The best BBQ sauces out there go a long way toward making the perfect summer meal. Having good meats to grill is a good first step but, in the absence of true pitmaster talents, the best BBQ sauces of 2023 will do a lot of the heavy lifting.
In searching for that perfect barbecue sauce, you’ll find dozens of tangy and sweet sauces, many of which are available from smaller producers online. To find the best barbecue sauce for 2023, I personally gathered 15 bottles of spicy, smoky, vinegary, sweet and tangy sauces, along with several enthusiastic barbecue-loving friends, for an ultimate sauced-up showdown to find you the best BBQ sauce on the market.
What makes a good barbecue sauce?
It’s all relative, but most pitmasters agree that balance is key to a great barbecue sauce. Most sauces are made with a tomato base, vinegar, some sweetener like honey or molasses and an element of heat. From there, sauces are fine-tuned with spices and flavors, such as mustard, garlic, fruit and smoke. Any sauce that’s too overwhelming in any one direction usually doesn’t work well. And super simple sauces without much spice or complexity often fall flat.
We tasted many traditional Kansas City-style sauces for this list, a host of vinegar-heavy Carolina-style sauces, some keto-friendly sauces, Bachan’s cult-favorite Japanese-style sauce and a few Alabama white sauces to see which ones really tickled our taste buds. We tried each one with plain unseasoned chicken breast since it’s a rather blank slate as far as classic grilled foods go. When tasting, we noted things like overall balance, heat, sweetness, overwhelming flavors or anything else that jumped out — both bad and good.
Read more: Best Meal Kits of 2023
A quick note: Up north, sweeter varieties dominate the sauce market, but my taste testers and I all enjoy vinegar-based sauces too, so we included several Carolina barbecue sauces (among other styles, like a Japanese BBQ sauce for umami, or brown-sugar-based recipes for that iconic sweet flavor) to make this list as inclusive and unbiased as possible.
It took a lot of napkins to find the best barbecue sauce in 2023. Here they are.
Full Moon is a regional chain of barbecue restaurants in Alabama and Mississippi that’s been in operation since 1986. You won’t likely find Full Moon’s incredible sauce on store shelves, but it can be purchased online for just $7.49 per bottle. Thank goodness for that because this classic-style sauce has a near-perfect balance of sweetness, smokiness, tang and spice.
If you prefer to scoop your barbecue sauce up from the store, Stubb’s stuff can be found in most supermarkets and it’s an excellent alternative to Full Moon. Like the winner above, Stubb’s has a good balance with no single flavor taking over. This one is thick but not gloppy and gets its sweetness from brown sugar (no corn syrup) with a good kick from lots of black pepper.
I’ve been on the Bachan’s bandwagon for some time now and I don’t plan on hopping off. Bachan’s is atypical compared with classic barbecue sauces in that it’s laced with Japanese flavors, giving it a huge umami punch. You’ll notice soy sauce immediately, along with sesame, ginger and a delicate sweetness. This is one of the thinner sauces so it might not adhere as well to ribs and chicken or caramelize as others do, so it’s probably best used as a finishing sauce.
Bachan’s is also pricey at $13 for one bottle, but snag two and the price drops to $12 each. (Trust me, you’ll want more than one bottle.)
This rich, dark and smoky sauce is made by a small producer in North Carolina. It’s probably the most flavor-packed sauce we tried, with a big sweetness that’s cut with rich, smoky hickory and lots of heat. There’s a lot going on here but it harmonizes nicely to create one very tasty sauce.
At under $3 a bottle, this was the favorite of the “cheap” barbecue sauces, and it’s one you’ll find easily in most grocery stores or on Amazon. Bull’s-Eye has a formidable sweetness but gets great balance from mustard, garlic and natural hickory smoke. If you go through sauce like water, this is a great sauce to stock up on for ribs, chicken and burgers.
If you’re a hot sauce junkie looking for a barbecue sauce, Texas Pete’s Eastern Carolina sauce is the one to get. Texas Pete is a hot sauce maker, first and foremost, and so this spin on vinegar-heavy Carolina-style sauce tastes quite a bit like hot sauce but with a subtle sweetness and tomato tang. It’s made with just five ingredients and no corn syrup. At 15 calories per serving, it’s probably the “healthiest” barbecue sauce on this list.
I’ll be honest, this wasn’t one of my personal favorites, but some of the other tasters with a penchant for sweeter foods were really into it. Sweet Baby Ray’s (hey, it’s right there in the name) is made with corn syrup and pineapple juice and is so sweet it can be overwhelming. It’s also rather thick, almost like a barbecue jam or jelly. If you’re a barbecue lover with a sweet tooth, this is the sauce you should stock. Plus, it’s cheap at just $2 per bottle.
Other BBQ sauces we tried that didn’t make the cut
- Full Moon Alabama White Sauce: This sauce was positively addictive, but it might be a stretch to call it barbecue sauce. I know Alabamans may not love to hear this, but Full Moon white sauce is more like a really rich and flavorful ranch with loads of mustard, garlic and Worcestershire.
- Jack Daniels Original BBQ Sauce: This is another one we all really liked. It has a nice balance and strong spice but ultimately some of the others just nudged it out of the top.
- Good For Food Keto BBQ Sauce: At just 10 calories and 3 grams of carbs per serving, this sauce was definitely edible, although not one of our favorites.
- Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce: This one had very little dimension and tasted more like slightly smoky ketchup than a good BBQ sauce.
- Heinz Carolina Vinegar BBQ Sauce: This sauce wasn’t terrible but had too much vinegar for most of us.
- Heinz Carolina Mustard Sauce: This was more like honey mustard than barbecue sauce. Not bad, but didn’t fulfill our requirements for this round of testing.
- Kings Delight Bar-B-Que Sauce: This Carolina-style sauce is tasty but with so much vinegar, it’s less of a traditional barbecue sauce and more of a thin finishing sauce for pulled pork.