My BBQ Sauce Taste Test: My Family Bucks Conventional Wisdom (Again)

Depending on who you talk to, barbecue sauces have been around since the days of the American colonies.

Wikipedia claims that the first commercial barbecue sauce appeared around 1909. I know; please don’t grill me on my source, folks.

And while most, but not all, barbecue  sauces include some secret blend of ketchup, mustard, vinegar, sugar, onion, and garlic, in the United States there are a multitude of different barbecue sauce styles. For example, there’s Kansas City, Memphis, Texas and Alabama styles. There’s also South Carolina Sauce, East Carolina Mustard Sauce, and even something called a Lexington Dip, which if you ask me, sounds more like a dance move than a barbecue sauce.

Obviously, it’s a matter of personal preference, but one thing is certain: there are as many barbecue sauces out there as there are opinions as to which one reigns supreme. If you don’t believe me, walk down the barbecue sauce aisle at your local supermarket.

With that in mind, I figured what better reason to conduct yet another of my completely unscientific blind taste-test experiments?

How the Test Was Conducted

As with most of my other taste tests, I recruited a bunch of hungry family members for my expert panel. This time everyone convened in San Diego for a summer cookout at my cousin Kevin’s house.

With the panel in place, Kevin and I barbecued up a whole bunch of chicken wings and the candidate sauces were applied from unmarked bowls.

After tasting a slathered barbecue chicken wing, the experts were asked to rank each sauce on a simple four-point scale — four points for their favorites or as few as one point for those they didn’t like at all. The panel was also free to note any accompanying comments they had regarding each sample.

The Expert Panel

Before we get to the results, let’s once again meet our distinguished panel of experts:

Doris

Aunt Doris
Birthplace: London, England
Age: Unless you’re the Queen, it’s none of your darn business.
Best advice ever given to her: Shut up! (Doris only gives advice nowadays.)

Dad

Dad
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 74
Best advice ever given to him: Know what your first priority in life is.

Tony
Birthplace: New Haven, Connecticut
Age: 68
Best advice ever given to him: If it sounds too good to be true, then it is.

.

Mom

Mom
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 70
Best advice ever given to her: “I’m so old I don’t remember.”

Rose

Rose
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Age: What Aunt Doris said.
Best advice ever given to her: Don’t ever get old. (Good luck with that. Right, Mom?)

Kevin

Kevin
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 58
Best advice ever given to him: Read the four Gospels. (And for you atheists: measure twice, cut once.)

Chris

Chris
Birthplace: Hemet, California
Age: As old as her tongue, but not as old as her teeth.
Best advice ever given to her: Obey God and leave all the consequences to Him.

Honeybee

The Honeybee
Birthplace: Whittier, California
Age: 43
Best advice ever given to her: Your husband Len is always right. (Okay, you got me. I made that one up.)

Evan

Evan
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 32
Best advice ever given to him: Never quit!

Matthew

Matthew
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 14
Best advice ever given to him: Get off the Xbox and go play outside.

Nina

Nina
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 11
Best advice ever given to her: Remember to wash your hands.

By the way, for the first time ever, my dog, Major, was unceremoniously left off the tasting panel. Don’t worry; he’ll get over it.

Introducing The Barbecue Sauce Competitors

While my supermarket had a score of barbecue sauces to choose from, I selected the “Original” varieties of the following seven brands: Bull’s-Eye, Hunt’s, KC Masterpiece, Jack Daniel’s, Tony Roma’s, the Albertsons store-brand and, my family’s personal favorite, Sweet Baby Ray’s.

Here now, in reverse order from worst to first, are the completely unscientific barbecue sauce blind taste test results, based upon the inputs of my expert panel:

7. Sweet Baby Ray’s Original Barbecue Sauce

Price per ounce: $0.21
Panel Scoring: 23 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 2.1
Judges Who Gave It a Top Rating: 0
Judges Who Thought It Stunk: 1

Well, this is embarrassing. Apparently, our so-called family favorite isn’t quite as good as we thought it was. Even more surprising, not a single panel member ranked this as a top sauce, which is problematic considering it was the second most expensive brand sampled. Ironically, the Honeybee, who usually swears by Ray’s, complained that, “it didn’t have much flavor.” Another self-proclaimed Ray’s fan, Kevin, gave it demerits for being sugary. My cousin Evan suggested that the poor rankings were because Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce goes better with pork.

