Taste Kitchen

For a good sauce, the spice is right

Barbecue tasters pick best flavors

(Debra Samuels for The Boston Globe)
By Debra Samuels
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2011

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Not too smoky, not too spicy, sort of sweet, and kind of tangy - with a velvety texture. There you have the barbecue sauce that is just right. Light the grill, slather sauce on meats or poultry. Vacations are coming to an end, but there are plenty of warm nights when grilled suppers are very welcome.

We put plain skinless, boneless chicken breasts in a George Foreman grill for 5 minutes, then brushed each with a different sauce and cooked the breasts for another 2 minutes. When the chicken was done and still hot, we gave it another coating. The 11 tasters each received eight mini cups filled with sauce for dipping. The array formed a color wheel of polka dots ranging from red to mahogany.

Ingredients lists include water, tomato paste, vinegar, sweeteners (in several forms such as high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, honey, rice syrup), and spices. All but one has hickory smoke flavor. But the order of these elements varies widely. Both Market Basket BBQ Barbecue Sauce Original and Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce lead off with high-fructose corn syrup. Different amounts of thickeners, such as tapioca, corn and food starches, and xanthum gum, evoked comments from “sludge’’ to “dishwater.’’

KC Masterpiece Barbecue Sauce Original and Bull’s-Eye Original Barbecue Sauce, both listing tomato paste as the first ingredient, split top honors, with Masterpiece showing a slight edge. Both have a good combination of sweetness, with an acidic kick, a discernible splash of hickory smoke that isn’t overpowering, and a tingle on the tongue that doesn’t obscure the flavor. Balance is the common denominator. Annie’s Naturals Organic BBQ Sauce Original Recipe was smoked for having none: “This sauce could use some smoke!’’ It was voted least favorite.

Stubb’s Original Bar-B-Q Sauce (from Texas) and Bone Suckin’ Sauce (from North Carolina) are on the thin side and probably better for cooking than dipping. There was plenty of finger-licking and double-dipping and, just like Goldilocks, they ate it all up. Barbecue is way better than porridge any day.

Annie’s Naturals Organic BBQ Sauce Original Recipe

$3.69 for 12 ounces

“Good paprika color - odd taste.’’ “With dip, sauce tastes paprika and chipotle.’’ “You can see some spices in the sauce; not too runny, not too thick - I think I got a piece of something herby.’’ Some tasters weren’t impressed. “Watery and practically tasteless. No trace of sauce on the chicken.’’ “Not smoky at all. Strange aftertaste. Burnt molasses? Thumbs down.’’ (There is molasses in the ingredients.) Aroma: “Smells like funky feet,’’ “smells like old sneakers.’’ Others: “Smells good, meh on taste. Spicy in the back of your throat.’’ “Smoke smell on the chicken is very pleasant’’ (no smoke in this sauce). “Too acidic and slight aftertaste.’’ One fan: “Tastes like a summer barbecue!’’

Bone Suckin’ Sauce

$5.69 for 16 ounces

A familiar taste to some. “A visit to a Chinese restaurant?’’ “Reminiscent of cheap Chinese sweet-and-sour chicken.’’ “Tastes more like duck sauce.’’ “Maybe a little too sweet.’’ “A hint of smoke but overwhelmingly sweet.’’ And another familiar flavor. “Tastes like ketchup and sugar; nice color, too mild.’’ “Bland. Tastes like ketchup, vinegar, and sugar syrup.’’ “Looks like melty marmalade with some flecks of spice, so I am expecting a fruit taste; instead not much taste of anything. It’s so pretty I wanted to like this one.’’ Texture: “Watery. Not much flavor but delightful as a dipping sauce.’’

Bull’s-Eye Original Barbecue Sauce

$1.50 for 18 ounces

This sauce won high marks for aroma, texture, and dip-ability. “Smoky odor. Pleasant subtle taste on chicken. Nice dipped too.’’ “Smells tangy. Sweet on the chicken. Nice smoky aftertaste. I like the thicker texture for dipping.’’ “Delicious on chicken and as dipping sauce.’’ “Thick texture and good mouth-feel.’’ “Sweet and smoky but tastes like fake smoke.’’ “Tangy, not too sweet.’’ Some were not fans: “Thick and pasty. Almost an apple cider-y taste with a bit of spice.’’

