The Best Barbecue Sauces for Summer 2022
These sauces are perfect as marinade, for slathering on ribs, or on pretty much anything.
You don’t have to be a Southerner or a pitmaster to enjoy the best barbecue sauces. Whether it’s sweet and tangy from Kansas City or a vinegar-based variety from North Carolina, the famously thick, often smoky, and sometimes spicy condiment is as delicious as it is versatile. Use it to marinade and glaze your favorite meats or pour it out as a dipping sauce for anything from potato wedges to Dino Nuggets. No matter how it’s served, bold and beautiful barbecue sauce is always a reliable addition to any meal.
Chef Adam Hayes, executive vice president of Larkin’s Restaurants in Greenville, South Carolina, agrees. “I like barbecue sauce because you can make it however you want,” he says. “My dad always made it with whatever he was feeling — a little of this, a little of that…just go with the moment.”
And though barbecue sauce is certainly easy to prepare at home (typically a foundation of ketchup and brown sugar with the addition of mustard, vinegar, and/or aromatics), there are a bevy of store-bought options that make excellent alternatives. You can even tailor these to your liking by adding your own ingredients to make them sweeter, tangier, or even creamier (looking at you with your mayonnaise, Alabama white sauce).
We’ve rounded up our shortlist of the best barbecue sauces on the market, as well as a helpful purchasing guide provided by Hayes, a self-proclaimed grillmaster who loves barbecue sauce most on ribs, cooked and caramelized over a wood-fired grill.
Our Top Picks
- Best Overall: Stubb’s Original Legendary Bar-B-Que Sauce
- Best Value: Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce
- Best Classic: Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Original Barbecue Sauce
- Best Gluten-Free: Lillie’s Q Smoky Barbeque Sauce
- Best to Buy in Bulk: Bone Suckin’ Barbecue Sauce
- Best Sweet: Sonny’s Sweet BBQ Sauce
Best Overall: Stubb’s Original Legendary Bar-B-Que Sauce
Good for: Dipping, marinating and basting | Flavors: Tomato, vinegar, molasses and black pepper | Organic: No | Style: Texas
- Lower in sugar
- All-natural ingredients
- A little goes a long way, in true Texas form
- May be a bit too black pepper-heavy for some
- More on the tangy side
Why we chose it: Low in sugar and high in craveability, the ever-so-versatile Stubb’s deserves a permanent spot in any pantry.
Naysayers, begone. Stubb’s owns the barbecue sauce game with a harmonious blend of all-natural ingredients. It’s sweet, but not nauseating; smoky, but not overpowering; spicy, but not an assault to the tastebuds. We simply can’t get enough of it. Because the barbecue sauce is Texas-style, it’s also meant to be a finishing note or “sop sauce” for proteins. Texans like to have their smoked meats speak for themselves, but even the most authentic of Lone Star State cowboys are tipping their oversized hats to the tangy delicacy by dousing their meals with it (and without shame). We can’t say that we’re surprised.
Best Value: Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce
Good for: Basting and dipping | Flavor: Sweet and tangy | Organic: No | Style: Kansas City (though this produced in Chicago)
- Affordable and readily-available
- Bold, memorable flavor
- Crave-worthy thick texture
- High fructose corn syrup is the first ingredient
- Very sweet
Why we chose it: Thick, silky and found in practically every grocery store in America, the always-reliable Sweet Baby Ray’s is now an emblem of American food culture.
There’s a reason why Sweet Baby Ray’s is the most popular barbecue sauce in America—it delivers a drool-worthy sweet taste and thick texture. The no-frills, award-winning “boss sauce” can be found, well, quite literally everywhere: grocery stores, the Internet, and even gas stations. People can’t get enough of it and, at less than $3 a bottle, it’s no shocker that many households carry it in bulk so that they’re always prepared to satisfy a sudden craving. Sure, there are healthier alternatives with zero high fructose corn syrup, but a little splurge won’t hurt, especially if it encourages you to eat your grilled vegetables.
Best Classic: Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Original Barbecue Sauce
Good for: Dipping, marinating and glazing | Flavor: Sweet and tangy | Organic: No | Style: Memphis
- Manufactured with old fashioned kettle-cooking process
- All-natural ingredients
- Well-balanced flavor profile
- Very expensive when sold online
Why we chose it: Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce lives up to its company’s reputation of providing consistently high-quality products.
Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 is a true testament to the expression “if it aint’ broke, don’t fix it.” This unique blend of all-natural flavors that *does* include Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, has been a barbecue lovers’ favorite for literal generations. While the flavor is robust with ingredients like apple cider vinegar, molasses, and yellow mustard, it’s also well-balanced, making it a great marinade, dip, or something to douse your entire meal in. Serve it with a shot of whiskey, of course, for a well-rounded culinary pairing.
Best Gluten-Free: Lillie’s Q Smoky Barbeque Sauce
Good for: Basting and dipping | Flavor: Sweet and smoky | Organic: No | Style: Memphis, but originated in Chicago
- Fantastic gluten-free recipe
- Unique, but robust all-natural ingredient list
- Perfect touch of smoke
- Quite thin
- Can taste syrupy
Why we chose it: Gluten-free doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice bold and memorable taste, and Lillie Q’s is a true testament to this philosophy.
Gone are the days of giving up your most beloved and familiar flavors to accommodate celiac disease. Many barbecue sauce recipes are now gluten-free, which means you get to enjoy the celebrated condiment sans gluten-heavy thickeners, coloring agents, and the gastrointestinal distress that comes with them. Lillie’s Q ranks supreme with a full-bodied line-up of all-natural ingredients and only the slightest kiss of smoke. The Memphis-style blend is also particularly delicious on ribs and chicken, but you can legitimately put it on anything. Try it on a barbecue shrimp salad—its thinner texture lends itself well to being used as a dressing.