6. Albertsons Original Barbecue Sauce

Price per ounce: $0.17
Panel Scoring: 27 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 2.5
Judges Who Gave It a Top Rating: 1
Judges Who Thought It Stunk: 3

Nina was the only member of the panel to give the store-brand sauce a top mark, noting it was “tangy and addictive.” You know what? I’m moving on — I’m still in shock Ray’s came in last place.

5. Tony Roma’s Original Barbecue Sauce

Price per ounce: $0.19
Panel Scoring: 27 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 2.5
Judges Who Gave It a Top Rating: 4
Judges Who Thought It Stunk: 4

Four members thought enough of Tony Roma’s to give the sauce top marks; Chris thought it had a “great barbecue flavor” and Mom praised its “really good taste.” But just as many panelists thought otherwise. Kevin ribbed the Tony Roma’s barbecue sauce for tasting “artificial, although not bad for colored gelatin.” The Honeybee piled on by remarking that it tasted so much like ketchup that it was better-suited for a weenie roast. Then you have my handyman father-in-law, Tony, who summed it more succinctly: “It sucked.”

4. KC Masterpiece Original Barbecue Sauce

Price per ounce: $0.19
Panel Scoring: 28 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 2.5
Judges Who Gave It a Top Rating: 1
Judges Who Thought It Stunk: 2

KC Masterpiece is generally recognized as one of the better mainstream barbecue sauces. However, for this test it ended up looking more like, well, just a decent lithograph. The Honeybee was the only panelist to give KC Masterpiece top honors, but Kevin enjoyed the sauce too, noting its pleasing “woody aroma.” In a dissenting opinion, however, Chris beefed that the barbecue sauce simply tasted too much like ketchup.

3. Bull’s-Eye Original Barbecue Sauce

Price per ounce: $0.19
Panel Scoring: 30 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 2.7
Judges Who Gave It a Top Rating: 2
Judges Who Thought It Stunk: 1

This barbecue sauce got blue ribbons from both my kids. Matthew, in particular, thought the Bull’s-Eye brand hit the mark for its “smokey flavor.”

2. Jack Daniel’s Original Barbecue Sauce

Price per ounce: $0.22 (the most expensive of all brands tested)
Panel Scoring: 30 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 2.7
Judges Who Gave It a Top Rating: 5
Judges Who Thought It Stunk: 3

Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce is manufactured by Heinz, and it got more top-scores than any of the other competitors. Nina noted that she would give it a higher score if she could. Meanwhile, both Aunt Doris and the Honeybee — who coincidentally happens to a big fan of Jack Daniel’s whiskey — praised JD’s barbecue sauce for its distinctive hickory flavor. Interestingly, those who didn’t like the Jack Daniel’s sauce dinged it for being just a bit too hickory flavored.

1. Hunt’s Original Barbecue Sauce

Price per ounce: $0.11 (the least expensive of all brands tested)
Panel Scoring: 32 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 2.9
Judges Who Gave It a Top Rating: 4
Judges Who Thought It Stunk: 1

Ah, the grill of victory! Incredibly, as with my ketchup taste test, the least expensive brand in the survey once again came out on top. Evan thought the Hunt’s had a delicious sweetness to it. Rose agreed, giving it top marks for being “sweet, but not overly so.” Dad liked Hunt’s savory mix of spices, Kevin thought it was “perfect,” and Tony thought it had a “great BBQ flavor.” The only one who flat out didn’t like the Hunt’s was Nina, who remarked that the flavor was “just wrong.”

I Know What You’re Thinking …

Hunt’s barbecue sauce? Are you kidding me?

Say what you will about this experiment’s unscientific methods, but it was a fair fight. After all, the blind taste test goes a long way toward eliminating preconceived notions and biases that would otherwise subtly influence the panel members’ decisions.

Is Hunt’s barbecue sauce “sexy?” Um, no. But in the end, Hunt’s was not only the least expensive brand of all those sampled, but my expert panel also found it to be the best tasting barbecue sauce of them all   — and that’s good enough for me.

Photo Credit: Public Domain Photos



Comments

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      It’s amazing how opinions tend to change in the absence of brand information. I mean, my family normally swears by Sweet Baby Ray’s and look where it ended up. That’s not to say that Ray’s is suddenly a poor-tasting BBQ sauce — but it does suggest that our opinions are probably flavored at least a little bit by preconceived notions.

      An interesting experiment would have been to let everybody know which sauces (and their prices) they were sampling and evaluating, then do a second run blind and see how the results compared. I bet the cheaper varieties like the Albertsons and Hunt’s would not have fared as well in the open test.