KC Masterpiece Barbecue Sauce Original

$1.99 for 18 ounces

This tied for favorite and had the most second-favorite votes. Still, some were looking for more spice. “If it was a little more spicy, it would be perfect.’’ “Not much kick, bold color, falls flat in your mouth.’’ “Need to dip a lot for flavor.’’ “Nice smell, thick like it should stick to the chicken. A little heat is nice.’’ “Strong smoky odor. Grilled outdoorsy taste. A little spicy . . . but only a little.’’ “Rich color, velvety texture, but too sweet for this Texas gal!’’ Just right for others: “Nice smell, best looking, good overall depth and flavor.’’ “Dark color and got it right on the vinegar.’’ “Nice thick texture; reminds me of Kraft. Inoffensive and likable.’’ “Traditional barbecue flavor, very enjoyable.’’

Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce

$1.50 for 18 ounces

“Strong smoky flavor, nice on chicken. Too strong as a dipping sauce. Too tangy.’’ “Very smoky flavor, a little tangy aftertaste and sweet overall. Thick texture, good for dipping.’’ “Too smoky. Tastes like camping.’’ “Very flavorful, but not much of a kick.’’ “Strong, good smell. I want to keep eating it.’’ For those who didn’t like it, texture was the culprit: “Thick, almost gummy, texture.’’ “Has a dishwater aftertaste or maybe two-day-old coffee.’’ “A little on the thick and heavy side.’’

Market Basket BBQ Barbecue Sauce Original

99 cents for 18 ounces

The cheapest brand here. “Tangy at first, then weakens; left with a mild taste, very smooth to the palate.’’ “Tangy not spicy, not a fan of the aftertaste.’’ “Slightly sweet. Acceptable as a marinade but overwhelming as a dipping sauce.’’ “Kind of sweet. Spicy in the back of your throat.’’ “Acidic with strong Worcestershire flavors.’’ “Rather ketchupy but barely has a barbecue flavor.’’ “Very plain generic barbecue sauce flavor. Fine for family but no wow factor for dinner guests.’’

Trader Joe’s All Natural Barbecue Sauce

$2.49 for 18 ounces

Very spicy, thought the tasters. “Dark and punchy. Get the water and put out the fire in my mouth.’’ “Tastes good on the chicken. Not spicy at first but very spicy aftertaste.’’ “Tastes of cinnamon or allspice and it is spicy.’’ “I like the rich texture and delayed spice aftereffect. Good strong sauce reminds me of mole [Mexican sauce made with chocolate].’’ “Way too peppery for my palate.’’ “Tangy molasses flavor.’’ “This is so dark it is almost black. I was expecting something rich and smoky but it is very thick, too much pepper.’’ “Wonderful on chicken, way too powerful as dipping sauce. Dark sludgy appearance.’’ And this: “No, thank you. Makes me wonder if it was cross-contaminated with cleaning products.’’

Stubb’s Original Bar-B-Q Sauce

$2.99 for 18 ounces

On the label Mr. Stubb smiles knowingly at us from below his Texas stetson, already aware his sauce is too hot to handle. “Has a bite on the chicken. Tastes like it has a lot of red pepper. It lingers in my mouth; I don’t like that.’’ “Harsh aftertaste.’’ “Sauce is sweet and tangy, a bit of cayenne?’’ “Nice color with large pepper flakes.’’ “Not much taste other than the spiciness.’’ “It tastes like vinegar with ketchup.’’ “I see flecks of spice; what I taste is sharp vinegar and pepper, slight burn on my tongue.’’ “Like spicy ketchup.’’ One person embraced the spice: “Very spicy. Tingle in the throat going down. Refreshing. Start the grill!’’

Debra Samuels can be reached at