Best to Buy in Bulk: Bone Suckin’ Barbecue Sauce
Best to Buy in Bulk
Good for: Basting | Flavor: Sweet and tangy | Organic: No | Style: Western North Carolina
- Extremely versatile
- Available in a 64 oz. jug
- Lower sodium than other varieties
- Multiple reports of damage when shipped
- Tomato-forward, which can be polarizing
Why we chose it: Bone Suckin’ sauce is so scrumptious that a bottle simply won’t suffice. You’re going to need a jug of it.
Bone Suckin’ also takes home the award for best versatility, which is why we recommend buying this bad boy in bulk so that you can save your hard-earned money, but never be short on saucy bliss. It’s the condiment you’ll want to pour on everything, taking top honors in many other publications’ “best of” rankings, including Food & Wine, Newsweek, and Health magazine. Sweetened with honey and molasses, the low-sodium recipe is also paleo-friendly and provides a complexity of deep, rich flavors that separate it from more generic and mainstream alternatives. Lip Smackin’, frankly, would also be a suitable name if they decide to pursue a rebrand in the near future.
Best Sweet: Sonny’s Sweet BBQ Sauce
Good for: Basting and dipping | Flavor: Sweet and tangy | Organic: No | Style: Kansas City, but originated in Florida
- Has developed a cult following
- Tastes very authentic and not mass-produced
- Thick and perfect level of spice
- Slightly acidic
- Poor packaging that can break during shipment
Why we chose it: Consumers have gone hog-wild over this ultra-sweet blend that pays homage to the famous Florida barbecue chain that bears the same name.
When most people think about barbecue sauce, some level of sweetness usually comes to mind. Depending on the region in which it's produced, the inclusion of sugar and molasses varies, with some sauces taking on more vinegar or tangy components. Not this one, however, which is sweet enough to have the word in its name. To ensure you’re getting that coveted sugar rush to the back of the tongue, look no further than Sonny’s Sweet BBQ Sauce. It’s practically liquid candy, but with some smoke and acid that pairs perfectly with proteins, especially spicy ones, to flawlessly counter the heat and make the dish more palatable.
How We Chose These Products
Most chefs have a general knowledge of the high-quality barbecue sauces available in grocery stores and through e-retailers. We asked a handful of Southern chefs from varying regions to share their list of favorite sauces and then ordered nearly a dozen of these bottles to try ourselves.
Since barbecue sauce taste and texture runs the gamut, we wanted to ensure that our picks excelled in different categories for diverse representation. And while our six all-stars are fantastic in their own way, it’d be remiss of us to suggest that these are the only best sauces out there. There are hundreds of other options, both small-batch and mainstream, domestic and international, that are more than deserving of a spot on your dinner table or near your grill. Though this is a wonderful place to start, true barbecue sauce aficionados should really take the time to select the brand that works for them and their individual needs.
Features to Keep in Mind When Shopping for a Barbecue Sauce
Ingredients & Flavor
Every region has its own distinct flavor profile, but generally (and there are always exceptions) the rules are:
Kansas City-Style: Sweet, thick, and smoky
Memphis-Style: Tomato-forward, sweet, and tangy
St. Louis-Style: Sweet, but not as smoky as Kansas City
Alabama-Style: White mayonnaise-based with vinegar
Eastern-Style: Vinegar-based with spice
Texas-Style: Preferably no sauce at all, but usually spice-heavy and less sweet
Most barbecue sauces will include a base of tomato paste or ketchup, vinegar, or mayonnaise. Sweeteners like brown sugar, molasses, or honey are added, as well as aromatics like onion powder, garlic, mustard seeds, and black pepper. Lastly, some varieties will be smoke-heavy, either through the addition of liquid smoke or actual cooking method.
Texture & Versatility
A runnier sauce is going to lend itself better as a marinade or “mop sauce” to baste the meat, especially towards the end of its cooking cycle. A thicker and stickier sauce will work best when you want to create a caramelization around a meat or squeeze it into a tray for some heavy dipping.
Ask the Experts
Answers provided by Chef Adam Hayes.
Q: What region has the best barbecue sauce?
“Everyone in the country has the best sauce,” jokes Hayes, but it completely boils down to your preference and/or the type of meat you’re preparing. “Vinegar-based sauces, for example, are excellent on smoked pork while mustard-based ones are fantastic on chicken.”
Q: Why is barbecue sauce sweet?
“Sweet flavors help balance barbecue sauce’s typically strong smoke flavor. It's quite the balancing act. There is also such a thing as too sweet, people.”
Q: Do barbecue sauces serve different purposes?
“Yes. The sauce should complement the application,” says Hayes, though there is some wiggle room, as barbecue sauces are quite versatile in their use.
Q: Does a barbecue sauce have an expiration date?
“These days, many sauces hold pretty well with the preservatives we have to put in them. If you make one at home and you put a good amount of vinegar in it, you should be fine for 2-3 weeks. Don't contaminate it by putting your finger in the sauce bottle! That happens more often than you think.”
It’s the subtleties of barbecue sauce recipes, typically dictated by region, that make the condiment so special. We all have our favorite iterations and taste preferences, but a versatile option like our Best Overall pick, Stubb’s, can be enjoyed and poured on practically anything. True barbecue sauce lovers should really go out of their way to taste-test a variety, especially artisanal, limited-batch brands that will directly support the small businesses and restaurants that produce them. Giving back to the community and shopping local is the Southern way, y’all, and a very “sweet” gesture.