‘Cue It Up

Taste-testing barbecue sauces, from supermarket to specialty brands.

Come summertime, everybody is a little Southern. We go fishing, we drink beer in the can, we wash our cars … and we eat loads of barbecue. I happen to be Southern for the other 273.75 days, too (though not presently practicing below the Mason-Dixon), and for me barbecue is of great concern. It is the food of my heart and the reason for my gut.

Barbecue is also a controversial subject, and we need to clear up a few misconceptions about it.

First item of business: “Barbecue” can mean a style of cooking, a way of eating, and even what’s being eaten; the word is used as a noun, verb, and adjective. To wit: I barbecue my barbecued barbecue at a barbecue. Barbecue is an international phenomenon: Indians have tandoori, Japanese yakitori, Greeks souvlaki. But when I say “barbecue,” I’m talking about the kind of live-fire cooking popularized in the American South. It was popularized there because of the year-round hot weather, but mostly because of Caribbean and African people who invented it and brought it to places like Texas, Tennessee, and Missouri.

Second item of business: People confuse barbecuing with grilling all the time, but they’re not the same; in fact, they’re opposite. Grilling is cooking something at high heat directly over a flame. It’s fast, it’s very hot, and the food is on top of the fire. Barbecuing is cooking something slowly, over indirect, low heat, such as a firebox that is attached to but not part of a pit. “Slow and low” are the keys to barbecue—slow time, low heat.

Third, and most important, item of business: All over Southern states, barbecue is unique. Carolinians argue over east Carolina (vinegary, peppery sauce) versus west Carolina (tomato-based sauce) versus southern Carolina barbecue (mustard-based sauce). In Texas alone, cooks barbecue in literally hundreds of different ways. In short, there are millions of people who will swear up and down that if you don’t barbecue their way you’re doing it wrong.

At the risk of offending all of them, I say when you’re in your backyard this summer, it doesn’t matter which barbecue style you prefer. When we’re wearing our bathing suits and Hawaiian shirts, we have little concern over West Texas versus East Texas: We throw sauce on ribs or pork shoulder (or, OK, chicken) and relax. What matters to most home barbecuers is one simple thing: good sauce.

Now, there’s a magnificent array of barbecue sauces in your local grocery store. Even my crappy Manhattan one stocks a dozen. My mother’s supermarket in Atlanta has almost 50. To further complicate the agenda, many, many barbecue joints great and small hawk their own sauces. I wondered if these specialty brands (mostly mail- or Internet-order only) were better than the kind in my crappy grocery. Inquiring expat stomachs want to know.

The History According to The Great Barbecue Companion, a wonderful book by Bruce Bjorkman (columnist with the National Barbecue News and a former judge at the Memphis in May World Barbecue Championship), tomatoes are the first ingredients in most popular national brands. Bjorkman also gives us little a history of barbecue sauce in America: In the 1950s, J.L. Kraft Co., producers of cooking oils, introduced the concept of barbecue sauce by affixing bags of spices onto bottles of cooking oil.

The Criteria
This, from Bjorkman, is what I asked my judges to keep in mind—”sauces are meant to complement your cooking, not hide it. View barbecue sauces as condiments, the same way mustard and ketchup enhance a hotdog. Barbecue sauce should help draw out the flavor of your barbecue and grilled meats, not overpower it.”

The Ingredients
12 barbecue sauces: six from well-known U.S. barbecue restaurants; six from my crappy grocery store

6 people: one from the North, one from the South, one from the West, three from Chicago (if you marry a man from Chicago, you marry his band of Ditka-loving fools, too)

4 pounds pulled pork ordered from Brother Jimmy’s Barbecue with no sauce

3 six-packs of beer

2 dozen biscuits

1 sleeve of Stoned Wheat Thins crackers

The Method
The pulled pork was heated in the oven. When it was hot, I dished up 12 portions into bowls that had been labeled underneath with a brand name. I then combined the meat with the sauce; most barbecue professionals advise not adding sauce to meat until the final 5-10 minutes of cooking, because otherwise the sugars in the sauce will caramelize and burn. The test was double-blind; click here for the details of my methodology.

The Test
Kraft Thick ‘n’ Spicy Original Barbecue Sauce
(supermarket brand).
Price: $1.29 for 18 ounces (about 7 cents per ounce).
Fun Fact: Introduced by Kraft in the mid-50s, this was the first mass-marketed, tomato-based barbecue sauce sold nationwide. It is the best-selling barbecue sauce in the world (see Hunt’s, below).
First two ingredients: High fructose corn syrup, water.
Comments: “Motor oil consistency”; “tastes cornsyrupy, not complex”; “not great—too much dried spice.”

Sylvia’s Mild & Sassy Original Sauce (supermarket brand).
Price: $2.99 for 16 ounces (about 19 cents per ounce).
Fun Fact: Sylvia is the self-proclaimed “queen of soul food”—this translates to mean that she’s owned a popular soul food restaurant in Harlem for more than 30 years; she’s originally from South Carolina.
First two ingredients: Water, sugar.
Comments: “Tastes like sweet ‘n’ sour pork sauce”; “very sweet, too sweet.”

