We Tried 20 Bottles of Barbecue Sauce — These Are the Ones Worth Eating

updated Sep 19, 2023
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Zoomed in view of 19 bottles of BBQ sauce.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe

If you’ve ventured past your grocery store’s barbecue sauce section lately, then maybe you’ve noticed the abundance of options available on shelves these days. We sure did. We spotted over four-dozen brownish-hued bottles on shelves (and that’s not even counting the regional riffs, like Alabama White Sauce, a mayo-based sauce with a tangy, peppery bite). 

As lovers of all things BBQ, we were determined to suss out the best of the store-bought stuff for all our saucing and dipping needs. 

Credit: Mara Weinraub

We tested 20 bottles of barbecue sauce across three categories — original, sweet, and spicy — focusing on national brands (and one store brand!) that are widely available throughout the country and reasonably priced. We stuck to the thick, sweet, and tangy, tomato-based sauce for this taste test because it’s versatile, delicious, and widely popular with The Kitchn staff (and barbecue fans writ large). We eliminated any potential contenders with high-fructose corn syrup in the ingredient list, which ended up including nine sauces (a lot more than we originally expected). We also looked at recent sales data and past taste tests to round out the selection. After one long day of tasting and tallying, these are the barbecue sauces we’d absolutely buy again.

The Best Barbecue Sauces

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe

Best Original Barbecue Sauce: Jack Daniel’s Original BBQ Sauce

This is the biggest category, but ended up being the least competitive. Tasters have FEELINGS, mostly about the lack of balance in many of these sauces — whether they are too bland, too peppery, too runny, too tomatoey, or, most notably, too sweet. And while a few people did downgrade Jack Daniel’s Original BBQ Sauce for its sweetness (cane sugar is the first ingredient), it is still the runaway fave: “The platonic ideal of BBQ sauce,” says our former Recipe Coordinator, Justine.

It earns high marks for its “perfect” texture, smell (“like hickory smoke, with a bit of spices to warm it up,” says Ola, culinary assistant), and color, which is on the redder side of brown. Two people ranked it as their top favorite! It also hits all the right flavor notes: “Sweet, tangy, spicy enough,” says Justine. “And ideal for dipping/marinating/all the things.” 

What’s So Great

  • “Classic BBQ texture and smell”
  • MVB: Most Versatile Barbecue Sauce

Good to Know

  • On the sweeter side

Buy: Jack Daniel’s Original BBQ Sauce, $7.99 for 19.5 ounces at Instacart

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe

Best Sweet Barbecue Sauce: Famous Dave’s Honey Hickory BBQ Sauce

The R&D folks at Famous Dave’s deserve a raise. This new Honey Hickory BBQ Sauce is an absolute standout from its contenders in this category, and earns the highest marks for aesthetics of any other bottle we tasted. Period. Several people point to its classic coloring and saucy consistency, calling it “promising” and “ideal.” Sam, our social media manager, sums it up nicely: “It’s the color I expect BBQ sauce to be.” 

We’re very well aware that looks are not everything — it’s what’s beneath the cap that really counts. Although it’s sweetened with both brown sugar and sugar, plus honey and molasses, too much sweetness was conspicuously absent from people’s commentary. (One taster did call it “deceptively sweet.”) Others, like Justine, ended up being surprised and delighted by its flavor: “It’s not as sweet as I expected it [to be] and it has a good spicy-smoky balance.” Reece, our account coordinator, adds that it “tastes like it’s a little more expensive.” (Fun fact: It’s not!)

What’s So Great

  • “Ideal BBQ color”
  • Good spicy-smoky balance
  • Thicker consistency; great texture for sauce

Good to Know

  • N/A

Buy: Famous Dave’s Honey Hickory BBQ Sauce, $19.75 for 2 (20-ounce) bottles at Amazon

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe

Best Spicy Barbecue Sauce: Trader Joe’s Organic Sriracha & Roasted Garlic BBQ Sauce

Remember when we said looks aren’t everything? (Of course you do, it was six sentences ago.) Well, Trader Joe’s Organic Sriracha & Roasted Garlic BBQ Sauce further proves the rule. Of all the winners it received the lowest score for color and smell and, get this, the highest for both flavor and texture. How about that? The reddish color and chunks (especially) stand out to tasters — and not always in the most positive way. As Mara, our senior lifestyle editor, puts it, “I’m intrigued, but suspicious.”

We can all put any suspicions to rest. The visible chunks of roasted garlic, whether people love them or question them, help bring out a spicy flavor that had tasters triple dipping (in their own cups, of course). One even points out how nicely the heat builds. This BBQ sauce wins over almost everyone — even those, like Sam, who are spice-averse. It’s “the perfect mix of spicy and sweet,” she says (although she wouldn’t mind if it was slightly thicker). 

What’s So Great

  • “Ace of the group”
  • “Good solid spice”

Good to Know

  • “Chunks” might be off-putting

Find it in stores: Trader Joe’s Organic Sriracha & Roasted Garlic BBQ Sauce, $3.49 for 19.5 ounces at Trader Joe’s

Credit: Mara Weinraub

How We Tested the Barbecue Sauces

We held a blind taste test of 20 different barbecue sauces across three categories — original, sweet, and spicy — and recruited 13 barbecue sauce fans (so you know they’re qualified), who work in our office to participate in this one-day test.

Credit: Mara Weinraub

Once again, tasters have mixed opinions on their “platonic ideal.” The majority want their sauce to have a medium to thick consistency. (Or as Greg, our workplace experience manager, puts it, “Watery sauce is the greatest sin.”) Naturally, the group was also mixed on just how much tang, sweetness, and spice they want in a bottle of BBQ sauce (getting 13 people to agree on anything is a challenge!). We sampled each barbecue sauce on its own (using adorable mini wooden spoons) and with french fries to really see how the condiment shines on its own and when paired with one of our favorite ways to consume it. Unmarked sample-sized cups were set out by Thomas, our studio producer, and given a letter to conceal the brand’s identity. Tasters were not told about the distinctive categories ahead of time. (Who doesn’t love a surprise?) We also had water on hand for palate cleansing.

Credit: Mara Weinraub

Tasters rated each of the barbecue sauces on a scale of one to five (1 = No, thanks; 2 = Meh; 3 = Pretty good; 4 = Really like; 5 = Yes, Please!) across four criteria — look, smell, texture, and flavor — and included any specific observations, tasting notes, and general opinions worth mentioning. They were also asked to answer, arguably, the most important question of all: Would you buy this barbecue sauce?

Credit: Mara Weinraub

Why You Should Trust Us

This was a blind taste test, which means tasters had no knowledge of the brands being evaluated ahead of or at the time of the tasting. It was held over one day and tasters were instructed to sample the barbecue sauces in random order (to stave off palate fatigue and give any one bottle an unfair advantage). The group of tasters included a mix of food professionals and barbecue-sauce enthusiasts who work at The Kitchn and/or Apartment Therapy Media (The Kitchn’s parent company). All participated in the taste test voluntarily, and we thank them for being so generous with their time and feedback. 

Speaking of, each taster filled out a score sheet (without discussion or influence) ranking barbecue sauces across several criteria (listed above). The results were also tabulated without any visibility into the brands. Only after the numbers were finalized did we reveal which brands corresponded to the winners.

Did your favorite barbecue sauce make the list? Tell us about it in the comments below.