From classic original, to brown sugar-based, to teriyaki, these are the sweetest, spiciest, and smokiest sauces to have in your pantry
It’s Pride and barbecue season, sweeties, which means it’s time for a rainbow spread of grilled veggies 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 barbecue, and if you’ve ever stood in the middle of a grocery aisle wondering which sauce to choose, you are probably my people.
In my family, barbecue was part of a larger tradition of bonding with family and enjoying the summer outdoors. My dad was a southern boy from Alabama who knew a thing or two about barbecue and sauce. We lived in an apartment building in New York City, so our best options were to roast indoors or grill at my uncle Ronnie’s house. My dad and his brother would marinate chicken and slabs of pork and beef ribs in big buckets with Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola, maybe a beer, and store-bought barbecue sauce. Yep, I said store-bought. By the time the meat hit the fire, 90 percent of the flavor work had been done. The remaining 10 percent, which could not be compromised, was the second finishing sauce.
My dad preferred classic, “original” barbecue sauces. He would often jazz them up with some adobo seasoning and a can or two of dark soda and would always keep an old painter’s brush on hand for basting. And choosing the right barbecue sauce to complement your personal barbecue beliefs is an art in itself, one that requires a bit of self-reflection.
You could always make your own barbecue sauce — the Alabama white sauce with mayo, salt, coarse pepper, a pinch of sugar, and freshly squeezed lemon juice or apple cider vinegar is my number one easy go-to. But as my dad knew, and Ina Garten says, “store-bought is fine.” To help you decide which store-bought sauce is your ideal, I bought every kind of sauce I could find on grocery shelves and divided them into five flavor categories. Here’s the lowdown:
There’s nothing like an original. While no barbecue sauce is 100 percent like another, most barbecue sauces with labels that declare them the “original” use the same basic building blocks: tomato, vinegar, molasses or sugar, some form of apple or pineapple juice, garlic, mustard powder, and spices. Depending on the brand, some tend to lean sweet while others rely more on spices like chile and paprika powders. An original is a great blank canvas, neutral enough for most barbecue dishes without bringing too much attention to the party.
Some originals to try:
- Sweet Baby Ray’s 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, giving it a measured punch of tang.
- Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce: This version leads with heavy tomato and brown sugar but also features an interesting spice blend with notes of paprika and garlic. It’s a good base to jazz up with frozen cherries or blueberries for a fruity spin.
- Trader Joe’s Kansas City Style BBQ Sauce: Once missing from the Trader Joe’s collection, this one is a combo of sweet and tangy, which tastes great on a grilled pork chop or slathered on a smash burger. The molasses thickness makes it perfect for pairing with acidic toppings like pickles or jalapenos.
We love a sweetie. Popular barbecue sauces with names like “sweet brown sugar” or “sweet honey” often have all the ingredients of an original but with a generous amount of sugar. Sauces labeled “sweet” also tend to contain less spice nuance than originals. A sweet choice is great for lending a sugary punch to a savory bun or a heavily salted piece of meat, or to offset a spicy or heavily seasoned 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 topping, and tends to go well with chicken or ribs. That onion flavor can be enhanced by folding in caramelized onions or onion jam.
- Kraft Sweet Honey Barbecue Sauce: It’s exactly what you’d expect from the name, and it makes a great base for a homemade jerk sauce.
- Stubb’s Sticky Sweet Bar-B-Q Sauce: A gluten-free and sweet tasting option. I love this sauce for its rich sweetness and texture, especially when it’s cooked down with whiskey, bourbon, or beer, which is great on salmon or chicken.
For me, the spicy sauces top the charts. Spice brings the heat, baby, and also adds an element of surprise to your barbecue dishes. But there’s more to it. My favorite spicy barbecue sauces bring on a heat that gently creeps up on you, without being too forward. That unique burn comes from hot chile powders, serrano chile peppers, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and even Sriracha. Spicy barbecue sauces are great to use on burgers or for dipping potato wedges or sweet potato fries. I like the idea of mixing a spicy barbecue sauce with a creamy mayonnaise or sour cream to tame some of the heat. You could also try mellowing the spice with a fruit juice such as apple, lime, orange, or pineapple.
