Barbecue Sauces, Spice Rubs, Steak Sauces, And More: Buying Guide, Reviews, And Ratings To The Classic Regional Styles
It seems every ribjoint is bottling its signature sauce nowadays and grocery stores are bulging with them. Likewise, every serious home barbecuer's gotta have a signature sauce or three. One that your neighbor doesn't have. One that's not in every grocery store in town.
I prefer to make my own sauces and rubs from the recipes on this site, and I encourage you to try them and riff on them. Heckuva lot cheaper than storebought. Every grownup should have his or her own secret sauce, even if it is my recipe or if you "doctor" a commercial sauce and rebottle it in an unlabeled jelly jar. If your guests want to think you made it from scratch, well, you can't control what they think.
I taste a lot of commercial barbecue sauces and I even have a scorecard for rating them. Below are some of my favorites. Most of them are classic examples of their regional styles and I've grouped them by style. In other words, although there are some great sweet Kansas City stylesauces made in Texas, like Stubbs, I have not included them because they are not representative of what I consider the original classic style of the region. Click here to learn more about regional barbecue sauce styles, with my recipes. Click here for a deeper discussion of the classic American BBQ sauce styles.
There's a trick to using barbecue sauce, especially if it's sweet. What's the trick? Click here.
For sauce manufacturers
If you are a sauce manufacturer and you want me to taste your sauce, please note, I can't promise that I will be able to review it here. I just don't have time to do proper blind tastings and writeups of all the sauces I taste, and if you notice, most of the sauces below come from the region that they represent. It's going to have to be pretty spectacular for me to give you a writeup. Furthermore, I prefer to recommend authentic South Carolina mustard sauces from South Carolina, not Indiana. Sorry.
If this doesn't deter you, click here to drop me a note and you can ship me a sample.
Alabama White Sauce
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q Original White Sauce (Decatur, AL). This is not what everyone thinks of when they think of barbecue sauce. It is white, first of all. And it is not sweet. It almost like a salad dressing and it is especially formulated for smoked chicken. Mayonnaise dominates, followed by mustard, black pepper, and vinegar. Not everyone likes it. But it's a classic and worth a try if you love barbecue. If you don't like it on chicken, it's just fine on coleslaw.
SFQ - The Original San Francisco Style Barbecue Sauce. First of all we need to make this clear: There is no such thing as a traditional California style barbecue sauce. While I have tried to focus this page on the classic sauce styles, I just could not resist adding this one because, if there is anything classic about California cooking and food, it is creativity, and this is one of the most creative, interesting, unique sauces I've ever tasted. But it has tried to remain true to its roots with a great blend of flavors that just shout "California".
Dark garnet in color, thick, and smooth, the first thing in the mouth is the chocolate and coffee (yes, they are in the blend) followed by a slow, steady march of chile heat, probably chipotle playing the horn with ancho on the base fiddle. The main ingredient is organic (of course) tomato paste, the sweetness is molasses (no high fructose corn syrup, the label proudly brags), and it is not syrupy sweet, and the acid is oak-aged wine vinegar (what else whould it be?). My only complaint is that it comes in an 8 ounce jelly jar, enough for a slab of ribs and not much more. 6 jars cost $29.95 plus $12.50 shipping.
Pig Chaser BBQ Sauce with Real Bacon (Grayslake, IL). I'm really stretching it by saying there is a Chicago style because there really isn't. If anything, many of the best of the Chicago sauces are garlicy derivitives of the Kansas City Style. But in the town that Carl Sandburg called "Hog Butcher to the World" this one is perfectly appropriate. This is the first, and to my knowledge, the only sauce to be allowed by USDA to have real bacon in the recipe. A dark brownish, very thick sauce with many dark bacon chunks swimming in solution. When you open it you smell bacon instantly, and that follows through to the taste. The owner has spared no expense including honey, pineapple juice, red wine vinegar, molasses, butter, and even maple syrup.
