Perhaps you can relate to this experience: You have just eaten some truly amazing ribs, coated with a shiny, sticky, sweet, smokey sauce. You ask your host what the secret is to such irresistible ribs, and you are met with an unapologetic smile and a shrug of the shoulders. It is immediately apparent that you’re not gaining access to that information any time soon.
You may think a secret barbecue sauce recipe has to be incredibly complex, with spices sourced from distant lands, and created over years of trial and error. But the truth is likely the opposite. A barbecue sauce bought from the local store or online; yes, straight from the bottle, could well be their secret. So simple, it is a little embarrassing.
So, I’ve put together a list of the best sauces you can get online, as well as some handy information to help you determine what the perfect sauce is for you, how to jazz up a boring sauce, and how to use barbecue sauce to create truly memorable barbecue.
Best store-bought barbecue sauces
The best barbecue comes from two things, great technique and fantastic ingredients, and when it comes to the finishing touches, there’s nothing more important than an excellent barbecue sauce.
The good news is, you don’t need to make your own sauce with a recipe handed down through generations of pitmasters; there are some excellent sauces out there you can just buy.
Let us talk you through some of the best.
Ingredients: Apple cider vinegar, apple juice, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, liquid smoke, mustard, tomato, brown sugar, cayenne, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and natural spices.
Flavor: Smoky and mild.
If you suffer from a gluten intolerance, then BBQ can be a little tricky. Thankfully, Lillie’s Q has produced this amazing smokey Memphis-style sauce that is entirely gluten-free.
Memphis-style means you’ll be getting that thick sweet Kansas City-Style sauce but cut with a little more vinegar to make it slightly more tart.
Lillie’s Q only uses all-natural ingredients, so no high-fructose corn syrup, no MSG, and no chemical preservatives. All you get is quality gluten-free ingredients in the bottle and decades of barbecue experience in the taste.
Main Ingredients: Corn syrup, vinegar, tomato paste, food starch, spices, juice concentrate.
Flavor: Sweet, with a slight tang.
Sweet Baby Ray’s is an excellent example of a Kansas City-Style sauce, which means it has added ketchup and molasses for extra sweetness and smokey notes imparted by a little liquid smoke.
There’s also a distinct tang to this sauce that comes from the vinegar.
Kansas City-Style is what most store-brand barbecue sauces aspire to be, although none of them can hold a candle to Sweet Baby Ray’s, so this sauce will give your food that “classic” taste most people associate with good BBQ.
Getting a twin pack of Sweet Baby Ray’s is always a good idea as, in our experience, the contents of one bottle disappears extraordinarily quickly.
Main Ingredients: Tomato paste, cane sugar, vinegar, molasses, brown sugar, salt, and spices.
Flavor: Sour and tart.
In case you didn’t guess from the hyphens in the name, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q Sauce is Texas-style through and through. Texas has its own specific barbecue traditions and produces a thinner “mop sauce” or “basting sauce” that is applied to the meat while it is cooking.
Texas-style sauces also tend to be less sweet and more tart compared to the more common Kansas City-style sauce, designed to cut through and complement the richness of Texas Barbecue.
If you love the taste of Texas BBQ, then Stubb’s makes for a great mop sauce. You won’t find any high fructose corn syrup in the ingredients, this sauce it all-natural to keep the taste authentically Texan.
Ingredients: Brown Sugar, Ketchup, Apple Cider Vinegar, Sugar, Salt, Spices including Paprika, Worcestershire Sauce, Vanilla Extract, Dried Garlic.
Flavor: Sweet and spicy.
If you find the barbecue sauce bottle in your house is empty with depressing regularity, then Blues Hog has a solution for you. They sell their Kansas City-Style sauce in four-pound and eight-pound bottles.
The sauce itself is award-winning, having brought home the “Best Baste on the Planet” and “People’s Choice” awards at the prestigious American Royal World Series of Barbecue.
Sweet, spicy, and hugely thick, this sauce works amazingly well on pork, beef, wild game, fish, hot wings, mixed with ground meats, veggies, and especially on ribs.
Ingredients: Soybean oil, cider vinegar, filtered water, egg yolks, honey, distilled vinegar, salt, lemon juice, black pepper, lime juice, cayenne pepper.
