It’s pride and BBQ season, sweets, which means it’s time for a rainbow selection of grilled vegetables and a rack of baby backs. But for me it’s the sauce. From original classics to sa cha and teriyaki, there are as many sauces as there are opinions on grilling, and if you’ve ever stood in the middle of a supermarket aisle wondering which sauce to choose, you are probably my people.
In my family, barbecuing was part of a larger tradition to bond with family and enjoy the summer outdoors. My father was a Southern boy from Alabama who knew a thing or two about barbecue and sauce. We lived in an art building in New York City so our best options were roasting inside or having a barbecue at my Uncle Ronnie’s. My father and brother marinated chicken and pork and beef ribs in big buckets with Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola, maybe a beer, and store-bought barbecue sauce. Yes, I said bought in the store. By the time the meat reached the fire, 90 percent of the flavoring work was done. The remaining 10 percent that couldn’t be compromised was the second finishing sauce.
My father preferred classic, “original” barbecue sauces. He often spiced it up with a little Adobo spice and a can or two of dark lemonade, and always kept an old paintbrush ready to water. And choosing the right barbecue sauce to complement your personal barbecue beliefs is an art in itself that requires a little bit of self-reflection.
You always could Make barbecue sauce yourself – The white Alabama sauce with mayo, salt, coarse pepper, a pinch of sugar and freshly squeezed lemon juice or apple cider vinegar is my first choice. But as my father knew and Ina Garten says, “Store bought is fine.” To help you decide which sauce in the store is your ideal, I’ve bought every type of sauce I could find on the grocery shelves , and divided them into five flavor categories. Here are the facts:
There is nothing like an original. While no barbecue sauce is 100 percent the same as the others, most barbecue sauces with labels that declare them “original” use the same basic building blocks: tomatoes, vinegar, molasses or sugar, poultry or pineapple juice, garlic, mustard powder, and spices. Depending on the brand, some tend to be lean, while others prefer spices such as chilli and prika powder. An original is a great blank canvas, neutral enough for most grilled dishes without paying too much attention to the party.
Some originals to try out:
- Sweet Baby Ray barbecue sauce: One of the most common original sauces is from Sweet Baby Ray’s. This version has a great balance of sweetness and acidity, which gives it a moderate punch.
- Kraft Original barbecue sauce: This version leads to heavy tomatoes and brown sugar, but also offers an interesting blend of spices with notes of prika and garlic. It’s a great base to spice up with frozen cherries or blueberries for a fruity spin.
- Trader Joe’s Kansas City Style BBQ Sauce: Once missing from Trader Joe’s collection, this one is a combination of sweet and spicy that tastes great on a grilled pork chop or smash burger. The molasses thickness makes it perfect for combining with sour toppings like cucumber or jalenos.
We love a darling. Popular barbecue sauces with names like “sweet brown sugar” or “sweet honey” often have all the ingredients of an original, but with plenty of sugar. Even sauces labeled “sweet” tend to contain fewer spicy nuances than originals. A sweet choice is great for adding a sugary punch to a savory bun or heavily salted piece of meat, or to balance out a flavorful or spicy dish like jerk wings or blackened salmon.
Sweet sauces to try:
- Sweet Baby Ray’s Sweet Vidalia Onion Barbecue Sauce: This flavored barbecue sauce has a pungent raw onion flavor reminiscent of vacuum-packed onion hot dog toppings and usually goes well with chicken or ribs. This onion flavor can be enhanced by pickling caramelized onions or onion jam.
- Kraft Sweet Honey Barbecue Sauce: It’s exactly what you’d expect from the name, and it’s a great base for a homemade jerk sauce.
- Stubb’s Sticky Sweet Bar-BQ Sauce: A gluten-free and sweet-tasting option. I love this sauce for its rich sweetness and texture, especially when cooked with whiskey, bourbon, or beer, which goes great with salmon or chicken.