East Carolina Mop & Sauce
Scott's Barbecue Sauce (Goldsboro, NC). Prototypical Eastern North Carolina mop and sauce with nothing but vinegar, salt, peppers, and a few other spices. Tangy from the vinegar, it does a great job of cutting the fat. Spicy, but not scorchin'. This is the kind of stuff that made North Carolina barbecue famous.
Fruit Based Sauces
Ole Ray's Blackberry Wine Barbecue & Cooking Sauce (St. Augustine, FL). A thick dark brown glop whose fruity flavor from blackberry jelly and wine has multiple dimensions from smoke flavor, a mild pepper kick, and good crisp acidity from vinegar and lemon juice. This is not a novelty sauce. It has real richness and depth. I am also a big fan of the Ole Ray's Apple/Cinnamon Barbeque Sauce, a KC style red sauce with a distinct apple note and a long layered heat in the finish.
Kansas City Style BBQ Sauce
Arthur Bryant's Sweet Heat Barbecue Sauce (Kansas City, MO). Almost orange colored, this sauce is mild, simple, understated. Designed to let the meat come to the fore. A delicate sweetness with a distinct fresh tomato flavor and a gentle heat in the finish than builds slowly and gently. Not a show-off. If you are looking for the rich molasses, smoky sauce that comes to mind when someone says KC barbecue, try one of the others.
The Slabs Kyle Style BBQ Sauce (Lone Jack, MO). Made in a suburb of Kansas City, this is a classic from one of the top teams on the competition circuit. Thick and brown with golden edges, there are black pepper chunks clearly visible, and it is grainy in the mouth, definite sweetness that is not enough to make it gooey, a hint of cumin, complex, with a long black pepper finish.
Three Little Pigs Competition BBQ Sauce (Independence, MO). Dark mahogany color, medium thickness. Molasses and smokiness jump to the nose followed quickly by garlic. There is a nice tomato base and distinct tartness followed by a mild lingering warmth.
Rufus Teague Honey Sweet BBQ Sauce (Kansas City, MO). A shiny mahogany color with orange edges, this medium thick sauce is KC Masterpiece on steroids. Rich with molasses and smoke, it is very complex and complete. No wonder, the ingredient list includes raisins, orange juice, anchovy, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, "and other spices you can't know about".
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q Championship Red Sauce (Decatur, AL). A first-rate Kansas City style sauce from Alabama. This multiple award winner is medium thick with some chunky stuff, giving it the feeling of a home-made brew. Orange-brown and just spicy enough to be hot without burning, it's sweet without being cloying, thanks to a citrusy tanginess, a smoky quality, and other complex undertones. Close your eyes and think of the great classic American barbecue sauce. If you look closely the label says Big Bob Gibson Championship Red.
Cookshack Spicy Barbecue Sauce (Ponca City, OK). Known for their high end electric smokers, Cookshack also makes some pretty fine rubs and sauces. Buy a Smokette for $465 and they throw in a bottle of sauce and two different rubs. It's a classic Kansas City style sauce. Nice garnet color, medium thick, not too sweet, not too tart, not too hot, it's perfectly balanced.
Lotta Bull BBQ Original BBQ Sauce (Marietta, OK). is from Mike & Debbie Davis of Marietta, OK. They are one of the top teams on the circuit and have probably won more prize money than anyone. A portion of the credit must go to their slightly sweet, slightly peppery, Kansas City style sauce. Not too thick, not too runny, not too anything, it is perfectly balanced. When I close my eyes and visualize the classic American barbecue sauce, this is what I taste.
Head Country Original BBQ Sauce (Ponca City, OK). Close your eyes and imagine the quintessential calassic red barbecue sauce. Not too sweet, not to thick, not too smoky, not too hot. In a word: Balanced.
Sweet Baby Ray's (Chicago, IL) is the #1 top-selling barbecue sauce in the country because it has everything the public loves. It is sweet, smoky, tangy but not too tangy, spicy but not too spicy, and thick. It crisps nicely on the grill, but it can blacken easily if you don't watch out. Because it has a lot of liquid smoke flavor it tastes outdoorsy. If you use real wood to flavor your food, you do not need a sauce like this. But if you do not use wood chips/chunks/pellets when you cook, or if you cook your ribs in the oven, it is perfect.