Flavor: Tangy and spicy.
Alabama white sauce is an invention of barbecue pioneer Bob Gibson. Unlike a lot of other American BBQ sauces, this one is generally a mixture of mayonnaise, vinegar, and pepper and is best applied to smoked chicken or pork.
The Lillie’s Q take on Alabama white sauce adds in a pinch of cayenne alongside the traditional black pepper to give the sauce some punch. They suggest using it as a dipping sauce with Chicken and fries or as a replacement for the mayo in an Alabama-style potato salad.
Ingredients: cane sugar, water, distilled vinegar, molasses, tomato paste, tart cherries, cherry juice concentrate, salt, honey, habanero mash, onion powder, granulated garlic, natural smoke flavor, chili powder, tamarind concentrate, natural flavor, vanilla extract.
Flavor: Hot and tart.
Made from Kosmos’ signature habanero mash and pure cane sugar, this sauce combines chili heat with the tart tang and sweetness of cherries. The robust fruit flavor works incredibly well as a rib glaze, marinade, dipping sauce, wing coating, or condiment for burgers and hot dogs.
If you’re looking to switch up from the usual Kansas City or Texas-style barbecue sauces to something a little more experimental and exciting, then this could be the perfect sauce for you.
Ingredients: Ketchup, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, mustard, tomato paste, Worchestershire suitcase, apple sluice, lime juice, sugar, onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper, paprika, allspice, distilled vinegar, cayenne pepper.
Flavor: Mustard and vinegar.
As you might have guessed from the name, this sauce has its roots in the South Carolina-style mustard sauce. The use of mustard sauce with pork was brought over by German settlers, according to the South Carolina Barbecue Association. It was then thinned down with vinegar and had spices added to it to create the sauce we all know and love today.
While not quite as multi-purpose as some other barbecue sauces, this South Carolina inspired mustard sauce is the last word in pork condiments.
Ingredients: Crushed tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, mustard, spices, brown sugar, salt, molasses, xantham gum, natural smoke flavor, onion, garlic, green bell pepper, lemon oil, spice extractives.
Flavor: Tomato-based with plenty of tang.
An excellent all-rounder, this sauce comes from the amazing Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse, NY. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que was originally opened in 1988, eventually expanding into what was formerly Andy’s Cycle Shop, and becoming a staple of the NY BBQ scene.
Full of all-natural ingredients and entirely gluten-free, this thick and sticky sauce has less sugar and more of a pronounced tomato flavor, so if you’re not a fan of overly sweet barbecue sauces, this could be the one for you.
Ingredients: Tomato paste, apple cider vinegar, honey, molasses, mustard, horseradish, lemon juice, onion, garlic, and spices.
Flavor: Sweet and subtle.
Do you love the fact that the Bone Suckin’ Gourmet Foods BBQ Sauce has a rich depth of flavor but still doesn’t overpower the taste of the meat? Are you annoyed that the bottle just isn’t big enough?
Well good news, you can now get your favorite Bone Suckin’ in a 64-ounce jug!
Low in sodium, this sweet and tangy sauce is full of subtle flavors of mustard, horseradish, and apple cider vinegar.
Ingredients: Brown sugar, water, apricot puree, tomato paste, corn starch, soy sauce, vinegar, salt, hickory smoke flavoring, mustard seed powder, black pepper.
Flavor: Tangy and sweet.
Traeger has taken advantage of bringing a manufacturer of pellet grills by creating a range of barbecue sauces that synergize nicely with their range of wood pellets. This particular sauce combines the tangy sweetness of apricots with a peppery and mustardy heat.
If you do have a Traeger grill, then they suggest you pair the fruitiness of this sauce with their Pork and Poultry Rub and Apple Hardwood Pellets. While it might not be as versatile as a standard barbecue sauce, it works incredibly well with poultry and pork.
Main Ingredients: Tomato paste, corn syrup, vinegar, molasses, salt, spices.
Flavor: Tangy, and not as sweet as some other Kansas-style sauces.
If you prefer your Kansas-Style sauce with a bit more bite than sweetness, then Cattleman’s Master’s Reserve is going to be right up your street. It also works really well when blended with other Kansas-Style sauces.
