Homemade Barbecue Sauce Recipes to Make the Meal
From Kansas City to Korean style, a homemade BBQ sauce beats store-bought any day. You’ll want to use these 15 recipes on everything.
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I get it: Jarred barbecue sauce from the grocery store seems like an excellent way to get a quick dinner on the table. But if you keep a stash of homemade BBQ sauce in the fridge, you’ve got that same convenience without the not-so-great ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and preservatives. Most importantly, you can taste the difference — and you get to play with a slew of styles you can't necessarily get off the shelf.
Plus, I can almost guarantee it’s easier than you think to DIY this condiment.
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Types of BBQ sauces
Southern American barbecue calls for cooking meat for hours over indirect heat, until the flavor of woodsmoke permeates. In some areas (I’m looking at you, Texas), purists insist the tender result needs no sauce, but as a Northerner, I didn’t grow up with those rules. I just love all the different ways BBQ sauce can be made. And you can use it on much more than just slabs of meat. Think salmon, tofu, tempeh, portobello mushrooms, pizza, meatloaf, burgers (veggie or beef), beans — you get the idea. The stuff is versatile.
On a basic level, most barbecue sauce recipes fit into one of four categories. Within these four, you’ll find tons of variation:
Vinegar-based BBQ sauce is the original, according to food historians. Early British colonists basted slow-roasting meat with vinegar to keep it moist, and enslaved people of African descent added the heat of red peppers. Today you’ll find vinegar in almost every recipe for barbecue sauce.
Mustard-based BBQ sauce came next, when pre-Revolutionary War immigrants from Germany added their traditional condiment to the mix. Though you’ll find mustard as an ingredient in many barbecue sauces, the golden-yellow color and piquant flavor really shine through in South Carolina versions.
Tomato-based BBQ sauce evolved sometime in the 19th century, once Americans widely understood that tomatoes wouldn’t kill them. The addition of tomato puree, paste, or ketchup provides a level of sweetness that eventually made this the most popular type of sauce.
Mayo-based BBQ sauce is the newest variation, though it’s almost 100 years old. Created in Alabama, white sauce is a creamy, tomato-free anomaly.
BBQ sauce recipes
With so many options, it can be tricky to know which sauce pairs best with which meat (or vegetable). Many will work with almost anything, but some do lean in one direction or another — see the recipes that follow for specific suggestions. With all of them, refrigerate any extras in an airtight container.
Regional BBQ sauce recipes
As a lifelong New Yorker, I don’t have an allegiance to any particular barbecue tradition. But if you grew up in certain parts of the South, a specific kind of sauce probably appeared on your table. These regional varieties all have deep roots.
With just four ingredients — two of them salt and black pepper — and no cooking, this tangy sauce is probably the easiest one I’ve ever made. Be sure to give yourself at least four hours for the seasoning to infuse the vinegar before you use it. The longer it sits, the more complex the flavor becomes. Vinegar’s acidity plays beautifully with rich meats like pulled pork or smoked pork chops. (Looking for a Carolina barbecue sauce with a little more body? Go towards the western part of the state and you’ll find vinegar-based sauces that use ketchup or other tomato products.)
Carolina BBQ sauces aren’t all vinegar-based. In South Carolina, where Germans settled in the early 18th century, the sauce uses mustard. With brown sugar for sweetness, apple cider vinegar for tang, and a little onion for texture, this complements all kinds of grilled and smoked pork — but give it a shot with chicken, tofu, and seitan, too.
In Memphis, pork ribs rule. And they’re usually ‘cued with a dry rub, a combination of spices that seep into the meat along with the smoke. Serve this tangy, sweet sauce made with molasses, tomato sauce, and cider vinegar on the side — or mix the sauce with pulled pork before serving.
Because I didn’t grow up in a region with its own BBQ traditions, KC-style is what I picture when I think “barbecue sauce.” Sweet, tomatoey, and thick, it’s also incredibly useful. You can baste all kinds of meat on the grill with the stuff (towards the end of cooking, so the high heat doesn’t burn the sugars), mix it into beans, or slather it on your favorite plant-based protein.
