Whether you are new to the world of barbecue or are an experienced pitmaster, you probably know that a BBQ sauce can make the real difference between good and absolutely amazing ribs, chicken, or any other meat of your choice.
But since few pitmasters are willing to share their secret recipes, and because not everyone has the time and patience to make their own homemade barbecue sauce, we have tested and reviewed the best BBQ sauces you can buy ready-made on the market in 2021.
And there are some absolutely stunning sauces that will turn your food into pitmaster-level dishes.
There is a multitude of barbecue sauces available for all types of grilled foods and recipes and for all tastes, no matter whether you prefer vinegary, mustard-based, mayonnaise-based, tomato-based, spicy, sweet, smoky, or other sauces.
Read on to find out more about our top selections for BBQ sauces available in 2021.
We have also added tips on improving store-bought sauces, applying them, and looking for features when shopping for a BBQ sauce.
What to Look For in a Barbecue Sauce
The BBQ sauces differ in regional styles, meat types they are made for, seasonings, main ingredients, texture, and flavor.
Here are the features to look for when buying the best barbecue sauce.
The main four types of barbecue sauce are tomato, vinegar, mustard, and mayonnaise-based.
The most popular types are tomato-based BBQ sauces. These sauces are almost all offered in ketchup form or with a ketchup base. Then different spices and ingredients are added to ramp up their flavors and to create their texture and consistency.
Among the most famous tomato-based BBQ sauces is the Kansas City-style BBQ sauce. It is a thick, tangy, and sweet sauce that tastes almost like syrup and includes ketchup, brown sugar, molasses, vinegar, onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. This Kansas City-style sauce is perfect for all types of barbecued or smoked meat, including beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and others.
Other popular tomato-based sauces are based on Texas, St. Louis, and Memphis barbecue styles. These sauces lack the molasses in their ingredient lists and thus are thinner than and not as sweet as the Kansas City-style sauces.
The vinegar-based BBQ sauces are typical of the North Carolina barbecuing style. They are thinner and spicier than tomato-based ones. Some are completely tomato-free such as the Eastern Carolina style sauces, the Western Carolina vinegar-based BBQ sauces do include some ketchup.
Vinegar-based barbecue sauces from the Carolinas are commonly used for pulled pork made in the traditional Carolina style.
Mustard-based BBQ sauces are thin, rigorous, and spicy and are also found in South Carolina. They are used for spicing up pork shoulder, belly, neck, and other parts of the hog.
The mayonnaise-based barbecue sauces are based on the Alabama white BBQ sauce. They are made of mayonnaise which is thinned with lemon juice and vinegar and are suitable for seasoning smoked chicken.
Before you pick the type of BBQ sauce you want, you should consider your personal preferences, as well as the type of meat you will be barbecuing or cooking.
As mentioned earlier, pork ribs and most meats go well with tomato-based sauces, while Carolina-style pulled pork pairs well with vinegar-based sauces. Different pork cuts go well with mustard-based sauces, and the mayonnaise-based white ones are excellent for adding even more flavor to the grilled chicken.
Whether you need a thick and sticky sauce or a thin one which you can easily drizzle on a sandwich depends once again on what you will be preparing and serving, as well as on your taste.
Remember that when you are grilling food at a high temperature quickly, then you should apply the sauce at the end of the cooking or as a topping or side.
When barbecuing meat at a low and slow temperature, you can apply the sauce at the beginning or during the cooking without it burning and smoking.
The ingredients are essential for the taste, texture, and quality of the BBQ sauce. The best ready-made barbecue sauces are made of real ingredients and sweetened with real sugar rather than with corn syrup and artificial ingredients.
Look for a sauce that is made of ingredients that you recognize immediately, and if you need to follow a specific diet, you can opt for some of the gluten-free, organic, and other healthier BBQ sauces on the market.
The sauce quality depends on the quality of its ingredients, so if you want to end up with delicious barbecued food, it is worth researching the different sauces and their ingredients before applying them to your meat or other dishes.
Best store-bought barbecue sauces:
Heinz is probably the best-known brand for ketchup and other basic condiments, but the company has actually created this delicious vinegar-based BBQ sauce as well.
The leading food company paired up with Sam Jones, who is heir to the North Carolina Skylight Inn, to make this tangy BBQ sauce.
The sauce will complement most types of barbecued meat, including chicken, ribs, pork, and more.
If you are a fan of the Carolina barbecue style, then this bestselling BBQ sauce by Heinz is one of the best options you will find on the market.
The tangy sauce is made of a combination of distilled white and apple cider vinegar, dark brown sugar, and tomato paste, along with an array of real ingredients and no high fructose corn syrup.
