Get the story
Last year Americans spent more than $700 million on supermarket barbecue sauce. Did any of those bottled sauces earn a spot on our grocery list?
The birthplace of barbecue sauce is shrouded in mystery—one theory is that Christopher Columbus discovered an early formula in the Caribbean—but regardless of its origin, this centuries-old condiment is now an American staple. Today there are many styles of barbecue sauce, each with its own regional riff, but the most ubiquitous of the bunch hails from Kansas City. Most supermarket sauces are modeled after this thick, sweet, and tangy tomato-based style.
Since we last tested supermarket barbecue sauces, our former winner, Bull’s-Eye Original BBQ Sauce, changed its recipe to include high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) instead of sugar. So we rounded up seven top-selling national barbecue sauces, including the new version of Bull’s-Eye, and tasted again to see how the supermarket sauces stacked up. We like our bottled sauce to be versatile, so we asked twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers to sample each sauce plain, stirred into pulled pork, and as a dip for chicken fingers.
Sweetness had a big impact on our tasters’ preferences. The sauces we fully recommend all list a sweetener (either high-fructose corn syrup or cane sugar) as their primary ingredient, and the two products with the most sugar (each with 16 grams per 2-tablespoon serving) landed in that category. The two sauces with the least sugar (one with only 4 grams per 2-tablespoon serving) languished at the bottom of our rankings. However, while the sauces with the most sugar scored well, neither one was our winner, as the true sweet spot was a slightly lower sugar level. Our winner had 11 grams of sugar per serving, about 30 percent less than the runner-up, and our tasters thought it was just right.
With sweetness being such a big deal, we wondered if the type of sugar played a role in determining which sauces we liked best. To find out, we contacted Dr. Jean-Xavier Guinard, a sensory scientist in the University of California−Davis’s Food Science and Technology department. We asked Dr. Guinard if some sugar sources—such as HFCS, the main sweetener in more than half the products—taste inherently sweeter than others. He explained that different sweeteners do have different potencies, but the intensity of what we taste is usually a reflection of the volume of sweetener and not the type. Overall, tasters didn’t prefer one sugar source to another—our winning product used HFCS as its primary sweetener, whereas the runner-up used cane sugar.
Sweetness, though important, was only part of the flavor equation. Through their tasting notes, we learned that our tasters liked sauces that had a pronounced tomato flavor as well as smoke, spice, and tang. In other words, they liked tomatoey sauces that were complex and balanced rather than having one dominant flavor. All seven products contained tomato in some form, either paste or puree, but there was no clear reason why some sauces tasted more “tomato-forward.” Products that ranked lower in tomato flavor played up smoke and spice instead and weren’t as well-rounded.
Consistency was also important. Products ranged from watery to gelatinous, with most tasters preferring a middle-of-the-road ketchupy thickness. Our least favorite barbecue sauce (Stubbs, which, in its defense, is the lone top-selling supermarket sauce that is not in the thick, sweet Kansas City style) was runny and thin, more like soup than sauce. Upon closer examination we discovered that water was its first ingredient. This product also walloped us with tomato but skimped on sugar—three strikes and it was not recommended.
In the end, our winner was once again the aptly named Bull’s-Eye Original BBQ Sauce. This moderately sweet, tomatoey sauce offered just enough spice and smoke, producing a well-balanced medley of flavors with no specific flavor dominating. Our winning product was delicious and versatile, and it wasn’t too thick or thin. We’ll be using this palate-pleasing sauce all summer long.
Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers sampled seven top-selling, nationally available barbecue sauces, tasting each sauce plain at room temperature, mixed with pulled pork and heated, and as a room-temperature dipping sauce for chicken fingers. We averaged the scores, and the barbecue sauces are listed in order of preference. Nutritional information and ingredients were obtained from product labels, and we calculated cost per ounce. We purchased all sauces in Boston-area supermarkets. Nutritional information is given per 2-tablespoon serving size.
This “all-purpose” product won over tasters with its “balanced sweetness,” “tomatoey” flavor, “subtle smoke,” and “nice tang,” all “without any of the flavors overwhelming each other.” This “straightforward” barbecue sauce was “immediately pleasing to the palate” and “not as gloppy” as some others.
Though some tasters found this product “a tad too sweet,” others enjoyed this “bold” barbecue sauce’s “very sweet” and “peppery” flavor combo, as well as the “bit of tang” and “nice smoky aftertaste.” This “viscous” product’s “smooth” texture and “addictive flavor” led one taster to declare, “The more I eat, the more I like it.”
This pleasantly “sugary” and “robust” product’s “instant hit of flavor” and “tangy bite” added up to “pretty perfect” flavor for some tasters, even though it seemed “supersweet” to others. This product’s “ketchupy” texture made it an “excellent barbecue sauce for dipping” while the “good spiciness” lent a “touch of heat.”
Most tasters enjoyed this product’s “pleasantly smoky” and “supersweet” flavor; its “good cling” and “thick” texture further won over tasters. A few tasters took issue with the sauce’s “unassuming” taste, saying the flavor was “too weak” and “needed a little more of a kick.”
This “candy-like” sauce’s “unique flavor” reminded tasters of “pumpkin-spiced barbecue” and “roasted fruit.” Even though this “very sweet” product was overwhelming for some and the “almost plummy” flavor “may not be mainstream enough,” the sauce was lauded for its “nice heat” and “hint of smoke.”
“It tastes exactly like a campfire,” noted one taster, describing this product’s “woodsy” and “liquid smoke” flavor. The “deep and smoky” sauce was “delicious,” “pure barbecue flavor” to some, but others found it “artificial” and thought this “meaty and savory” sauce “could use a pinch more sweetness.”
Tasters likened this Texas-style (rather than Kansas City-style) product to “spicy, watery ketchup” that “was not sweet at all.” The “tart” and “sour” flavor reminded one taster of “old tomato puree,” while others took issue with the “metallic aftertaste” and “very thin” texture.