For instance, you might love the smokey depth of Sweet Baby Ray’s but would prefer it was a little less sweet. Cutting your Sweet Baby Ray’s with Cattleman’s Master’s Reserve enables you to keep all the richness of flavor that Kansas-Style sauces are famous for, while still taking the sweetness down a notch.
Even better, you can buy your Cattleman’s Master’s Reserve a suitability cookout-sized one-gallon jug
Ingredients: Sugar, tomato paste, vinegar, corn sweetener, salt, modified food starch, spices, natural hickory smoke flavor, caramel color, soybean oil, dehydrated garlic and onion, guar gum, natural flavoring.
Flavor: Sweet and smokey.
Sonny’s BBQ is a barbecue restaurant chain founded by Floyd “Sonny” Tillman in Gainesville, Florida in 1968. Focussing on pork, beef, ribs, chicken, and beans, Sonny’s developed a reputation for amazing food and Sonny’s signature Southern-style sauce.
If you don’t have to head down to Gainesville, Florida to visit the original Sonny’s BBQ, you can at least buy your own bottle of his famous sauce. Sweet and smoky this sauce, unsurprisingly, goes incredibly well with the original menu items at Sonny’s, pork, beef, ribs, chicken, and beans.
Ingredients: Water, distilled vinegar, tomato paste, mustard, apple cider vinegar, sugar, brown sugar, salt, Worcestershire sauce concentrate, food-starch modified, spices, dried garlic.
Flavor: Tart and mustardy.
Famous Dave’s was founded by, unsurprisingly, Dave Anderson. Dave is a barbecue fanatic that spent more than 25 years of his adult life searching all over the country for the best barbeque and feasting on a variety of smoked meats available from every barbeque joint he could find.
Dave has managed to distill all of that collected knowledge into his range of sauces and this particular vinegar-based sauce comes for his time eating ‘cue in backroad smokehouses found in the foothills of the deep south.
Tart and full of tangy mustard flavor, this sauce works beautifully as an overnight marinade and baste for chicken or pork.
Sauce gift packs
If you’re looking for the perfect barbecue gift, for someone else or just for yourself, there are a range of sampling packs out there that let you taste a huge range of sauces to help you find your favorite.
The Kosmos Q sampler pack includes their amazing competition BBQ, Sweet Apple Chipotle, Sweet Smoke, Peach Habanero, Honey Jalapeno, Cherry Habanero, and our new Top Secret OPX-1 sauces.
Filled with sweet, smokey, and spicey flavors, this set makes for both a great gift for the pitmaster in your life or a fantastic way to widen the number of sauces you have on hand to pair with different meats.
The motto of Rufus Teague BBQ is “Good sauce makes bad barbecue good and good barbecue gooder” and you’ll certainly find a way to make your barbecue gooder somewhere in this set of delicious sauces.
Jam-packed with wholesome, natural ingredients, this range of thick Kansas City-style barbecue sauces include finger-licking variations like Honey Sweet, Touch o’ Heat, Whiskey Maple, Blazing Hot, and Smokey apple.
To make sure these amazing sauces are available to as many people as possible, Rufus Teague has made this entire pack GMO free, Gluten-free, and Kosher certified.
What makes a good barbecue sauce?
While there is no way of categorically stating that a BBQ sauce is either “good” or “bad”, when deciding which sauce is right for you, or the right match for the meat you plan to cook, there are a few things you can look for to help you make a good choice.
For example, is the sauce the Kansas style or vinegar based? If you go for a Kansas style sauce, you can expect a thicker, sweeter sauce with a bit less spice. Typically, this style of sauce will come to mind when most Americans think of barbecue sauce, as this is the style you can easily get in a store.
If you prefer more heat, spice and tang, then perhaps you should try a vinegar-based sauce, which is the type of sauce usually used in North Carolina and Texas.
While the texture of your sauce does not in itself determine the quality of the product, it will help you decide how to best use the sauce. Do you want to use it as more of a condiment? Then perhaps a thicker sauce will work best. Want to use it in a recipe? Then a thinner sauce will do the trick, especially if it packs a punch flavor-wise.
A great tip from seriouseats.com is to take into consideration the aroma of the sauce. As their grilling and sauce columnist states:
“You can have a perfectly cooked rib or pulled pork, but top it with an off-smelling sauce, and the whole thing becomes an unfortunate experience.”