      • 3

        Barbara says

        I found your reviews on paper towels, ketchup and BBQ sauce very interesting. I’ve never done the paper towel test, but I have done a modified version of the ketchup and BBQ sauce version. When it comes to taste, it seems that the individuals taking the test have subjective opinions on taste. Our family still likes Heinz ketchup the best, though I didn’t tell them which was in each little dish and we did use hot dogs for our comparison. Same with the BBQ sauce, Baby Ray’s came out way ahead with chicken nuggets as our player. As for peanut butter, my daughter tasted the Albertson’s brand and the Ralph’s brand, and refused to take peanut butter and jelly for a week until I finally used them up in cookies! For both of us, taste being the only comparison, Jif beat them all. Clearly a subjective study with just the three of us, but I thought if the ‘bargain brand’ would taste test, why not save the money? Having used the ‘bargain brand’ paper towels from Big Lots, I’m ready to switch to Scott!

    • 6

      Len Penzo says

      That was amazing, wasn’t it? Another interesting comparison is that the products manufactured by Heinz came in second in both tests.

  1. 7

    Spedie says

    Say it isn’t so….I love Sweet Baby Rays. My first taste of it was just over a year ago. I have only had the Original kind. My family loves it, so much that I buy the huge container of it at Costco and make my own beef jerky with it (with added fresh garlic and Worstershire sauce).

    I am going to have to give Hunts a try.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      Wow, I haven’t had homemade beef jerky since I was a kid! Do you have one of those special beef jerky makers, or do you make it in the oven?

      We love the Rays original for pulled pork. And I really like Ray’s Honey BBQ sauce for chicken and ribs.

      I have to say, I liked the Hunt’s too when I sampled it. After you try it, let me know how you liked it.

      • 9

        Spedie says

        Len: I got a Excaliber 9 tray food dehydrator for my birthday earlier in the month.

        Google it. It is Made in USA, comes with 10 year warranty, has been around for over 30 years, etc.

        I can now dry lots of stuff but the jerky, by far is the best so far. I am selling it at work for $12 for 8 dried ounces. It is a hit! It is very easy to make:

        Soak cheap beef meet in Sweet Baby Rays, crushed fresh garlic and Worstershire sauce over night. Nothing else is necessary.

        Squeeze out some sauce from the meat strips and put on trays. Set unit to recommended temperature and time, which for me is 155 degrees for about 9 hours.

        Pull out, put in baggies. Enjoy.

        Cost is about $6 per pound, plus love and small amounts of electricity.

        PS: A pound of dried jerky is quite a bit. It will keep at least a year if you throw a piece of food grade dessicant in it.

        My next project: Real, dried garlic powder and fruit as it comes on sale later this month!

  2. 10

    says

    Thanks for these posts, Len. It’s always interesting to read your original research and to see which brand comes out on top. I was disappointed that you didn’t include Trader Joe’s BBQ sauce (they are headquartered in your state!), but I’m quick to forgive.

    Our local Costco only sells one brand of BBQ sauce – Sweet Baby Ray’s. You have to buy 5 lbs. of it for $5, so at 6.25 cents per ounce, it comes out to a pretty good deal. Then again, I wouldn’t ever want that much barbecue sauce!

    • 11

      Len Penzo says

      Wow, five gallons of BBQ sauce would probably take us all summer to get through — if not longer. We shop at Costco too, but BBQ sauce is one of those things that I avoid buying in bulk because I prefer keeping the option of switching things up every once in awhile. (Although that price is really a good deal, compared to what you pay at the supermarket!)

      I’m glad you enjoy these taste tests. I know my whole family gets a real kick out of doing ‘em for you. :-)

  3. 14

    Jambalaya says

    Sweet Baby Ray’s is like liquid candy. It’s LOADED with HFCS and other sugar. Nasty. Try some Stubb’s BBQ sauce. You’ll be glad you did.

  4. 16

    Libby says

    I, too, love your “everyman” taste tests. This one especially piqued my interest. For store-bought sauce, I do like Hunt’s (especially the price!) but I lived in Kansas City for almost 30 years, so I have to admit that I am a bit of BBQ sauce snob. You really can’t get any better than Gates BBQ Sauce. No, it is probably not sold in stores in California (just like here in Arizona where I now reside) but you CAN order it online. Second choice? Definitely Arthur Bryant’s. P.S. My roommate swears by Sweet Baby Ray’s but what does she know – she was born and raised in Arizona!

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