Texas Rib Rangers Barbeque Sauce Sweet Mild - Blue Label (Denton, TX). Everything you love about rich tomatoey Kansas City-style barbecue sauce is here. Sweet, but not so sweet that it kills the meat, tangy but not too tart, spicy but by no means hot, smoky but not ash tray, and complex with undertones of garlic, onion, and molasses. Just about perfect. This sauce is made by Bill & Barbara Milroy of Denton, TX, perennial champions on the barbecue competition circuit and barbecue instructors who have taught hundreds how to cook real barbecue.
Lexington Mop & Sauce
Bone Suckin Sauce "Thicker Style" (Raleigh, NC). Bottled in a jelly jar, this shiny garnet colored sauce is chunky with what are probably green jalapeño pepper bits. It has a slightly sweet, fresh tomato undercarriage, with a great balance of sweet-heat-tart components. Though it is from Raleigh, NC, this is not your typical North Carolina sauce. Available in gallon and half gallon jugs.
George's Original Barbecue Sauce (Nashville, NC). A classic Lexington style sauce made in nearby Nashville, NC, George's is mostly vinegar laced with hot red pepper, black pepper, and a whisp of ketchup. A touch of apple juice rounds it out nicely, making it my favorite of this style. It's among my first choices for pulled pork. If you like vinegar, you'll love George's. Definitely not for everyone.
Sam Dillard's Bar-B-Q Sauce (Durham, NC). A pale amber color with red and white flecks, this thin sauce is a light vinegar sauce, but not nearly as acidic as the East Carolina sauces because it is slightly diluted and has a bit of tomato concentrate to mellow it. There are plenty of spices, but it is not very hot. This is not meant to steal the show, just deliver some pleasant spices to the meat.
El Gringo Mexican Barbeque Fusion (Warrenville, IL). Another winner from the creative kitchen of Chef Rick Kazdan. As is his style, it is rich, thick and complex, and although it comes from a Chicago burb, it tastes Mexican. There's molasses, honey, tamarind, chopped garlic, vinegar, chipotles in adobo, and other goodies held together by ketchup and tomato paste. It is a great balance of sweet and tart and hot. Try it on ribs, chicken, or anything else on which you'd put a tomato based barbecue sauce.
El Gringo Loco Sweet Island Heat (Warrenville, IL). Rick Kazdan calls his enterprise a "micro salsaria" because it is small, and his sauces are handcrafted, like a micro brewery. I'll buy that. At the moment he sells them mostly online and at farmer's markets around Chicago. I'm hoping he can grow beyond that. Sweet Island Heat is made in the tropical islands just west of Chicago, but one taste and you'd swear you were in Jamaica, mon. It is amber in color, thick as jam, chunky, flecked with herbs and spices, and shiny. It's really a chutney in my book. Ginger jumps out as soon as you open the jar, and when you get it in your mouth it explodes with tropical flavors like pineapple, orange, mango, and garlic, underpinned by a decent but not overbearing kick from jerk seasoning, chili sauce, and habanero puree. The ingredient list says there's also apple juice, grape juice, onion, and even banana. I like it as a dipping sauce for anything fried, especially chicken, fish, or samosas. Lately I've been dipping pretzel rods in the convenient wide mouth jar.
Black Swan Beso del Fuego. Chile peppers dominate the flavor of this thick rich garnet colored sauce, and there are some significant lumps floating around in there, but surprisingly it is not that hot. Yes, there is is a spiciness, it builds slowly and gradually in the back of the palate. Just right for someone like me who likes heat, but not pain.
