We use a lot of barbecue sauce in the Kelly house. Our favorite has always been Gates Original. It hails from Kansas City, and my mom sends me a bottle every year at both Christmas and Easter. Every now and then, I splurge on a bottle at Big Sky Country in San Diego County or Iowa Meat Farms in Mission Valley ($4.99 for 18 oz.). But we do tend to run out, and I’ve been casting about for alternatives.
One of the best cooks I know, Sophia, told me she made her own. “The recipe comes from my aunt — she’s a master canner. I’m sworn to secrecy, but here’s the gist of it: ketchup, brown sugar, lemon juice, onion powder, dry mustard, pepper, cayenne pepper, white sugar, Worcestershire sauce, cider vinegar, and corn syrup.” I knew I’d never get the proportions just so, so I called around for suggestions.
We started with a few brands that tend to show up on grocery-store shelves. “You want to know a cheap way to get a lot of decent sauce?” asked Frank. “Buy Sweet Baby Ray’s Original [$3.99 for 28 oz. at Vons] and add a teaspoon of Tapatio hot sauce [$.99 for 6 oz. at Vons].” My husband Patrick liked the tang on it (we tried it sans Tapatio), but Kathy and I both agreed that it was too sweet to be good barbecue sauce.
“I’ve had worse,” said Frank after tasting the Hunt’s ($2.69 for 21.6 oz. at Vons). Now it was Patrick’s turn to complain about sweetness: “I don’t like barbecue sauce when it’s ketchup.” Bone Suckin’ Sauce ($5.99 for 16 oz. at Whole Foods) didn’t fare any better. “It looks like sweet-and-sour sauce from a low-end Asian restaurant in a food court,” said Frank. “Watery and sugary and not spicy,” concluded Kathy.
“Maybe this Organicville Original BBQ Sauce ($4.99 for 13.5 oz. at Sprouts) will be less sweet,” I offered. “It’s sweetened with agave nectar.” I was right, but all we got in its place was smoke and tang and a hollow feeling where the flavor should have been. “Plus, there’s no spice,” lamented Kathy.
I had high hopes for Trader Joe’s Bold & Smokey Kansas City Style Sauce ($2.69 for 18 oz. at Trader Joe’s). “Kansas City!” I cheered. But Kathy shut me down. “I like the black molasses color, but it’s too heavy on the smoke and too light on the heat — unbalanced.” And — are you sensing a pattern here? — “the aftertaste is just sugar.”
We moved on to Stubb’s Original ($3.99 for 18 oz. at Sprouts). “At least four people suggested this,” I noted, “and the price is decent.” So was the flavor. “Savory, not too sweet — and just the right amount of heat,” said Frank. “Plus, there’s an interesting citrus note that works to balance everything,” added Patrick. We were so pleased, we decided to put it up against my beloved Gates. Stubb’s didn’t quite match up — but then again, it was cheaper.
“There’s an actual tomato flavor at the core,” said Patrick as he savored the Gates. “Perfectly balanced,” noted Kathy. “Just the right smoke and spice,” said Frank, delighting in the peppery finish.
We finished with three local offerings. Everybody admired the layers of cayenne and black-pepper spice on the Sauce Goddess Big and Tangy Sauce ($5.99 for 13 oz. at Whole Foods), but the real hits came from Pizza Port Brewing Company (Carlsbad Chronic Amber Ale BBQ Sauce, $6.39 for 14 oz. at Whole Foods) and Stone Brewing (Levitation Ale BBQ Sauce, $6.29 for 14 oz. at Whole Foods; also available at Hot Licks in Seaport Village). “I am loving the acid and the heat and the fruity notes in the Chronic,” said Frank. “It’s almost like cactus,” marveled Patrick. “But the Stone is a little more assertive,” countered Kathy. “And the flavors come at you in stages — onion, citrus, then a steady stream of heat. Nothing competes with anything else.”
Sabrina LoPiccolo at Stone Brewing Co. told me that the Stone Levitation BBQ sauce is made "with Stone Levitation Ale and a bold dried pepper called chile de arbol, which is a small and potent Mexican chili pepper. The BBQ sauce is used in Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens' BBQ Duck Taco Trio but for those using it at home it's perfect for marinating or dipping."