Published August 1, 2009. From Cook's Country.
The sweeter the better—as long as molasses is in the mix.
Update: June 2013
We were disappointed to learn that Kraft, manufacturer of our favorite supermarket barbecue sauce, Bull's Eye Original, recently changed its formulation to sweeten with high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar. In a 2-tablespoon serving, total sugars have increased by 1 gram to 12 grams, and sodium decreased from 310 mg to 280 mg. However, in a blind tasting of the new sauce on grilled chicken breasts, our tasters felt that the flavor and consistency are still good, and Bull's Eye received a tied score in direct comparison with our top-rated gourmet barbecue sauce.
Whether you use it to baste, dip, or slather, chances are you have a bottle of barbecue sauce tucked into the door of your refrigerator. But is it the best-tasting brand? To find out, we gathered eight national brands (drawn from a list of top sellers from Information Resources, Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm) and asked 21 tasters from America’s Test Kitchen to sample each sauce cooked (broiled on chicken thighs) and raw (on its own and as a dip for chicken nuggets).
Barbecue styles vary greatly by region, but we’d argue there’s an all-American supermarket style. It’s on the sweet side and balances tang, smoke, and tomato flavor. You can use it like ketchup. The sauces that fit that profile rated better than those closer to authentic regional barbecue styles. The latter failed, in part, because they weren’t sweet enough. Lacking sugar, they struck our tasters as out of whack.
Total sugars proved the determining factor in our tasting. As a group, the sauces with more total sugars rated better than the sauces with less. (It is possible to have too much of a good thing, as one of our sauces proved.) And not all sugars are created equal. Our top picks are the only two in our lineup that list molasses as their third ingredient; other brands contain it, but in lower relative concentrations. When the robust, distinct flavor of molasses was in short supply, the sauces fell flat.
Taken as a group, these sauces underwhelmed us and in the main failed to make food taste better. Our advice? Make barbecue sauce yourself—it’s not that hard.