Rubs or sauces? When it comes to great barbecue, the answer isn’t one or the other. It’s both—but only when properly deployed.
The right rub or marinade—applied well before you start grilling—infuses your meat with flavor and promotes a delicious crust.
A good sauce provides a finishing flourish, and should be brushed on toward the end of cooking or just before serving. Especially if you’re grilling over high heat, applying the sauce too early can lead to flare-ups and over-charring.
“Sauces seem like a mystery to some people, but they shouldn’t be,” says Chef Paul Kirk. Known as the “Kansas City Baron of Barbecue”, Kirk is a seven-time winner of the Barbecue World Championships. He’s also the author of Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue Sauces.
Kirk says most sauces are basically tomato paste with mustard, vinegar, sugar, and some spices. “Take a bottle of ketchup, add your rub to it a little at a time, and there’s your sauce,” he says. (Spoken like a true Kansas Citian; a Carolinian would emphasize more vinegar and less sugary ketchup.)
Of course, there are a million ways to combine the ingredients Kirk mentions—some more delicious than others. Here are the tastiest sauces we’ve found, along with a few of Kirk’s recommendations:
$6 for 16oz, blueshog.com
This sauce, modified to a competitor’s tastes, is “one of the most popular on the barbecue circuit,” Kirk says. He says he sometimes adds a little honey to sweeten it.
DINOSAUR “SENSUOUS SLATHERING SAUCE
$4.50 for 16oz, dinosaurbarbque.com
A little spice and plenty of sweetness, this sauce is a huge hit among the KC BBQ set. Unlike most sauces, you’ll find no high fructose corn syrup in this bottle.
RUDY’S “BAR-BQ SAUSE”
$7.50 for 18oz, rudysbbq.com
As good for slow cooking or smoking as for high-heat grilling, this Texas BBQ sauce is sweet with a hit of peppery fire.
THE SHED BBQ SPICY VINEGAR SAUCE
$4 for 14oz, theshedbbq.com
Spice heavy, this Mississippi-born sauce is for BBQ lovers who enjoy heat and subtler sweetness.
SCOTT’S BARBECUE SAUCE
$2 for 16 oz, scottsbarbecuesauce.com
This North Carolina sauce will surprise you if you’re used to sweet, thick KC-style concoctions. It’s sugar-free—a rarity for a barbecue sauce.
KILLER HOGS “THE BBQ SAUCE”
$6 for 18oz, killerhogs.com
A sweet sauce with a nice kick of heat and tang, this one is made by award-winning Memphis BBQ brothers Malcom and Waylon Reed.
SLUGGO’S “CHICAGO STYLE”
$10 for 18oz, amazon.com
Tangy and smoky with complex flavors, this offering also gets a thumbs up for eschewing high fructose corn syrup.
$13 for 18oz, stubbsbbq.com
Sure, you can find it nationwide in practically every grocery store. And whether this sauce bears much relation to the original Stubb’s Texas “Bar-B-Q” sauce is also debatable. But it’s pretty damn good if you like tangy NC-style sauces, and a great standby in a pinch.
SWEET BABY RAY’S ORIGINAL
$9 for 40oz, amazon.com
Born in Chicago and named after the originator’s little brother, this sauce is in most grocery stores for a reason. Your archetypal BBQ sauce, and always a crowd-pleaser.