It comes in large-sized 18-oz squeeze bottles, which are easy to squeeze and apply to any meat or dish. The bottle has a flip-top cap and an upside-down design, so you will be able to use it to the last drop.
It may run a little thin, which is typical of most Carolina-style vinegar-based sauces, but this sauce has a balanced flavor, includes real and clean ingredients, and is rather versatile as a marinade and sauce.
The sauce works as s dip and can be used on a grill, smoker, oven, stovetop, and crockpot.
If you prefer mustard-style BBQ sauces, you can purchase the Heinz Carolina Mustard BBQ sauce.
Distilled white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, tomato paste, dark brown sugar, cane sugar, water, salt, spices, corn starch, xanthan gum, mustard seed, garlic powder, paprika, natural flavor, natural smoke flavor, and turmeric.
Vinegar-based, Carolina Style Tangy and Sweet
Lillie’s Q was founded by two-time World BBQ Champion Charlie McKenna, and the company makes all-natural barbecue sauces without any added high fructose corn syrup, modified food starches, preservatives, MSG, and all products are gluten-free.
The Lillie’s Q Smoky Barbecue Sauce is a Memphis-style barbecue sauce with a mild smoky and sweet taste thanks to the added brown sugar.
The sauce is another versatile choice and will complement just about any grilled and barbecued dish, from smoked chicken to low and slow-cooked ribs. Memphis-style sweet and smoky sauce carries the name No.22 because of the area code for Chicago’s Bucktown, where the original Lillie’s Q restaurant is located.
The recipe for this and other sauces produced by the company are based on the original recipes of the owner’s grandma Lillie. The company offers an original and unique BBQ sauce for each famous barbecuing style and region.
Some of the other options include the Hot Smoky Memphis-style BBQ sauce, the white Northern Alabama style Ivory BBQ sauce, the Carolina BBQ sauce, which is tomato and vinegar-based, the Gold Sauce which is mustard-based and represents the South Carolina barbecuing style, and the ENC sauce which is an Eastern Carolina style BBQ sauce which is vinegar and spice-based.
All of them are made of all-natural and gluten-free ingredients and are free of preservatives, MSG, and high fructose corn syrup. The ENC and Ivory sauces are keto-friendly as well.
Apple cider vinegar, apple juice, Worcestershire (distilled vinegar, molasses, water, salt, garlic powder, sugar, spices, anchovies, tamarind, natural flavor), lime juice, liquid smoke, mustard, tomato, brown sugar, cayenne, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and natural spices.
Smoky sweet, and mild
The Stubb’s Original Legendary Bar-B-Q Sauce is based on the recipe inherited by legendary West Texas pitmaster and musician C.B. Stubblefield, known by all as Stubb.
Stubb opened his first Bar-B-Q restaurant in Lubbock back in 1968 and quickly attracted customers and new friends from around the state and the country with his masterful hickory pit-made barbecue and the original blues music.
Being a Texas-style barbecue sauce, this Original sauce is thinner than others as it is suitable for basting and mopping the low and slow-cooked meat.
It is also tarter than and not as sweet as the Kansas-style sauces for barbecuing.
This top-rated BBQ sauce is made of all-natural original ingredients, which are 100% GMO-free, gluten-free and kosher ingredients, and no artificial preservatives or high fructose corn syrup added.
Thanks to the slowly simmered real tomatoes, vinegar, black pepper, and molasses used for making this sauce, it tastes like a true handmade BBQ sauce by a Texas-style pitmaster.
Overall, if you want to bring the original taste of low and slow Texas barbecue to your home, then this sauce is the most suitable option for you. It can be used as a mopping sauce to keep adding flavor to the delicious ribs or pulled pork during the cooking. It can also be used as a topping for the main course and for the sides.
This excellent barbecue sauce will give your food that beautiful tangy and spicy flavor for which this cuisine is known for.
While he was alive, Stubb used to make his own handmade batches of this sauce in 60-gallon cookers. Today, since it is so popular, the production has been expanded to larger batches.
The company also offers other varieties of BBQ sauce for every taste, including Hickory Bourbon, Smokey Brown Sugar, Simply Sweet Reduced Sugar, Smokey Mesquite, Spicy, Sticky Sweet, Sweet Heat, Sweet Honey and Spices, and more.
Being an all-natural ingredient sauce, this is the BBQ sauce which is the closest to a homemade one can be and as closest as having Stubb hand make it for you in his pot.