For me, the hot sauces top the charts. Spice brings the heat, baby, and is a surprise element for your grilled dishes too. But there is more to it than that. My favorite spicy barbecue sauces bring a heat that gently creeps up on you without being too intrusive. That unique burn comes from hot chili powder, serrano chili peppers, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and even sriracha. Spicy barbecue sauces are great for burgers or for dipping potato wedges or sweet potato fries. I like the idea of mixing a flavorful barbecue sauce with a creamy mayonnaise or sour cream to tame some of the heat. You could also try softening the seasoning with a fruit juice like ple, lime, orange, or pineple.
Spicy sauces to try:
- Trader Joe’s Organic Sriracha and Roasted Garlic BBQ Sauce: Sometimes you just save time in the store and deliver flavor. A spicy sauce that’s popular for its iconic Sriracha addition. It is not only suitable for spreading on your grill dishes, but also for mixing with mayo to spread it on bread. And if you don’t have time to toast your own garlic, this sauce did the job for you.
- Stubb’s Spicy Bar-BQ Sauce: Although there is a huge spice element here, the flavor always keeps you holding you back for more. If it’s too hot, you can tame it with honey or ketchup. But then again, it’s not called “spicy” for nothing.
- Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey Chipotle Barbecue Sauce: This is one of my favorite combinations from the brand. Grilled vegetables like corn on the cob or mushrooms add to the heat and flavor. It’s a wonderful addition to your flavorful barbecue sauce collection.
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of smoky barbecue sauces, which are very smoky in taste and high in molasses-sugar. Hickory is a common smoky flavor profile when grilling, and many sauces achieve this flavor through the use of liquid smoke, which is created by burning hickory at high temperatures to create smoke, which is then collected and converted. Too much of this liquid smoke can be overwhelming, but with some brands the smoke flavor improves when the sauce is boiled or heated instead of eating it straight from the bottle.
Smoky sauces to try:
Teriyaki, Janese, Hawaiian, and Korean
There is a whole world of barbecue sauces that don’t fit into the above four categories, many of which are inspired by the grilling traditions of other cultures. Teriyaki sauce for example leads with high sugar concentrations, sometimes pineapple and citrus fruits, honey, soy sauce and ginger. Hawaiian barbecue sauce is ultra sweet with a high acid content. And I’m a sucker for Korean barbecue sauce, which can be high in sugar but laden with green onion, ginger, onion, black pepper, and sesame oil.
Sauces to try:
- Bachans: The Original Janese Barbecue Sauce has been perfected over generations and is a coveted sauce full of umami. It’s widely available online and contains a mixture of ginger, garlic, rice vinegar, mirin, and toasted sesame oil. I want to drown a pulled pork bao bun in this sauce.
- Kraft Sweet Teriyaki Barbecue Sauce: With notes of ginger and sesame, this goes perfectly with a seared hot dog.
- CJ Korean BBQ Original Sauce, Kalbi: This is a fantastic marinade sauce for any meat. The sweet, tangy umami taste takes you to the authentic Korean barbecue. This sauce with charred ribs and topped with sesame will turn your grill spread into an unforgettable dish.
Make them your own
Despite the individuality of each sauce, I still find myself spicing up store-bought barbecue sauce every year. If your store doesn’t have exactly the sauce you’re looking for, then you can get closer to what you want by adding your own touch to one of the bottles available. Here are a few of my favorite ways to spice up the sauce:
- To heat, add plain or pickled jaleno, dried or fresh chili peppers or cayenne pepper.
- For extra depth and fullness, add some sweet onion jam or a toasted clove of garlic or canned crushed pineapple.
- To increase interest in spices, use cumin, coriander, turmeric, berbere, sumac, and smoked prika.
- Add pieces of cooked bacon or chopped cucumber for texture.
- For creaminess and zip add mayo, lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire, hot sauce and grated garlic.
- For a citrus accent, add orange, lime, or orange peel, or all three.
- For a bite and pow, add horseradish or hot mustard.
Whether you bought in the store or made your own barbecue sauce from scratch, the most important ingredient is your self-expression. If you feel spicy, flavor it. If you’re more of a smoky, woody vibe, go this route. There really are no wrong turns. Pride and BBQ is all about honesty, joy, and willingness to take risks.