Low & Slow

A Step-by-Step Guide to Making Easy BBQ Sauce

Just in time for summer!

June 13, 2022
Photo by Julia Gartland

There are, approximately, 185,573,202 bottles of store-bought barbecue sauce available at the grocery store and no, that’s definitely not an exaggeration. Most are a generic version of Kansas City-style sauce—thick with a viscosity that’s far closer to ketchup than vinegar and sweet, most likely thanks to brown sugar, honey, or both. And yes, there are variations like smoky or spicy (or, again, both!). There are a lot of delicious brands of grocery-store barbecue sauce (read our ranking of the best ones here) and they’re great for backstock or picking up at a pinch. But what I love (almost) as much as a plate of pulled pork sandwich with a side of mac & cheese and cornbread is homemade barbecue sauce, preferably one that I can smother on said sandwich.

So I read the back of dozens of bottles of barbecue sauce (because reading 185 million bottles would simply be too many) to determine what components were essential to a classic Kansas City-style sauce and which were optional. Most started with a tomato base—specifically tomato purée, so that you get a really smooth texture (who’s ever heard of chunky barbecue sauce, anyway? If you have, we need to talk. I have questions.)

All of them contained some combination of ground spices—some were minimal, containing just black pepper, paprika, and chili or cayenne pepper, while others also had onion powder, garlic powder, celery powder, and secret seasoning blends. For an added depth of flavor, some brands also used liquid smoke and tamarind concentrate, the latter of which is a highly concentrated syrup that offsets the otherwise sweet sauce with its sour edge.

I landed on what I thought was a responsible number of ground spices for my barbecue sauce recipe—ground mustard, ground smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, and salt and pepper.

How to Make Homemade Barbecue Sauce

Making barbecue sauce is so easy, promise—you need a saucepan, a whisk, and a jar to store it in. Combine tomato purée, brown sugar, honey, liquid smoke, and ground spices in a medium saucepan and whisk to combine. Cook over medium heat until bubbles break across the surface, which takes about two minutes. Continue to cook for an additional 5 to 7 minutes until the sauce has thickened and spices have completely dissolved, whisking frequently so that the sauce doesn’t scorch. Cool completely before transferring to an airtight container or mason jar. You can safely store homemade barbecue sauce in the refrigerator for up to seven days.

What’s your favorite barbecue sauce? Are you team homemade or store-bought? Sound off in the comments below!
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.


Smaug June 13, 2022
I generally wing it with barbecue sauce- I like a base of red wine and chilis (mostly Ancho) more than tomato and some heat (a whole chipotle in a couple of cups of sauce is about right for me), and I make it a bit more liquid than usual so I can cook it into the meat without burning. Other than that, hit the basic flavor categories- bitter (the chilis, and leftover coffee), sweet (maybe sugar or honey or something, sometimes some apricot jam), salt, sour (usually vinegar, any fruit elements are also sweet/sour), umami (worcestershire, soy sauce, dried mushrooms- anchovy would also work well), and I consider liquid smoke (an unjustly maligned product) an essential. The blender does most of the work, I only cook it briefly.
judy June 15, 2022
I agree that some vinegar or acid is needed in BBQ sauce as well.