Tomato Puree (Water, Tomato Paste), Distilled Vinegar, Sugar, Molasses, Salt, Spices (Including Black Pepper, Paprika, Chili Pepper), Corn Starch, Brown Sugar, Contains Less than 0.5% of: Onion, Garlic, Guar Gum (Thickener), Xanthan Gum (Thickener), Natural Flavor (Including Hickory Smoke).
Sour and tart authentic Texas-style
Best for Ribs
If you are shopping for a ready-made BBQ sauce that is best for ribs, then we strongly recommend the Stonewall Kitchen Baby Back Rib Sauce.
It is a Memphis-style BBQ rib sauce that is tomato, vinegar, and sugar-based with a sweet and tangy taste and a drippy and smooth texture.
It is a perfect choice for coating the rib racks prior to, during, or after the low and slow barbecuing or smoking.
You can also use this premium quality BBQ sauce to marinate your meats for home cooking.
While it does contain sugar as its main ingredient, the Stonewall Kitchen Baby Back Rib Sauce also contains passion fruit juice which gives it a flavorful and sweet flavor like no other BBQ sauce on the market.
The company was established in 1991 by two partners J.King and J.Stott, who began producing and selling jellies and jams at local farmer’s markets but then expanded into making all types of high-quality sauces, condiments, baking mixes, mustards, and other products.
The company has won multiple awards from the Specialty Food Association, and once you try out this BBQ sauce, you will immediately know why.
Brown Sugar, Water, Tomato Paste, Molasses, White Vinegar, Tomatoes, Dijon Mustard (water, mustard seed, vinegar, salt, white wine, citric acid, turmeric, tartaric acid, spices), Soy Sauce (water, wheat, soybeans, salt), Dried Garlic, Orange Juice Concentrate, Salt, Dried Onion, Passionfruit Juice, Spices, Xanthan Gum, Liquid Smoke (water, natural hickory smoke concentrate)
Sweet and tangy, Memphis style
If you are a fan of hot sauces, then you should definitely try out Famous Dave’s Devil’s Spit BBQ Sauce. The label and the name of this sauce say it all, as the condiment is advertised as suitable “for adults only.”
It is a great choice for marinating meat of all types, as well as for use as a topping for grilled, smoked, and barbecued food and sides.
It is an affordable BBQ sauce that was created based on over 25 years of BBQ research around the USA by the founder of the company Dave Anderson.
It does contain high fructose corn syrup and some artificial ingredients, but when you taste it, you will see that each of the ingredients has been picked and mixed perfectly.
This sauce is an excellent option for smoking or barbecuing ribs, steaks, chicken, burgers, or any other food.
As long as you like spicy, you will love the Devil’s Spit sauce on just about any food and dish.
Water, high fructose corn syrup, tomato paste, distilled vinegar, sugar, ground mustard seed, Worcestershire sauce concentrate (vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, water, salt, caramel color, garlic powder, sugar, spices, tamarind, salt, pineapple juice concentrate, spices, molasses, honey, soybean oil, food starch-modified, paprika (color), barley malt flour (barley gluten), hydrolyzed soy protein, natural and artificial flavors
Very spicy and mildly sweet
Best with Honey
You may know Jack Daniel’s brand for its famous whiskey, but the company also makes some amazing BBQ sauces which are definitely worth trying.
The Jack Daniels’ Honey BBQ Sauce is the most suitable option for those of you who love sweet and tomato-based sauces. Plus, it does carry a slight hint of the company’s whiskey too.
This is another sauce that is made of entirely natural products with no artificial additives or high fructose corn syrup. The sauce is cooked in kettles and in small batches, with all of the attention to detail as possible.
The Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 BBQ sauce is also available in two other variants – the Honey BBQ Sauce and the Sweet and Spicy BBQ sauce.
Brown sugar, ketchup, celery seed, apple cider vinegar, tomato paste, water, onion powder, natural hickory smoke, and others
Smoke, sweet, tangy, and mildly hot
What makes a good barbecue sauce?
Whether a BBQ sauce is good or bad really depends on your personal taste, as well as how well you match it to the meat or other food you are preparing.
Properly paired and used barbecue sauce can do wonders with even the cheapest cut of meat and the simplest dish.
If you are new to barbecuing and sauces, it is good to experiment a little or try to remember which barbecuing style and taste you seem to like the most.
If you like a thick, sticky, and sweeter sauce, then you may want to opt for a Kansas-style BBQ sauce.
And if you prefer spicier and tangier sauces, then you may want to try a vinegar-based BBQ sauce typical for Texas or North Carolina.
It is advisable to also consider the type of texture you are looking for – thicker or easier to drizzle and thinner? The texture of the barbecue sauce is essential for the end result of your cooking. Choose thicker sauces if you are planning on using them as condiments and thinner ones when using them for cooking.
