High-End Barbecue Sauces

Published July 1, 2013. From Cook's Illustrated.

We put four small-batch, mail-order barbecue sauces to the test against our supermarket favorite.

Overview:

Small-batch barbecue sauces promise pit-master magic—but are they worth their higher price tags? To find out, we mail-ordered four products that had some buzz, were award winners, or were marketed by barbecue pros.

We sampled the sauces plain and on grilled chicken, focusing on sweetness, complexity, texture, and overall appeal. Our two least favorite sauces were too sweet, containing twice the amount of sugar per serving as the others. A third sauce was watery and mild. But the fourth, our winner, delivered. With generous additions of vinegar, salt, and chili paste along with liquid smoke, it was tart, spicy, and more savory than sweet. It also had enough body to cling to the chicken.

To see how our high-end winner compared with our supermarket winner—a sweet, tomato-based classic—we held a taste test on grilled chicken. Votes were evenly split on these very different sauces. For traditionalists, our supermarket winner is best, but for a savory, tangy sauce with a kick, we recommend splurging on our high-end winner.

Small-batch barbecue sauces promise pit-master magic—but are they worth their higher price tags? To find out, we mail-ordered four products that had some buzz, were award winners, or were marketed by barbecue pros.

We sampled the sauces plain and on grilled chicken, focusing on sweetness, complexity, texture, and overall appeal. Our two least favorite sauces were too sweet, containing twice the amount of sugar per serving as the others. A third sauce was watery and mild. But the fourth, our winner, delivered. With generous additions of vinegar, salt, and chili paste along with liquid smoke, it was tart, spicy, and more savory than sweet. It also had enough body to cling to the chicken.

To see how our high-end winner compared with our supermarket winner—a sweet, tomato-based classic—we held a taste test on grilled chicken. Votes were evenly split on these very different sauces. For traditionalists, our supermarket winner is best, but for a savory, tangy sauce with a kick, we recommend splurging on our high-end winner.

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  • Product Tested

    Price*

  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Recommended - Supreme Sauce

    Pork Barrel Original BBQ Sauce

    This “big, bold” sauce was “tangy,” with a “robust,” “vinegary” kick, making it more savory than sweet, unlike other products in our lineup. With a “vivid peppercorn taste,” it “made otherwise boring chicken into something complex” and had enough body to “cling nicely” to the meat.

    $5.49 for 12 oz (46 cents per oz)

  • Recommended with Reservations - Mild and Runny

    Bone Suckin’ Sauce

    Some tasters declared this sauce “delicate” and found it “a little sweet,” “a little smoky,” and “a little tangy,” with an “interesting honey and fruit” flavor. But for others, it was too mild, even “kinda boring.” Tasters also complained that it only thinly coated the chicken.

    $6.79 for 16 oz (42 cents per oz)

  • Recommended with Reservations - Overly Spiced

    Steven Raichlen Best of Barbecue Chipotle Molasses Barbecue Sauce

    With the “ideal texture for brushing,” this sauce slathered on thick, dark, and glossy. Its taste was too sweet, though, with a strong “black licorice,” “molasses,” and “hoisin” flavor that was “like holiday pie spice” and “overwhelmed the chicken.”

    $9.99 for 18 oz (56 cents per oz)

  • Not Recommended - Saccharine Sweet

    American Stockyard BBQ Sauce Harvest Apple

    This sauce was “too runny to coat well,” resulting in “naked” chicken (water is the first ingredient), with a “cloying sweetness” (sugar is listed as its second and fourth ingredients). “This is melted-down lollipop, right?” asked one taster. “Pumpkin pie” flavors such as allspice and clove were “distracting” and “not very barbecue-y.”

    $6.95 for 22 oz (32 cents per oz)

*PRICES SUBJECT TO CHANGE
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