Volumes have been written about barbecue sauce — there are about as many regional styles as there are places that serve smoked meats. Serious ’cue-heads have their favorites, partisans defend their hometown varieties and competition teams guard the recipes for their elixirs like they were state secrets.
We took on the sticky task of tasting the top-selling brands and separating the good from the bland. We should note: Most of these sauces lean toward a smoky-sweet Kansas City-style.
First, we assembled the goods, tracking down the top sellers according to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm (specifically, their data came from grocery, drug, mass market, convenience, military and select club and dollar retailers and covered the year ending June 3). “Private label” brands — supermarkets’ house labels, that is — are No. 4-selling on the list, so we scooped up a few from popular retail chains, opting for the “original”-style offerings where available to keep our samples as comparable as possible.
We enlisted eight tasters and asked them to score each sample on a scale of 1 to 10, meaning the maximum score was an 80, considering seasoning, texture and overall taste. The samples — which tasters tried on their own and on cubes of unseasoned, roasted chicken breast — were unlabeled, so the tasting was blind.
Tasters reached an overall consensus — there were few raves and generally low scores, meaning it seems our panel wasn’t super-impressed with the lot. Still, there were a few options you can find on many grocery shelves that we would welcome to the neighborhood cookout.
13. G. Hughes Sugar Free BBQ Sauce Original
Unlike the other sauce-testants, this one was sweetened with sucralose. And while that might be a win for people looking to regulate their sugar intake, it sure didn’t hit the sweet spot with our panel. Though they weren’t alerted to a faux-sugar sauce in the lineup, two testers seemed to sniff out the impostor, both likening it to “Diet Coke.” Others found it to be overly sweet, and as one put it, “not the good kind of sweet.” A couple others found the cinnamon notes to be overpowering. One taster summarized the reaction: “Oh gosh, no.” ($6.89/18 fluid ounces at Safeway)
12. Famous Dave’s BBQ Sauce Original Recipe
Dave might tout his fame, but he only achieved notoriety among our judges. There were lots of complaints about strange flavors here — two tasters pegged it as slightly chocolate-y, and others found unpleasant hits of celery, licorice and vinegar in its bouquet. “Whoa! This is weird … not very traditional,” said one. It left one wordsmith of a colleague speechless: “????” he wrote.
“This is what someone who has never eaten barbecue thinks mass produced barbecue tastes like,” wrote another. ($3.29/20 fluid ounces at Food Lion)
11. Sweet Baby Ray’s
The plot thickened with this brand — several tasters found this sauce’s texture unpleasant. “Like a BBQ sauce pudding,” one suggested. “Thicc. Cloying. Peppery. Only one of those is a good attribute,” wrote another. And it was no wonder the brand was giving “stick to your ribs” a bad connotation: a scan of the bottle’s ingredients shows that its fourth-listed ingredient is the thickener cornstarch. ($2.79/18 fluid ounces at Wegmans)
10. 365 Whole Foods Market Barbecue Sauce
Another wallflower at the cookout here. “Lacks depth of flavor; just kind of thin and flat,” remarked one of the panelists. A couple of people likened it to its tamer condiment cousin, ketchup. “Like a sad ketchup,” one summed it up, “Like ketchup pretending to be BBQ.” Not everyone minded the meekness, though. “A little mild compared to the others, but not in a bad way,” said one. ($1.59/19.5 fluid ounces at Whole Foods)
9. Bull’s Eye BBQ Sauce Original
We seemed to be venturing from active dislike into “meh” territory with this sauce. Again, many people didn’t find it to be very vibrant (“actually tastes like nothing?”), and it seemed to lack complexity. “Too one-note,” as one taster described it. But a couple of people liked the vinegary vibe, and it got tepid praise from a few, like “pleasant” and “nice and tangy.” ($3.49/18 fluid ounces at Safeway)
7. (Tie) Stubbs Original
A bright orangy-red color distinguished this sauce from many of the other deep mahogany-hued entrants. Our tasters detected less sweetness and more vinegar than in many others, setting it apart from the sweet-and-smoky Kansas City style that seems to dominate the biggest brands. And the ingredient list, in which vinegar comes before the sweetener — a reverse of most other major brands — confirmed that impression.
Was that a good thing? To some, it was a no. “Vinegary, thin, lacking in depth,” wrote one. But others liked its unique character. “Like if sriracha and BBQ had a baby,” mused one. “Could be good on grilled wings,” suggested another. ($4.59/18 fluid ounces at Wegmans)
7. (Tie) Kinder’s BBQ Sauce Mild
This one struck several tasters as the prototype of the genre: thick and sweet, but not terribly spicy. “Seems like a classic commercial sauce,” commented one. “A standard,” said another. A couple thought it was too bland and one found it cloying ( “Dr Pepper in sauce form”). ($5.79/20.5 fluid ounces at Safeway)
6. Trader Joe’s Organic Kansas City Style BBQ Sauce
For a couple of tasters, the grocery chain’s sauce struck the right notes of the barbecue-sauce trifecta: sweet, tang and spice. “A well-balanced sauce,” said one. “Zingy but sweet,” enthused another. But it didn’t universally impress. “Are we sure this isn’t just aged ketchup?” wondered one. ($2.99/19 fluid ounces at Trader Joe’s)
5. KC Masterpiece
This one might be the sweetest of the bunch, which some people liked. “Might be too sweet for some,” one fan acknowledged. And it had a “nice kick” according to one taster, to balance out all that sugar. But its thick texture kept its score down. “This sauce sits on your tongue like it’s setting up camp,” said one critic. ($1.99/18 fluid ounces at Shoppers Food Warehouse)
4. Sticky Fingers Memphis Original
Many tasters dug the strong pepper notes in this blend. “Decent spice that lingers on the palate,” one taster enthused. And others liked the vinegar-forward profile. “The tang — with the peppery heat — is appealing,” wrote another. But it was a little too one-note for some: “way too peppery, overwhelmingly so,” complained one. ($3.28/18 fluid ounces at Food Lion)
2. (tie) Kraft Original Barbeque Sauce
Tasters thought this sauce brought a lot of flavor to the barbecue party. Several detected fruity notes in the complex, smoky blend. “Like a chutney that’s been smoked, suggested one. “Pretty good balance of sweetness and kick here,” commented another. “It’s serviceable.” ($2.49/18 fluid ounces at Giant)
2. (tie) Head Country Bar-B-Q Sauce Original
This brand was a little thinner than the pack and delivered a bit of welcome heat, which seemed a rarity in this tame bunch. A sample of the spicy fan mail: “Has some bite,” “A spicy kick” and “hot sauce vibes.” “Could definitely see myself using this one,” said one taster. “It checks all the boxes.” ($4.49/20 fluid ounces at Safeway)
1. Great Value Original Barbecue Sauce (Walmart)
We did not see this one coming. We would never have predicted that the house brand for the mega-chain where you can buy both a grill itself and the stuff to put on it would be where we’d find our winner. But the unlikely champ — high fructose corn syrup and all — won over our panel by not offending anyone (no low scores to drag it down) and by offering a classic flavor profile. “Like old-school Burger King BBQ sauce,” said one nostalgia-struck taster. “Sweet without being ketchupy,” said another.
Others praised it for being “complex,” “fruity and a little spicy” with a “honey BBQ” flavor. And while we know we’ll take plenty of heat for crowning a Wal-Mart sauce, the unexpected winner might help assure readers of our methodology. At least, as one editor put it, “no one will be able to say it wasn’t a blind test.” ($1.34/18 fluid ounces at Walmart)