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?
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.