We Tasted One Dozen Barbecue Sauces to Find the 7 Best

These picks will make your summer menus sizzle.

8 min read

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I have a confession: Even though I have written about regional barbecue styles and usually have a container of barbecue sauce in the fridge, I’ve never had a favorite barbecue sauce brand. I blame it on my joy of cooking from scratch and a lack of an outdoor grill. When I want barbecue, I usually leave it to the pros. 

Ironically, my barbecue sauce ignorance made my quest for the best store-bought barbecue sauces especially thrilling — and informative. Tasting what I tasted, I will never randomly reach for any old sauce again, even if its purpose is as simple as acting as a dip for chicken nuggets. You’ll surely find incredible local options, but there are also excellent universally accessible barbecue sauces that are within arm’s reach at almost any nearby grocer. Still, the difference between Meh and Yeah can be difficult to discern when browsing the shelves. So I bought and tasted through 11 brands to help you get straight to the good stuff — read on to discover which sauces to slather and why. 

The Tasters

In my hometown of San Francisco, it’s easier to find educated food friends than it is to find a parking space. It’s even simpler to find people who want to come to your house to eat sticky-fingered barbecue, so I looked no further than my own 18-year-old “junior food editor” child and my dining-savvy neighbor. And of course, there’s me, the jaded longtime food/cookbook writer/recipe developer/editor with 30 years of experience who now has newfound confidence in the condiment aisle. 

The Methodology

I sought out as many nationally available barbecue sauce brands as I could find, sticking with the U.S. norm of tomato-based barbecue sauce. I allowed for brands offering variations reflecting regional U.S. preferences through diverse levels of heat, smoke, sweetness, and tang, but avoided dramatic flavor departures, like extra hot or spicy, fancy-flavored varieties, and non-tomato-based versions. 

After securing 11 brands that fit the everyday barbecue profile, I grabbed a rack of baby back ribs, removed its membrane, salted the pork, wrapped it in foil, and baked it low and slow at 275°F for 2.5 hours. Then I cut the slab into individual ribs, generously slathered each one with one of the 11 barbecue sauces — keeping track of which was which — and put them under the broiler until the sauces were caramelized. After pulling them out of the oven, I slathered on a bit more sauce, grabbed the team, and got to tasting and note-taking. We looked at color and sheen, sampled for flavor, and revisited our choices several times to discover which ones were the finger-lickin’ winners. 

The good news? Your next favorite barbecue sauce is probably at a store near you. 

The Results

The Best Classic Hickory-Smoked Sauce: Bull’s Eye BBQ Sauce, Original


This was my go-to when I was in my twenties. Revisiting it, I know why. The label sums up the flavor profile well: “Bold, smoky, and never too sweet.” This, more or less, is exactly what we wrote in our notes. We loved the smoky in-your-face taste that’s offset by the sweetness of high fructose corn syrup, and deemed it the quintessential barbecue sauce of the bunch. It’s a looker, too, with a garnet-tone color that goes well with your next batch of ribs or grilled chicken.

The Best Balance of Sweet, Tang, and Smoke: Sweet Baby Ray's Award Winning Barbecue Sauce


High fructose corn syrup combined with pineapple juice, molasses, and cornstarch make this perennial favorite extra pretty, thick, and tasty. All that sugar is balanced with the tang of vinegar, the headiness of smoke, and a delicate dance of spice that’ll work well with anything your grill-loving heart desires.  

The Best Kansas-City-Style Sauce: Rufus Teague Touch O’ Heat BBQ Sauce

First prize in the barbecue beauty contest goes to this glossy, deep brown-red jewel of a sauce, which is also notably thicker and more concentrated than most of its competitors. In keeping with Kansas City style, there’s a lingering vinegar tang on the front palate, a good amount of smoke throughout, and a sweetness from sugar, brown sugar, and molasses. The hint of chipotle heat at the end only elevates this yummy non-GMO sauce, and it pairs best with big-flavor meats like burgers, brisket, and ribs. 

The Best Carolina-Style, Vinegar-Forward Sauce: Lillie’s Q Carolina Barbecue Sauce 


Vinegar and mustard are mainstays in Western-Carolina-style barbecue sauce, and the trademark flavor comes through beautifully in this aptly named sauce. Expect a nice balance between vinegar and sugar, plus good flavor depth due to zingy mustard and other spices. Enjoy it on pork (especially ribs), grilled chicken, and brisket. 

The Best Texas-Barbecue-Style Sauce: Stubb’s Original Legendary Bar-B-Que Sauce


This super thick, tomatoey sauce perks the palate with vinegary punch and persistent Tabasco-like heat. It’s far less sweet than many of the other options on this list and imparts a homemade Texas barbecue joint flavor, which makes sense given that it’s made by a 50-plus-year-old Texas classic. The color is different, too; it’s more red-orange in tone and cooks up more matte than the others on this list. Lasso the Lone Star state style by pairing it with chicken wings, ribs, and brisket. 

The Best Sugar-Free Option: Primal Kitchen Unsweetened Classic BBQ Sauce


If sugar-free is your jam, this is your sauce. The best of the three sugarless varieties we tried, it’s subtle, with a mild heat and a lingering black pepper finish. With its tomato-sauce-meets-gravy looks, it won’t win any glistening barbecue beauty contests, but there’s a unique glamor in being able to indulge in a tasty sauce while skipping sweeteners. Use it with chicken or with any leaner protein that won’t be overwhelmed by this gently tangy sauce.  

The Best Kid-Friendly Choice: Kinder’s Mild BBQ Sauce


This shiny, slightly thinner sauce is very sweet with its one-two punch of sugar and corn syrup countered by vinegar and spice, making it our number-one pick for serving as a dip with nuggets. With neither too much heat nor vinegar pucker, it’s the proverbial Switzerland of BBQ sauce, which will be welcomed even by less adventurous palates. 

Photography: Paul Quitoriano
Art Direction: Sarah Ceniceros Gomez