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Supermarket Barbecue Sauces

By Cook's Illustrated Published August 2009

How we tested

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*