Recipe: Basic Sweet & Tangy BBQ Sauce

Pantry Recipes from The Kitchn

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We moved on from bottled salad dressing in my house to our own homemade versions years ago, but for some reason, BBQ sauce still came from the store. And there's no reason for that when it's so easy to make it from scratch. Here's the sweet, tangy, smoky sauce I've worked on and tweaked over the past few months. I'm finally happy enough with it to make it worth sharing!

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I'm partial to sweet BBQ sauce, so this has plenty of brown sugar and molasses in it. Originally, months ago, I started with a recipe from Emeril Lagasse for his Sweet BBQ Sauce, which used a bottle of ketchup as its base.

I wasn't so keen on the ketchup (after all, the whole point here is to move away from bottled foods), so I started using tomato paste and pureed sauce instead. I also fiddled with the amount of Worcestershire sauce and added some cumin, plus a few other things. At the end of the day, I've ended up with something wholly my own and wholly delicious.

This recipe makes enough for a couple of BBQ chicken pizzas (which is where it's going tonight) or for several pulled pork sandwiches. If you want to marinate a bunch of chicken breasts, you may want to double it.

Recipe Tester's Notes

This recipe has become my stand-by barbecue sauce since Elizabeth first posted it nearly 5 years ago. It's easy, it's quick, and it's darn good.

Every time I make this sauce, it also turns out a little differently — but that's not a bad thing! A lot depends on the kind of tomato puree you use — your sauce can be sweeter or more acidic as a result. Unless you already have a favorite, keep trying them until you find a brand you like. I also tend to tweak some of the seasonings in every batch, adding a bit more molasses if I'm in the mood or an extra splash of liquid smoke for extra barbecue goodness.

This is a great recipe to use as a base for your own tweaks and passing flavor whims. I have yet to make a version I didn't like.

- Emma, June 2014

Basic Sweet & Tangy BBQ Sauce
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 medium red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 (8-ounce) can tomato puree or sauce (no spices)
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon molasses
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon or brown mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)
A few dashes hot sauce (optional)
Freshly ground pepper

Heat a splash of olive oil in a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two.

Reduce the heat to low and mix in the tomato paste and cumin. Add the tomato puree and all remaining ingredients. Stir until combined and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until thickened to your liking. Taste and adjust salt, pepper, or other seasonings as you see fit.

Transfer the sauce to a blender or use an immersion blender to blend until smooth. Add more water, a tablespoon or two at a time, if you prefer a thinner sauce.

This sauce will keep refrigerated for about 2 weeks or can be frozen for up to 3 months.

This recipe has been updated. First published May 2009.

(Image credits: Emma Christensen)

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