Spicy sauces to try:
- Trader Joe’s Organic Sriracha and Roasted Garlic BBQ Sauce: Sometimes store-bought just saves you time and delivers on flavor. A spicy sauce favorite for its iconic Sriracha addition, this is great for not only slathering on your barbecue dishes but also blending with mayo to spread on bread. Plus, when you don’t have time to roast your own garlic, this sauce has done the work for you.
- Stubb’s Spicy Bar-B-Q Sauce: While there is a huge element of spice here, the flavor keeps you coming back for more. If it’s too hot, feel free to tame it with honey or ketchup. But then again, it’s called “spicy” for a reason.
- Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey Chipotle Barbecue Sauce: This one is one of my favorite combos from the brand. The heat and spice boost grilled veggies like corn on the cob or mushroom caps. It’s a wonderful edition to your spicy barbecue sauce collection.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of smoky barbecue sauces, which tend to be very smoke-forward in flavor and have a high molasses-sugar content. Hickory is a common smoky flavor profile in barbecue, and many sauces achieve that flavor by using liquid smoke, which is created by burning hickory at high temperatures to make smoke that’s then collected and transformed. Too much of that liquid smoke can be overwhelming, but for some brands, the smoke flavor improves when the sauce is cooked or heated rather than eaten straight from the bottle.
Smoky sauces to try:
- Lillie’s Q Hot Smoky Barbeque Sauce: Most grocery stores don’t carry this, so you’ll have to buy it online, but this Memphis-style sauce has the flavor of a long, slow time in a barbecue pit with an element of heat from cayenne.
- Sweet Baby Ray’s Hickory & Brown Sugar Barbecue Sauce: I love this sauce for its woodsy notes and the fab squeeze bottle cap, and its inviting smoky flavor enhances any grilled item.
Teriyaki, Japanese, Hawaiian, and Korean
There’s a whole world of barbecue sauces that don’t fit into the above four categories, many of which take inspiration from the barbecue traditions of other cultures. Teriyaki sauce, for example, leads with high concentrations of sugar, sometimes pineapple and citrus, honey, soy sauce, and ginger. Hawaiian barbecue sauce is ultrasweet with high acidity. And I’m a sucker for Korean barbecue sauce, which can have a high sugar content but is loaded with green onion, ginger, onion, black pepper, and sesame oil.
Sauces to try:
- Bachan’s: The Original Japanese Barbecue Sauce has been perfected over generations and is a craveable sauce full of umami. Widely available online, it has a blend of ginger, garlic, rice vinegar, mirin, and toasted sesame oil. I want to drown a pulled-pork bao bun with this sauce.
- Kraft Sweet Teriyaki Barbecue Sauce: With notes of ginger and sesame, this one would be great on a seared hot dog.
- CJ Korean BBQ Original Sauce, Kalbi: This is a fantastic marinade sauce for any meat. The sweet, tangy, umami flavor transports you to authentic Korean barbecue. This sauce with charred ribs and topped with sesame seeds will turn your barbecue table spread into an unforgettable meal.
Making them your own
Despite the individuality of each sauce, I still find myself jazzing up store-bought barbecue sauce every year. If your store doesn’t have the exact sauce you’re looking for, you can get closer to what you had in mind by putting your own spin on one of the bottles that are available. Here are a few of my favorite twists for jazzing up the sauce:
- For heat, add regular or pickled jalapeno, dried or fresh chile peppers, or cayenne pepper.
- For extra depth and richness, throw in some sweet onion jam, or a roasted garlic head, or canned crushed pineapple.
- To add interest with spices, use cumin, coriander, turmeric, berbere, sumac, and smoked paprika.
- For texture, add cooked bacon pieces or chopped pickles.
- For creaminess and zip, add mayo, lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire, hot sauce, and grated garlic.
- For an accent of citrus, add orange, lime, or orange zest, or all three.
- For a bite and pow, add horseradish or spicy mustard.
Whether you go store-bought or make your own barbecue sauce from scratch, the most important ingredient is your self-expression. If you’re feeling spicy, spice it up. If you’re more in a smoky woodsy vibe, go that route. There are really no wrong turns. Pride and barbecue is all about honesty, joy, and taking risks.
Lazarus Lynch is a multi-hyphenated artist and author of the cookbook, Son of a Southern Chef: Cook with Soul.
Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based photographer.