In a state as huge as Texas, you’ll find a wide variety of barbecue sauces. Most do have several things in common: tomato, apple cider vinegar, spices like chili powder and cumin, and often Worcestershire sauce for a hit of umami. Texas is known for its beef so naturally this sauce works wonders with brisket, but you’ll also swoon when you pair it with ribs or sausage.
This peppery, mayo-and-vinegar sauce got its start in the 1920s in Big Bob Gibson’s Decatur, Alabama, backyard, where he used it to keep long-smoking chicken from drying out. When he opened his own BBQ joint, the sauce was part of the draw. Use it to baste BBQ chicken or pork towards the end of cooking, or as a dip. My family loves it with wings.
Easy homemade barbecue sauce recipes
Let’s be honest: Sometimes, the best BBQ sauce is the easiest one. Making homemade BBQ sauce doesn’t have to take much effort. Each of these delicious, not particularly authentic options takes very little prep time, with a total time no more than 15 minutes.
Bourbon’s smoky sweetness adds a lovely depth to this sauce. And making it couldn’t be simpler: Add all the ingredients to a medium saucepan and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. It goes great with all kinds of grilled and smoked foods, from pulled pork (or jackfruit) to burgers to grilled chicken.
In my Queens neighborhood, I’m more likely to find Asian BBQ than any other style. My favorite comes from Korea, where the salty/spicy/sweet/umami balance can’t be beat. This recipe calls for gochujang, the Korean chili paste, as well as soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and Asian pear. The pear has enzymes that help tenderize meat, so you can use this as a marinade.
If something has “honey” in the name, my picky guy is way more likely to eat it. With liquid smoke and smoked paprika along with garlic powder, onion powder, tomato puree, tangy cider vinegar, and sweetness from both honey and brown sugar, it elevates plain grilled chicken, burgers, or tofu to a special place — and it’s great for dipping meatballs.
When I’m not worried about whether or not my son will eat, I like to go with a spicy BBQ sauce like this. It gets its kick from a full tablespoon of Tabasco or your favorite hot sauce plus a bit of cayenne pepper. Brown sugar and ketchup keep it from being incendiary, and smoked paprika helps make almost any protein taste like it’s been cooking low and slow over hardwood.
Newfangled BBQ sauce recipes
I respect tradition as much as the next person, but some of my favorite recipes for grilling riff on the classics with unexpected ingredients. Like these.
Fruity BBQ sauces make me happy. Blueberries have a lovely, deep sweetness, and pairing them with the smoky kick of chipotle peppers makes a complex sauce to serve with ribs, grilled or BBQ chicken, tofu, or whatever strikes your fancy.
You know how Guinness has that groovy mix of malty, bitter, roasted flavors? Imagine how well that complements grilled foods. It brings so much to the saucepan, you only need a handful of other ingredients: ketchup, cider vinegar, brown sugar, and salt and pepper.
Most BBQ sauces call for a considerable amount of sugar, which is a no-no when you’re keeping your carbohydrates low. This keto-friendly recipe gets a ton of smoky flavor from bacon and liquid smoke, sweetness from erythritol, and zing from cider vinegar and spices like chili powder, allspice, and cloves.
If you think of chocolate as something to reserve for desserts, I’d like to remind you that it’s a key ingredient in many mole sauces, and I’ve seen more than a few chili recipes that call for unsweetened cocoa powder. This recipe swaps in rice wine vinegar for the usual cider vinegar, with fresh orange juice adding some acidic sweetness.
Brewed coffee and espresso powder. Molasses and maple syrup and brown sugar. Chipotle chili powder and dry mustard and smoked paprika. Tomato sauce and tomato paste. This gorgeous barbecue sauce doesn’t hold back when it comes to bold flavors. Adding bourbon at the end, when it’s off the heat, gives it a nice, boozy punch.
Favorite grilled foods to go with your BBQ sauce
You've got a batch of sauce simmering on the stove. Now what are you going to slather it on? Read on for grilling and smoking ideas for everything from low-and-slow ribs to quick grilled salmon and corn.