Scott’s Barbecue Sauce (specialty brand).
Price: $4.95 for 16 ounces (about 31 cents per ounce).
Fun Fact: A local brand from Goldsboro, N.C., Scott’s sauce claims to have been invented in 1917; it is a prime example of east Carolina ‘cue.
First two ingredients: Pork (shoulder, ham, ribs, loins), bacon grease.
Comments: “All heat”; “Very vinegary, thin, intense”; “a worthy condiment but not barbecue sauce.”

Iron Works B-B-Q Sauce, Regular (specialty brand).
Price: $9 for 12 ounces, including shipping (75 cents per ounce).
Fun Fact: Iron Works is a big barbecue joint in Austin, Texas, that’s been open since 1978; it was designated as a historical Texas monument in 1982.
First two ingredients: Tomato puree from concentrate, high fructose corn syrup.
Comments: “Tangy, smoky, and balanced”; “finally, barbecue sauce”; “feels like you are tasting slow-cooked meat.”

Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q Championship Red Sauce (specialty brand).
Price: $3 for 19 ounces (16 cents per ounce).
Fun Fact: Hailing from the restaurant in Decatur, Ala., this was judged “Best Red Barbecue Sauce” in 1997 and 1999 at the Memphis in May World Barbecue Championship (the world series of such events).
First two ingredients: Water, high fructose corn syrup.
Comments: “Sweet with a kick, not awful”; “not very different from catsup”; “doesn’t offend, doesn’t surprise.”

Bull’s Eye Original BBQ Sauce (supermarket).
Price: $2.79 for 18 ounces (about 16 cents per ounce).
Fun Fact: Another Kraft Foods-made sauce, though nowhere is the word “Kraft” on the label; this is also the house sauce at Burger King.
First two ingredients: Tomato puree, high fructose corn syrup.
Comments: “McRib sauce”; “very sweet but pleasing thick texture”; “nice and smoky but very sweet.”

Williamson Bros. Bar-B-Que Sauce (specialty).
Price: $5.95 for 16 ounces (about 37 cents per ounce).
Fun Fact: From my favorite barbecue joint in Marietta, Ga. (not far from the Big Chicken, if you know what that is), Williamson’s claims to be made fresh in 100-gallon batches.
First two ingredients: Water, vinegar.
Comments: “Too thin and greasy”; “not very spicy and very runny”; “light and sweet but flavorful” (I wrote that!).

Carson’s BBQ Sauce (specialty).
Price: $25 for two pints (about $1.28 per ounce).
Fun Fact: A Chicago restaurant, Carson’s, the Place for Ribs (there is also a location in Boca Raton, Fla.), makes this sauce; it has been featured on the Food Network.
First two ingredients: Tomato puree, tomato paste.
Comments: “Well balanced but boring”; “complements meat but with nothing surprising”; “average, but you get to taste the meat.”

Hunt’s BBQ Original (supermarket).
Price: $1.79 for 18 ounces (about 10 cents per ounce).
Fun fact: The label reads “preferred 2 to 1 over Kraft,” but, according to information released at the 2002 Annual New Products Conference for the prepared foods industry, Kraft produces the best-selling barbecue sauce in the world.
First two ingredients: Tomato puree, high fructose corn syrup.
Comments: “Thick, sweet, and mild”; “sweet, overpowers the meat”; “doesn’t last.”

Aunt Jenny’s Kick ‘N Butt Barbecue Sauce (supermarket).
Price: $3.19 for 17.5 ounces (about 18 cents per ounce).
Fun fact: A small brand affiliated with several supermarket chains, Aunt Jenny’s sauce is orange and chunky—unlike the deep mahogany kind you usually see.
First two ingredients: Ketchup, water.
Comments: “Spicy, smoky, thick”; “lots of cumin”; “hot, tomato spicyness.”

KC Masterpiece Original Barbecue Sauce (supermarket).
Price: $2.59 for 18 ounces (about 14 cents per ounce).
Fun fact: Invented by Dr. Rich Davis in 1977 and sold to the Kingsford Division of the Clorox  Co. in 1986, KC Masterpiece is now house sauce at a Kansas City-based chain of barbecue restaurants.
First two ingredients: High fructose corn syrup, water.
Comments: “Very dark color, also sweet-smoky, taste hickory”; “starts good and smoky but no finish”; “molasses.”

Richfood Original Barbecue Sauce (supermarket)
Price: $1.19 for 18 ounces (about 6 cents per ounce).
Fun fact: Richfood is my crappy grocery’s generic house brand; it is owned by the nation’s 10th-largest food retailer and leading food distributor.
First two ingredients: High fructose corn syrup, water.
Comments: “Good smokiness”; “a little sweet, but nice vinegar balance”; “very vinegary, thick, dark, and mysterious.”

The Findings

Bull’s Eye32
KC Masterpiece46
Aunt Jenny’s49
Iron Works63

Iron Works wins! Yes, the sauce from the barbecue emporium in Austin, Texas, blew away both its restaurant and its supermarket competition (five of us ranked it as No. 1). There were a number of surprises along the way: For example, Gibson’s, which has won numerous real-world barbecue sauce contests, didn’t even get a point. And Kraft, the best-selling and first nationally distributed barbecue sauce, didn’t do too well. Williamson Bros., the stuff that my own Atlanta parents send me, didn’t do too well, either; and, hey, Richfood was very respectable … just goes to show that the business of barbecue is deliciously treacherous. Have a good cook out.