pork, or (as in our taste test) corn bread you're eating. They should go hand in hand like a hot dog and bun.
Best Barbecue Sauce Overall
Winner: Sweet Baby Ray's Original Award Winning Barbecue Sauce
($3.75 for 18-ounce bottle)
Pros: The majority of the judges awarded this sauce four forks. They found this pick to have it all: "I like its full-bodied smokiness and grains of pepper," stated one judge. Another compared it to what he admitted to be his favorite sauce of all: "The taste is similar to the McDonald's version, but this thickness and tomato purée-like consistency is what their sauce should aspire to be."
Cons: One judge felt it was a bit too thick.
Winner: KC Masterpiece Original Barbecue Sauce
($3.35 for 18-ounce bottle)
Pros: "Well balanced and could go on anything-pork, chicken, a chunky piece of salmon. It's the multidimensional BBQ sauce!" stated one judge. Another taster enjoyed that it was slightly sweet, like molasses, but not to be confused with corn syrup. "That is one good- looking sauce! A nice, deep almost maroon-like color, and not too watery or Elmer's Glue-like, either."
Cons: One judge thought it was not smoky enough.
The Other Contenders: The Bottom Three
Open Pit Original Barbecue Sauce was slimy and looked more like hot sauce than BBQ sauce. Chef Hymie Grande's Barbecue Glaze may be free of high-fructose corn syrup and processed sugar (they market themselves as meeting the standards of the American Diabetes Association), but it was far too bland for our tastes. Annie's Natural Original BBQ Sauce did not fare well at all in this taste test. It was unpleasantly grainy, and more like what one would imagine if V8 were to make a BBQ sauce.
Additional Taste Test Details
The 22 varieties of barbecue sauce we tasted are available nationwide in supermarkets or online. They included the following, listed from highest to lowest score achieved in our taste test: Sweet Baby Ray's Original, KC Masterpiece Original, Kraft Original, Cattlemen's Kansas City Classic, D.L. Jardine's 5-Star, Olde Cape Cod Sweet & Bold, Duke's New York Roadhouse, Butternut Mountain Farm, Heffys Original, Hunt's Original, Stubb's Original, Emeril's Bam! Original, Jack Daniel's Original No. 7 Recipe, Organicville Original, Gringo Jack's Mild Vermont Maple, Trader Joe's All Natural, Bull's Original, Lip Licking Sweet & Smoky, Bone Suckin' Sauce, Open Pit Original, Chef Hymie Grande Glaze, Annie's Natural Original BBQ Sauce.
Methodology: In a blind taste test, judges compared the flavor, consistency, and appearance of 22 traditional barbecue sauces. All were eaten with a side of corn bread made from a Jiffy mix. We ranked the sauces according to the Epicurious four-fork rating system (four being best).
Prices and availability subject to change.
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By Carolina Santos-Neves
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