Grilling may be most associated with summer, but tender, juicy, fall-off-the-bone proteins cooked over an open flame can satisfy any year-round craving. Frankly, what’s more comforting than a rack of ribs in February when you don’t have a Valentine’s Day date and the only thing in your pantry is canned soup? Nothing, that’s what.
I am always on the hunt for perfect condiments to zhoosh up vegetables, starches and meats, and obviously nothing pairs better with barbecue than barbecue sauce — a smoky, sweet, spicy, sometimes-tangy American staple that I simply can’t get enough of.
While there are many store-bought varieties that can get the job done, there are also quite a few Food Network stars who boast homemade versions of their own. Since I really don’t have an excuse to not make these myself, I decided to put five iterations from Sunny Anderson, Ree Drummond, Bobby Flay, Ina Garten and Molly Yeh to the ultimate taste test.
It’s important to note that, of course, taste is entirely subjective and that barbecue sauce itself comes in many types based on geography (i.e., vinegar- or mustard-based from the Carolinas, sweet and heavy from Kansas City or a Texas-style baster). What pleases my palate may not be the same for yours and vice versa. But still, I made and ranked the celebrity chefs’ recipes. These are my super scientific results:
5. Molly Yeh’s Barbecue Sauce
Pros: This is a perfectly acceptable iteration of barbecue sauce. It has a nice tanginess that reminds me of the mainstream stuff they serve in NYC diners (which could very well be from Heinz, but I’ve never asked). I also feel like this was the most kid-friendly, so if you’ve got them, air-fry some dino nuggets and call it a night.
Cons: It’s pretty one-note and extremely ketchup-forward. This makes sense considering its short ingredient list, but if you’re looking for more complexity in a condiment, it won’t satisfy that craving. Simply chop up some aromatics like onions and garlic or add a few more spices like smoked paprika, chili powder or cayenne to adjust and enhance.
4. Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Sauce
Pros: It’s obvious that grillmaster Bobby Flay excels at all things barbecue, and his Carolina-style sauce is no exception. This, by far, has the most heat and depth of flavor out of the bunch, brought on by adobo peppers, onions, garlic, ancho chile powder and the unmistakable sharpness of dijon mustard. He recommends pureeing the mixture after it cooks (which I did with half the batch), but I actually prefer the onions to remain intact for a more rustic feel on the tongue.
Cons: It is absurdly thick. Sure, you can always add more Worcestershire sauce and even water to loosen things up, but I followed the recipe by the letter and it yields more of a paste-like consistency instead of an actual sauce. Had this been thinned out, it would have ranked significantly higher (though it would also certainly change the flavor profile that I loved so much). My advice here is to not cook down the ketchup as long as it suggests. I’d also lower the temperature and keep things at a very steady simmer before transferring to your food processor.
3. Sunny Anderson’s Barbecue Sauce
Pros: The kick of sriracha is a welcome addition, and there is a nice sweetness that makes it feel like it would pair well with pineapple if served at a Hawaiian luau. Orange juice also brings in a pop of citrus to brighten it up and make it feel more versatile with different proteins. (For example, I’m really tempted to put it on ham because of its harmonious sweet and spicy ratio.)
Cons: Unlike Bobby Flay’s Carolina concoction, Sunny’s is a bit too runny. This was an intentional decision on her part (as she explained on Rachael Ray’s daytime talk show), but because of its high apple cider vinegar content, it sometimes gives more warm salad dressing or marinade vibes. Again, this totally comes down to preference, but I appreciate a sauce that can also be dipped into with something like a french fry and not just used to coat a meat.
2. Ina Garten’s Barbecue Sauce
Pros: Is there anything Ina Garten can’t do? Apparently not. The Queen of the Hamptons has concocted a wonderful blend of ingredients to create a sauce that I unabashedly guzzled in excess. I love the fact that she uses tomato paste in place of ketchup, as well as rich and briny hoisin for a nod to Asian flavors. The texture is also the most familiar, resembling that of most mainstream bottled varieties (sans the chopped onions).
Cons: There is entirely too much oil, which is an easy fix. Start small and add more as you go along — you only need it to cook down the onions and garlic. It’s also a touch too tomato-y, which may remind you of pasta sauce as you nosh. I’d add a bit more hoisin and cut back on the paste as a quick remedy.
1. Ree Drummond’s Barbecue Sauce
Pros: The Pioneer Woman takes top honors in this taste test. It’s the only one of the bunch that is delectably sticky, without feeling like you’re eating a glaze. She embraces the use of molasses, like Flay, but keeps ingredients as simple and straightforward as possible with ketchup, brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce. It also has an ideal level of heat — just enough to kiss the back of your throat as it makes its way down.
Cons: There are moments where the chopped adobo peppers are a bit overwhelming in texture (those damn seeds!), which takes away from the traditional smooth barbecue sauce vibes you may be seeking. That said, it’s an all-around stellar sauce that’s more than deserving of a spot on your dinner table. I’d now like an official invite to her Oklahoma ranch so that she can make this for me in person.
If you enjoyed this story, check out this rundown on how to cook unusual proteins that you should love!
More from In The Know: