The Best BBQ Sauce Comes from Trader Joe’s

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

I’m from North Carolina, where BBQ is serious business. The state is damn near split in half by an imaginary line of demarcation: one that determines whether you eat your pulled pork or chopped plates Lexington-style, or you eat them the wrong way. (FIGHT ME!) But whether you prefer a tomato-based sauce or — sigh — that vinegary mess from the East, both sides seem to be in agreement that we don’t need the thick, syrupy sauces that blanket the pork, brisket, and ribs that are served in other parts of the country.

At least that’s what I thought.

Earlier this summer, Kitchn did a blind taste test to determine the best of seven popular bottled brands of BBQ sauce. Each tester dipped french fries into samples of those widely available sauces, and the overall winner was … kind of a surprise. Trader Joe’s Kansas City Style BBQ Sauce beat out the well-known BBQ purveyors at Stubb’s, and the cult fave, Sweet Baby Ray’s.

(Image credit: Trader Joe’s)

When I was tasked with trying it for myself, I was admittedly skeptical, dropping it into my shopping cart with a shrug. The sauce is available in a Bold & Smoky conventional version (which was used in Kitchn’s in-house test) and an Organic version (for $2.69 for 18 ounces), which is what I tried. After unscrewing the cap, I was immediately hit with its smoky aroma. I stood at the counter daydreaming about mouthwatering plates of ribs and stacks of brisket, and about Pavlov’s equally drooly pets. Next, I read the ingredient list, which doesn’t include any unpronounceable chemicals or preservatives — just things like organic tomato purée, cane sugar, molasses, and hickory smoke flavor.

It pours easily, and is thick enough to work as a marinade, but not so sticky that you worry that you’ll tear a rotator cuff trying to shake it out of the bottle. (Surely I’m not the only person who has suffered a condiment-related injury.) When Kitchn’s tasters tried it, they commented that it was “smoky” with a “solid, deep flavor” — and those appraisals are 100 percent accurate. It is surprisingly complex, and doesn’t have any of the ketchup-y overtones or too-sweet aftertaste that can accompany other pre-fab fixins. Honestly, it’s kind of mind-blowing that this came out of a bottle.

After I finished my sample meal — some generously sauced BBQ chicken legs and thighs — a surge of Carolina pride made me consider hiding it behind the other condiments lined up in the refrigerator door. Then I realized that it won’t last long enough for anyone to find it. Another serving? Yes, please.