Barbecue sauce might remind you of lazy weekends, but tasting sauces was serious business for our trained panelists. To recognize the varied flavors they might find, tasters first spent three days sampling everything from a tamarind-flavored soft drink to old herbs, from orange marmalade to liquid smoke. They then tasted each of 10 sauces three ways: straight up, on chicken tenders coated in sauce and broiled, and on chicken thighs cooked with sauce in a slow cooker for at least 4 hours. Ratings (available to subscribers) were based on the toughest test, how the sauces tasted straight up. The verdict: Five sauces were Very Good overall.
The best sauces all have complex flavors, though they tasted somewhat different, as the Ratings (available to subscribers) show. Stubb's was tangy; Archer Farms and Great Value were smoky; Emeril's had a hint of cumin and celery-seed flavor; and KC Masterpiece was sweet with a lingering spicy heat.
When cooked with meat, most of the sauces became more mellow, and their flavor improved, but not all were equally versatile. Stubbs, for example, tasted best as a condiment or when basted on meat cooked quickly, since it tends to lose flavor during slow cooking. Archer Farms, Great Value, Emeril's, and KC Masterpiece tasted equally good however they were used.
The rest of the sauces were decent but had drawbacks that included an ashy flavor, a gelatinous texture, or excessive sweetness.
Pour with a light hand. Per 2-tablespoon serving, these sauces have 30 to 70 calories, 4 to 16 grams of sugars, and 100 to 460 milligrams of sodium. The good news: They have no fat.
Check the taste comments for the Very Good sauces and choose one that appeals to you. The top three cost more than 20 cents per serving ($3.22 to $3.99 for a 16- or 18-ounce container), but Walmart's Great Value Original is just 8 cents per serving ($1.20 for 18 ounces). High price doesn't mean high quality: The priciest sauce, Bone Suckin', lacked complexity and was extremely sweet.