Barbecue sauce is one of those products that can make or break a summer cookout, and even when it's cold out there's nothing that can ruin a sandwich or burger quicker than the application of crummy barbecue sauce. When shopping for sauce, though, there’s always that moment when you’re faced with a decision: standing there in front of a seemingly endless selection of barbecue sauces, the choice can be a difficult one.
When it comes to bottled barbecue sauces, one thing is for certain: all are not created equal. Some are too sweet, some are too spicy, some have that weird artificial smoke flavoring, and some just taste sort of 'off' and don’t hit that barbecue sauce sweet spot. To buy a bottle of each and go through them one by one until you find one that you like isn’t really an option, so most of the time we’ll just choose one at random, and hope for the best.
We here at The Daily Meal decided that choosing at random is an unworthy compromise, though. That’s why we picked up 10 leading brands, the vast majority of which are available nationwide, and put them to the test. We tried each of them straight, unadulterated, right out of the bottle, and ranked them in order of overall flavor, smokiness, balance of sweet to tangy to salty to spicy, consistency, and whether or not they hit that place in your brain that says, "now that’s good barbecue sauce."
For our taste test, we stuck with the "original" offerings from each brand, as opposed to variations. These tended to skew toward the sweet, Kansas City-style sauce that most of us are used to, as opposed to, say, a vinegar- or mustard-based concoction. The sauces weren’t just ranked, though; our panel of taste testers took detailed notes about each sauce, logging the pros and cons of each one. So the next time you’re faced with the dilemma of having to choose between KC Masterpiece, Stubb’s, Hunt’s, Bull’s-Eye, Sweet Baby Ray’s, Cattlemen’s Reserve, Kraft, Open Pit, Jack Daniel's, or pitmaster Brad Orrison’s new line called The Shed, you’ll know exactly which one to pick.
1. Sweet Baby Ray’s
The dark horse of the bunch, Sweet Baby Ray's emerged as the near-universal favorite. "A perfect balance of sweet to spice to smoke to tanginess," said one taster. It had a good acidity and a well-executed blend of spices, and it all came together without being overwhelming in any aspect. "It has all the quintessential characteristics of a perfect barbecue sauce," another said.
A very popular pick, this bottle was also the most expensive. "A nice balance of sweet to spice," one taster said, and it had a noticeable spicy kick ("hot in a not very interesting way, but it grows on you," said another). All agreed that it tasted like its base was a good spice rub, and that it would be very good on brisket.
3. KC Masterpiece
The original Kansas City barbecue sauce, this one still stands tall among the pack. Heavy on the smoke and not too sweet, spicy, or acidic, the only negative was that the smokiness was a bit too overpowering for some.
"Tangy and sweet, well balanced, and lots of flavor," said one taster, and just about everyone else agreed. Cattlemen’s had a nice blend of spice and a hint of brown sugar, but one taster found it "mono-dimensional."
5. Open Pit
This sauce was the reddest of the bunch, the least expensive at $1.89, and also the least favorite. "It tastes like a combination of hot sauce and ketchup," one taster said, and all agreed that there was no discernible smokiness. It had a thin consistency and was a bit too spicy, but one taster felt that it would be a better match for chicken nuggets or wings than barbecue.
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