South Carolina Yellow Mustard BBQ Sauce
Ole Ray's Classic Gold St. Augustine, FL. Ray and Susan Greene are master barbecue sauciers. They make six and I rate the three that I've tasted at the top of my scale. One of my faves is this mustard based sauce. Developed by German immigrants in South Carolina, mustard sauces are perfect on pork, and they put it on everything in the Palmetto State. Forget those tomato-based sauces, there is nothing better on pulled pork than mustard sauce. This one is typical. Greenish gold, thin, and mildly sweet, there is a subtle black pepper heat that builds in the finish. Close your eyes and in the background you can taste vinegar, Worcestershire, honey, garlic, onion, and chili peppers. This is much more than ballpark mustard, but try it on hot dogs, anyway!
Shealy's Bar-B-Que Sauce (Leesville, SC). This is the prototypical South Carolina mustard sauce. Bright yellow, sweet and sour, with a loooonnng mustard finish. Some others have a lot of fancy herbs and spices, and that's nice, but Shealy has it right, a little ketchup, a little Worcestershire, and a little molasses. If you've never had a mustard sauce on barbecue pork, you don't know what you're missing. The combo is like peanut butter and jelly. It doesn't create a sheen like the sweeter sauces, but it really enhances flavor. And it's great on hot dogs, too.
Sticky Fingers Carolina Classic (Charleston, SC). Created by the Sticky Fingers restaurant chain that began near Charleston, SC, this is the prototypical yellow mustard, South Carolina-style sauce. Almost orange colored, it is thin, straightforward, simple, and strongly mustardy, with a nice lingering black pepper back taste and finish. Sticky Fingers makes a number of nice sauces, but this is my favorite. Todd Eischeid, Jeff Goldstein. and Chad Walldorf knew each other since 7th grade. One summer day when they were in college they made a pact to start a business together. They now have more than a dozen locations and are growing steadily. I think the sauces are their secret.
Thomas Bessinger's Spicy Golden Recipe Bar-Be-Que Sauce (Charleston, SC). Golden with red and black flecks, this is a really good yellow mustard sauce amped up with hot pepper sauce. Not too sweet, not too tart, not too hot, but if you don't like a little heat, get another one. I think it is perfect for pulled pork.
Blues Hog Barbecue Sauce (Perry, MO). In the past few years this sauce has become the single most popular taste profile on the competition barbecue circuit. A thoroughly creative and unusual sauce from the middle of nowhere in Perry, Missouri. Bill Arnold has crafted this intriguing sauce from practically every herb and spice on his rack. Garnet colored, runny at room temp and thick from the fridge, it is laden with flecks of black pepper, green herbs, mustard seeds, chile peppers, a generous hit of cumin, and all manner of edible grit. Actually more of a glaze, it varnishes your meat with a glossy sheen and deep sea complexity. A bit too sweet (brown sugar is the first item on the ingredients list), it is not unctuous because there are layers of red pepper heat, black pepper bite, nutty garlic, and grassy herbaceousness. It made my ribs sing, and try as I might, I have been unable to duplicate it. One word or warning: Because it is so sweet, use only one layer. Multiple coats is too much.
Texas Mop Sauces
Cooper's BBQ Sauce Llano, TX. The best Texas barbecue sauce is a puzzlement. It is made to complement beef brisket. It is at all not sweet, it is thin, more like a gravy or a thin tomato soup than a sauce, heavily spiked with vinegary tartness, a splash of hot sauce, and probably flavored with chili or ancho powder, black pepper, cumin, onion, and garlic. It easily penetrates the meat rather than sitting on top.
The problem is that the stuff in the bottle is nothing like the stuff you get served at the pit. The picture here shows the sauce bucket at Cooper's sitting on the pit where they hold meats for customers to select. They start by dumping their bottled sauce in the bucket in the morning, and as the day goes by, the trimmings go in, and if you want sauce on your meat, it is dunked in the bucket. Before long it tastes a LOT different than the bottled stuff. Doesn't that look good enough to jump in to? So don't expect bottled Texas sauces to taste at all like this because they don't have the trimmings and drippings. Now there are plenty of good sauces in Texas, among my faves are those by Texas Rib Rangers recommended elsewhere on this page, but they are really more Kansas City style than Texas style.