A good sauce can make a meal, but the wrong one can ruin even the perfect piece of cooked meat.
How to improve a store-bought barbecue sauce?
Do you want to improve the taste of a barbecue sauce which you bought but you are not quite satisfied with?
There are some ways to add some flavor and improve a store-bought BBQ sauce.
Spice and heat
If you want to add some heat to your barbecue sauce, you can try adding some of your preferred hot sauce to it. Our recommendation is to start with small quantities and then try the sauce and keep adding the hot sauce if needed.
Another way to add some heat to a store-bought barbecue sauce that seems a little bland is to add some chili powder or chili flakes to it. You can try with cayenne or habanero powder or with any other chili powder you have or prefer.
You can also enhance the spiciness of the sauce by adding some chipotle pepper powder to it, which will also give the sauce a smokier flavor.
If you have chipotle peppers in a can, then you can use a blender or food processor to make them into a paste and then mix them into the BBQ sauce.
You can also use dried pods by soaking them in water and then making a paste out of them.
If the chipotle pepper powder or paste we suggested above does not add enough smokiness to your BBQ sauce, you can try adding a pinch or two of dried cumin powder. Again, start with a little, and then keep adding small amounts until you get that perfect balance you want.
When you feel like your BBQ sauce could do with some more tang, the easiest way to enhance its tanginess is by adding vinegar. Use a teaspoon of vinegar and add it one spoon at a time. Keep mixing and trying the sauce until it is as per your preferences.
Other spices which you can use to improve the taste of store-bought or homemade barbecue sauce include garlic powder, mustard powder, onion powder, and of course, salt and pepper.
You can check out the main ingredients lists of our top selections and get inspired by some of them as well.
When you are done improving or mixing your own BBQ sauce, make sure you combine all ingredients well, and you let them sit for at least 30 minutes so that the flavors are properly infused into one another.
By experimenting and improving your barbecue sauces, you may invent a phenomenal secret BBQ sauce recipe yourself!
Learn how to thicken BBQ sauce with our simple guide
How much sauce should I use?
Too much or too little sauce may ruin your perfectly cooked meat or other meal. You don’t need to pour whole bottles of barbecue sauce on the meat to get the best results. After all, you will want to showcase the flavor of the meat cut you have prepared and add some of the smokiness to it if you are smoking it, rather than overwhelming all of that with too much barbecue sauce.
According to Meathead Goldwyn, the right amount of BBQ sauce is at least ¾ cup of thick sauce on both sides of a full slap of spareribs, ½ cup for a slab of St. Louis cut rubs and 1/3 cup for a slab of baby back ribs.
You can always provide your family or guests with a bottle or bowl of sauce on the table so that anybody who wants more can top their plate up.
When should I apply the sauce?
Barbecue sauce, which contains sugar, is prone to burning quickly, which makes it preferable to add the sugar-based sauce at the end or toward the end of the cooking session.
This will allow the sugar to heat up and caramelize but without burning and ruining the flavor of the meat. A good rule of thumb to follow is to apply sugar-based sauce about 30 minutes before the meat has reached its desired doneness.
Another method is to take the meat out of the smoker or grill about 10 minutes before it is ready and then coat it with the sauce of your choice, letting it heat up on direct heat on each side for the remaining 10 minutes.
How to apply BBQ sauce
To prevent the meat from ending up with charcoal and bitter bark instead of a smoky and sweet glaze during the smoking or barbecuing, follow the recommendations from above for sizzling the sauce in the final stages of the cooking.
If you have contacted the BBQ sauce with a basting brush or mop when applying it to your raw or undercooked meat, then consider this sauce as potentially contaminated with harmful microorganisms.
In other words, be careful when applying the sauce and what comes into contact with it. If you dipped the brush or mop in it while the meat was raw, then it is advisable to discard the leftover sauce rather than reuse it.
When serving sauce on the table, make sure that it has not been cross-contaminated with the raw meat either.
A good and suitable BBQ sauce can elevate your barbecued meat into a delicacy and into an exceptional meal.
Hopefully, we have helped you pick the ready-made barbecue sauce which best fits your preferences and the type of food you will be preparing.
Remember that you can always elevate the store-bought sauce with some chosen ingredients of your own.
Thankfully, the sauces we have selected for this list are all tested and rated as the best in their categories, so you can rest assured that your delicious smoked brisket or barbecued ribs will turn out perfectly when you select the one which suits your dish the most.
You can also test some of the best barbecue rubs for further enhancement of the taste of your barbecued meat.