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By Cook's Illustrated Published August 2012

Steak Sauce

Published August 2012

How we tested

Created for King George IV of England, or so the story goes, A.1. Steak Sauce reigns supreme in the United States, accounting for 70 percent of steak sauce sold last year. Although we’ve never had a formal taste test of steak sauce, in the past, we have defaulted to A.1. in the test kitchen; when we call for the condiment, our recipes read: “Steak sauce, such as A.1.” But it’s not the only brand on the market. Steak sauce ingredients tend toward the eclectic and the pungent: raisin paste, turmeric, tamarind, grapefruit puree, malt vinegar, and salty anchovies. We like steak sauce that can slice through rich, meaty beef with a jolt of flavor that’s at once sweet, sour, and salty. But we don’t want it to overwhelm the steak’s own flavor.

Every brand but one in our lineup is ready to use straight from the bottle; Zip Sauce is heated with melted butter and served warm. The idea sounded promising, almost like a shortcut pan sauce. Well, no, as it turned out: “What fresh hell is this?” asked one taster. Another compared it with “fish sauce and butter in salt water.” Excruciatingly salty, it has a whopping 585 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon when combined with unsalted butter, which is a quarter of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s daily recommended sodium intake. But it was not the only loser. Other sauces were so sour that we scarcely noticed the meat or else so vinegar-laden that they were as astringent as “rubbing alcohol.” Still another was too sweet and was heavy-handed with clove and nutmeg, prompting tasters to ask if they were eating gingersnaps, pumpkin pie, or molasses cookies. Textures varied almost as much as flavor—from too thin to too thick. Tasters preferred a sauce squarely in the middle, with enough body to cling to the steak but not stiff and gluey. One sauce “ran away from the steak”; unsurprisingly, water was the first ingredient on the label (meaning the sauce has more of it than any other ingredient). Another sauce lost points for its chunky, stringy texture, caused by too much minced onion. We preferred our steak sauce smooth.

In the end, the king was toppled: A.1. finished third. We recommend it but only with some reservations about its sourness and acidity, which tended to overpower the meat. Our favorite brand showed more restraint. It had a mellow tomato base and offered fruitiness; tangy acidity to temper sweetness; a zippy, peppery kick; and a hint of smokiness. Unlike what we found in other brands, these flavors were in harmony, with no one component dominating. This balanced sauce stood up to a rich steak without stealing the show. The meat tasted better with a dollop of our winning sauce, but the flavor was still all about the meat—and isn’t that the point?

Methodology

We chose six nationally available steak sauces to taste alongside A.1., sampling each plain and with steak. The final tallies are in, and tasters were adamant in their preferences, which were, ahem, a bit revolutionary.

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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.)*