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Updated: Jul 1, 2022

Commercial BBQ Sauce That’s Actually Worth Buying

I first set foot below the Mason-Dixon Line and into the Great American South, the fabled “Land of Cotton,” when Andrea and I traveled to Chattanooga for orientation and training as we began our trucking careers. We had much to learn, we quickly realized, and we navigated the inevitable culture shock by treating it as an opportunity for personal growth.

We noticed, among many other things, the sharp distinction in the workforce between those who sweat for a living and those who sit in air-conditioned comfort for a few hours each day on either side of a leisurely and sumptuous “sweet tea lunch.” We took note of the South’s reverence for officialdom and privately joked about waiting hours in line to “have our signatures certified by the certified signature certifier.” And we surmised that it had nothing to do with geography that the company-provided food during orientation was utterly inedible. Rather, we took it as motivation to explore alternative dining options.

There was a cute little diner across the street that looked like part of a chain, and we quickly became WAFFLE HOUSE regulars. And since we really didn’t care to eat omelets three times a day, we widened our search and soon found ourselves at a charming little barbecue joint called HILLBILLY WILLY’S. Up to that point I had been vaguely aware of the universe of barbecue but had never developed much interest in it, perhaps in part because my food sensibilities had evolved with regard to wine affinity. But that night at a table in Hillbilly Willy’s I experienced my first real contact with the soul of barbecue, its inner essence. I realized right there that I had never actually tasted proper barbecue before… and more specifically, proper barbecue SAUCE.

More than a decade later, I’ve tasted great barbecue all over Dixie— from three styles in Missouri alone (Kansas City, St. Louis, and Boot-Heel) to Virginia smoked chicken, to the various styles of sauces in the Carolinas for their pulled pork, to Texas brisket. Not only that, but I’ve coaxed a few talented and knowledgeable Pit Masters to share their hard-won intel so I could make my own.

And of all the recipes and techniques I’ve learned over the past decade, I consider none as important as making proper barbecue sauce from scratch. That’s because almost all commercially-available barbecue sauce has, in my mind, THREE disqualifying flaws—

—Artificial Thickeners (like Xanathan Gum; I like things real.)

—High Fructose Corn Syrup (which a lot of smart people consider more poisonous than sugar)

—Artificial Smoke Flavor (proper BBQ gets its smoke flavor from a fire, not a bottle.)

At its most basic, classic barbecue sauce is built on a base of 6 ingredients— Tomato Purée, Ketchup, YELLOW Mustard (not Dijon), Vinegar, Sugar (in the form of molasses and/or brown sugar) and some sort of spicy-hot heat, e.g., red pepper. Every other proper version (save for the famously tomato-less Eastern North Carolina style) is a variation on this theme. Garlic, turmeric, Worcestershire, tamarind, and/or citrus? Why not? And if one likes it thick, then painstakingly brown some yellow onions until they are almost gone and purée them with the sauce. Once you find your personal favorite recipe, you will like it much better than store-bought versions.

All this being said, I have found TWO commercial barbecue sauces that I am happy to recommend—

LILLIE’S WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA BARBECUE SAUCE, which is available at Wegmans or online; and OLE RUDY’S SPICY BARBECUE SAUCE, available online* or, most delightfully, in person at the actual Rudy’s roadside barbecue joint on (I'm not making this up) Bucksnort Road in Jackson, Georgia, right by the Flying J truck stop at exit 201 on I-75. (*Their website is no longer live, but the “original”— not the “spicy”— is available on Spotify. Not to be confused with “Rudy’s BBQ” or “Old Ray’s BBQ.”)

LILLIE’S WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA BARBECUE SAUCE is what I would describe as a lighter style of BBQ sauce, made delightfully zingy and perky with the addition of tamarind and lime juice. I test-drove it with deli-sliced smoked turkey and gave it an A+. I also mixed it with some of my pulled pork to great effect for a recent neighborhood gathering. OLE RUDY’S SPICY BARBECUE SAUCE, meanwhile, is a darker and heftier style that seems like a perfect finishing touch for ribs or brisket, sticky enough to hold in place for a final caramelization under a broiler.

* * * * * * *

I will continue to seek acceptable versions of commercial barbecue sauce and share my findings. Meanwhile, I encourage everyone to join me in tinkering with homemade versions, for which the aforementioned LILLIE’S and OLE RUDY’S provide excellent role models.

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