How to improve a store-bought barbecue sauce?
You have run out of your favorite barbecue sauce, and you have guests coming for dinner. The only option is to run down town and grab a bottle of underwhelming store-bought barbecue sauce, which tastes like sweetened tomato paste, to be frank.
Does this mean your BBQ is going to be a monumental disaster? Not at all! There is plenty you can do to improve a store-bought barbecue sauce:
The video below has some good suggestions.
Add spice and heat
If you are after a little more spice in an otherwise bland sauce, try mixing in some of your favorite hot sauce.
Take it easy though, you don’t want to get the balance of flavor wrong. Mix a little together first and have a taste. If they seem to be a good match, pour your barbecue sauce in a bowl, and slowly add the hot sauce till you reach the sweet spot.
You can also add some heat to your sauce by mixing some chilli flakes or chilli powder into your barbecue sauce. Habanero and cayenne are great options which are easy to source in your local store, but don’t be afraid to experiment with other types of chilli.
To add spice, with some smoky flavor to boot, try adding some chipotle pepper to your sauce. This can be added in powder form.
If you buy your chipotle peppers canned, just process the peppers into a paste and add that to your sauce. If you have the dried pods, rehydrate them by soaking them in water, then blend them up and add the paste to your barbecue sauce.
If you are after a smoky flavor without the extra spice that chipotle peppers bring, then try adding a pinch of dried cumin powder. Start with a small amount and add until you are happy with the result.
Perhaps you feel that the balance is still out in your sauce, and it needs more of a tang. Try adding some vinegar. Again, add the vinegar slowly, a teaspoon at a time until you feel that the taste is just right.
Other spices that go well to improve a sauce are ground mustard powder, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper. For more inspiration, check out the ingredients list of your favorite barbecue sauce, and try adding some of these.
Once you have your signature sauce just right, set it aside for around 30 minutes to let those flavors really combine.
You might just create something better than you can buy!
How much sauce should I use?
You don’t need to load up your meat with gallons of sauce to get a great result. Remember, the flavor of the meat and the smoke should really be the stars of the show.
One or two coats of sauce on your meat while it cooks is enough. Meathead Goldwyn of Amazingribs.com gives a rough guide:
“A full slab of spareribs with the tips still on will need at least 3/4 cup of a thick sauce for both sides, a slab of St. Louis cut ribs will need 1/2 cup, and a slab of baby back ribs will need 1/3 cup.”
If your guests are big fans of barbecue sauce, you can always put some more sauce out on the table so they can top up if they like.
When should I apply the sauce?
The sugar content in a barbecue sauce means that it can burn quickly. To avoid this, apply the sauce toward the end of the cook.
This allows time for the sauce to heat and perhaps even caramelize, but not burn. Applying the sauce about 30 mins before the meat is ready to be taken off the heat is a good rule of thumb.
You can also “sizzle the sauce”. Just before you are ready to take your meat off the heat, coat it in sauce, and apply each side to direct, high heat for about 10 minutes.
To ensure you don’t overcook the meat in the process, sizzling the sauce about 30 minutes before your cook would have finished will yield the best results for both the sauce and the meat.
How to apply BBQ sauce
Make sure you keep a very close eye on the meat if you decide to sizzle the sauce. Due to the sugar content, you could very quickly end up with a slab of meat coated in charcoal instead of a sweet, smoky glaze.
A word of warning— never reuse the leftover barbecue sauce that you used to coat your meat with. Even if your meat was almost cooked at the time you applied the sauce, there is still a risk that microbes and spores that live in un/undercooked meat could spread.
Use a separate bowl for the sauce you coat your meat with, and discard any sauce you don’t use to coat the meat with. Always place fresh, uncontaminated sauce on the table as a condiment.
Wrapping it up
A great barbecue sauce is a vital element in creating fantastic barbecue and, whether it’s a sauce you’ve made, bought, or improved on, it can turn something great into something exceptional.
Is there a sauce that we’ve missed that you love and think should have made this list? Do you have an amazing barbecue sauce recipe that you’re willing to share with your fellow pitmasters? We’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!
You may also want to check out our guide to the best barbecue rubs you can buy online.