To come close to the real deal, you could blend a good beef stock with the bottled sauce, or perhaps some drippings from a roast beef. You can come close by starting from scratch with my Texas BBQ Juice recipe.
To make things worse, Cooper's has a minimum purchase on their website so you just can't order a bottle. If you're tempted, add a brisket onto your order.
Lone Star Texas Style BBQ Sauce. Garnet color, thick, smooth, not too sweet, complex, tastes like it has liquid smoke, but it is not on the ingredient list and producer swears it is not in there. Complex with Texas flavors including chili cumin, black pepper, and beer! Mild warm heat in the finish.
Dr. Dan's BBQ Sauce Magical Meat Elixir, Kentucky Bourbon (Springfield, OH). Dr. Dan has made this boozy brown, medium-thick elixir by starting with his very rich and nuanced "Original Formula" sauce and adding extract of Bourbon (sorry, there's no alcohol in it, so it's safe for the kiddies). Try it on beef brisket or venison.
Black Swan Sweet Cognac Sauce & Marinade (Dundee, IL). I was not only impressed with this sauce, I was impressed with the guy who made it, Max Good, so much that I hired him. Max is now the Director of the AmazingRibs.com Buyer's Guides.
This fine sauce has a nice garnet/orange color with small black flecks, probably black pepper. The Cognac is so well integrated into the complex flavor that it is not an obvious component. Garlic and an orange flavor do stand out a bit, and I like that. It is more from the Kansas City sauce style mold than anything else. Black Swan is distributed in the US, Brazil, and the EU. Take note: Max makes the same sauce with cane sugar instead of HFCS. They taste different and I prefer the HFCS version.
Charlie Trotter's Organic Thai Barbecue Sauce (Chicago, IL). Forget everything you know about barbecue sauce. The great iconoclast chef has crafted this sweet, raisiny, citrusy sauce with sesame oil undertones and only a hint of heat for fish. Exquisite. Known for crafting unusual combinations of flavor, Trotter is often listed as one of the 10 greatest chefs in the nation and his Chicago restaurant is booked months in advance. Now you can bring a taste of Trotter to your next cookout.
Other Fun Sauces
Dreamland Bar-B-Que Sauce (Tuscaloosa, AL).
In 1958, John "Big Daddy" Bishop opened the Dreamland Café in Tuscaloosa, AL, the same year legendary football Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant arrived in Tuscaloosa. The ribs ascended to legendary, cooked fast but cooled with their thin flavorful sauce. The base is mostly vinegar and water, rounded out with tomato paste and mustard so it is a pale runny orange color that penetrates the meat and doesn't just squat on it. The taste is tangy, tart, with a noticeable hot pepper spice that lingers looooonnng. It is more like a Lexington Dip than anything else. Not everyone will like this one, but I love it.
Buz and Ned's Rib & Chicken Glaze (Richmond, VA). This place has cred. Buz himself whupped Bobby Flay in a ribs throwdown on FoodTV. So I had high hopes when I tasted his barbecue sauces. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed at first. The Real Barbecue Sauce was very good, but didn't bowl me over. The Glaze intrigued me because it was a dark garnet, ultra thick and rich, grainy with spices, but some how it did not send me. Perhaps because it was so tomatoey and that made it different than my expectations. Then one night we were making a meatloaf and there wasn't enough time to make a glaze. So I grabbed Buz And Ned's Glaze, and boy did it blow me away.
I have come to a conclusion about this stuff, and Buz is not gonna like hearing this, but it is the world's best ketchup. By far. Ketchup is tomato paste with vinegar, herbs, spices, and sweetener. Tomato-based barbecue sauce is usually ketchup with more of the same. So really, Kansas City style sauces are just amped up ketchups. The big diff is that ketchup is tomatoey, and barbecue sauce is less so. Well this stuff is tomatoey, and it is incredible on burgers, fries, meatloaf, and everything I love ketchup on.
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