Designer sauces come out on top in a dual taste test, while sauces heavy in starch and corn syrup bring up the rear.
By Douglas Bellow
Take a look at just about any refrigerator in America, and you will find some type of barbecue sauce. Although this uniquely American concoction started out years go as a component of traditional barbecuing, it has evolved over the years into a kind of all-purpose summertime condiment for grilled meat and fowl. This metamorphosis has come about largely because most of us do not have the time or the facilities to cook true barbecue. In this time-honored process, fairly large cuts of meat are first flavored with a dry rub or marinade, then hot-smoked at very low temperatures in a drum or pit for eight to twelve hours with an occasional basting of a second sauce, and finally served with a finishing sauce.
These days, instead of barbecuing, we are far more likely to grill meat quickly. Most of us don’t make our own sauces either. Instead, we purchase bottled barbecue sauce off the shelf–and then ask it to accomplish all of the steps of traditional barbecue at once. We throw the meat into it to marinate, cook the meat in it, and serve the meat in more of it. This is often why store-bought sauces contain liquid smoke. They hope to substitute for long hours of smoking using concentrated smoky flavor. The liquid smoke also lets us get a sort of barbecue taste on oven-baked foods, although there is really no substitute for a live fire. (See “Secrets of Liquid Smoke,” at right.)
It is important to keep in mind that store-bought barbecue sauce is based on what barbecue veterans define as a “finishing sauce,” painted onto the barbecued meat after it comes off the heat. This is quite different from the basting sauce, which is made from a thin liquid to keep the meat moist during the long cooking. The basting sauces used in the traditional process never contain either sugar or tomato because these two ingredients tend to burn easily, leaving a bitter, charred taste.
For the same reason, you should not use store-bought sauces as a marinade, because then the sauce will burn when the meat is on the heat. Instead, brush purchased sauce onto your meat during the last few minutes that it is on the grill. Let it heat and cook a little bit, but be careful not to let it burn. Pass more of the sauce for dipping during the meal, if you want. If you want to marinate your meat, use vinegar, oil, and spices instead.
So, now that we know the best way to use store-bought barbecue sauce, which is the one to buy?
To determine that, we held a blind tasting of a range of store-bought sauces. Given that there are many completely different styles among hundreds of different sauces manufactured in this country, the most difficult question that faced us in creating this tasting was which sauces to include.
As a start, we decided to limit the tasting to the tomato-based sauces, since they are far and away the most popular, and represent what most Americans picture when they think “barbecue sauce.” Of course, we still had to narrow the field dramatically. We started with six of the top selling brands available in supermarkets throughout the country. We then ordered another five representative tomato-based sauces from different parts of the country. Smaller, regional favorites seemed appropriate contestants due to the strong local nature of barbecue itself. While these particular regional sauces came highly recommended by various sources, it is best to view them as representative of a very large number of possible choices. Not only are there other great tomato-based sauces out there, but whole other categories of sauce to try. We simply had to limit ourselves.
The sauces were tasted blind in two different ways. First, we tasted them just as they come out of the bottle. Second, we grilled chicken breasts, basting them in generous amounts of sauce for the final few minutes on the grill, allowing the sauces to caramelize but not burn or char. Since there is no orthodox set of guidelines about what barbecue sauce should be, tasters were asked to describe the sauces carefully and try to define the aspects of the sauces that they found most and least appealing.
Tasters Reject Starch and Corn Syrup
While there was general agreement between the two tastings, they were not equally definitive. The raw tasting produced a very clear ranking of likes and dislikes. When it came to tasting the sauces cooked on chicken, however, tasters found the differences to be less pronounced.
This does not dilute the fact that there are definitely large differences between sauces. When tasting sauces alone, our tasters tended to choose the most expensive products, which also tend to be the spiciest ones with the strongest flavors. The three top choices have three very distinct flavors, coming, in fact, from three very different barbecue traditions, but are similar in that none of them is sweet, smoky, or ketchupy, and that all are manufactured by smaller, local sauce companies.
In the cooked test, preferences were still clear, but not by as large a margin. The sweeter, thicker, and often less expensive sauces tended to fare better than they had when tasted raw. Tasters agreed that this was largely due to the fact that the thicker sauces tended to adhere better to the chicken, so their tastes came through better than some of the pricier, thinner sauces.
When we checked the ingredients of the individual sauces, we found that two substances, corn syrup and starch, were consistently associated with low ratings. Of all the sauces tasted, only three list “food starch” among the primary ingredients. These same sauces were also the only ones that list corn syrup as their number one ingredient.