Making Your Own BBQ Sauce Is a Game Changer. Here's How to Do It.

Grilled and smoked ribs with barbeque sauce on a carving board
Elena Veselova/Shutterstock

Making perfect barbecue sauce is a science, an art, and an eternal competition in some parts of the country. It can be all-consuming. But making a pretty damn good BBQ sauce is surprisingly easy. And absolutely worth the (minimal) effort.

In the pantheon of easy things you can do to look like a cookout pro while flexing amateur muscles, homemade BBQ sauce is king. It's one of those things that looks and sounds impressive, but is remarkably easy. Chances are, you have most of the ingredients laying around the kitchen already. The alchemy can be largely reduced to guesswork. And yet the rewards are seemingly endless. You’ll get a lot of credit for mixing some stuff together in a pan and stirring it for a while. You'll automatically elevate your cookout prowess in the minds of all guests. You'll eventually become so confident in your minimalist cheffing that you'll probably dub it your "famous" sauce. And you won't even break a sweat.

That's a lot of payoff for little effort. Here's how to do it.

Basting brush
Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock

First, the basics of BBQ sauce

You can make pretty much any sauce (barbecue or otherwise) using one of two methods. Method one involves taking something thick -- like a premade powder or the burnt stuff at the bottom of the pan -- and add fluids to it until it’s thin enough. The other method involves taking something thin and cooking it to reduce out the water until it’s thick enough to call a sauce.

You can, technically make barbecue sauce using method one, but if you do that the barbecue police will come to your house and beat you with Texas and Louisiana state flags. Don’t do that. Use method two.

Now that we've got that sorted, it's time to think about how you want your soon-to-be-famous sauce to taste.  Keep in mind this is for a classic red barbecue sauce. If you want to get fancy, there are other options, but we’ll start here. It’s what most people think when they think “barbecue.” (You can make your own mustardy Carolina-style sauce pretty easily with a modified version of this advice as well, though if you're craving Alabama-style white sauce, you might want to be less improvisational.)

A solid barbecue sauce is made up of six parts.

1. Something sweet. This can be honey, cola, molasses, preserves, brown sugar, or syrup. This caramelizes as you cook, brining those smoky, sugary flavors. This will make up about 1/2 of your core ingredients, depending on what you use.

2. Something tangy. Think vinegar, mustard, citrus, or citrus preserves. This is what brings the zing to your sauce, and makes up about 1/4 of your core ingredients.

3. Something spicy. This is your heat: a hot sauce of your choosing and liking. Choose with care, and don’t be afraid to put in a little more than you’re used to. Aim for about 1/2 teaspoon for every cup of sauce you’re making.

4. Something wet. It can be beer, water, chicken stock, or even wine. This helps everything cook evenly and stay at the right consistency. If you're using something sweet like root beer or cola, this can also be your "something sweet." You might want to keep some nearby in case the sauce thickens up too much during cooking (or you get thirsty). Start with about 1/2 a cup and see what happens.

5. Tomatoes. You’ll probably use ketchup, but tomato paste works too. Tomato is a core ingredient for most barbecue sauces. You could make some without, but then you’re really just making sauce (or you're from Alabama). This will make up about 1/4 of your core ingredients.

6. The spice mix. This can get very complicated, and includes elements like allspice, onion powder, garlic powder, umpteen kinds of chili powder, bay leaves, old bay, oregano, cayenne pepper, mustard powder, liquid smoke, cumin, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce… but it’s best to start simple. Throw in about a teaspoon of salt, and keep tasting from time to time.

One last thing: While it’s cooking, keep about 1/2 cup of brown sugar and your salt shaker nearby. Taste-test every 10 minutes or so (during about an hour of cook time), and add some pinches of one or the other if it tastes off.

Got that? Really this is all you need to know. Just experiment with different options until you find your personal best, keeping an eye on your ratios. If math is hard, or you need some confidence, maybe pick up a copy of Meathead or Smoke and Spice, or even BBQ Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades for Dummies. They’ll keep your inspiration up and your choices within reason, or simply provide a baseline recipe you can tinker with.

And tinker you should. Seriously. Half the joy of cooking is creating the art yourself. You can also do combinations, using marmalade and brown sugar for your sweet and a mix of vinegar and lemon juice for your tang. Go nuts (and maybe keep a pre-bottled batch nearby, just in case you go too nuts). When you find a winner, make an extra batch to keep in the fridge in case your next experiment goes horribly awry.

Steel container full of bbq sauce next to a bbq grill
David Pruter/Shutterstock

Here's how easy it is to make your own BBQ sauce

We meant what we said about how you should experiment and play until you find your perfect barbecue sauce ingredients. But what if you’re cooking this weekend? Here’s a baseline recipe you can start with that works pretty well every time.

We’re going to assume you have a basic kitchen with the normal basic supplies in there, and walk you through this step by step. Keep in mind as you do this that sauce is not an exact science. Play by ear, make adjustments on the fly, and see what happens. Substitute ruthlessly. Give in to inspiration. It’s pretty hard to screw up.

For sweet, let’s use cola. Not diet, but you can try cherry if you have some lying around. Pour about 1/2 cup of that into a saucepan. Don’t drink the rest. We might need it later.

For tangy, we’ll use a combination of balsamic vinegar and yellow mustard, 1/8 cup of each. Pour them in the saucepan.

For tomato, grab that ketchup in the door of your fridge. Give the pot 1/4 cup. That’s nine good squeezes if you don’t feel like measuring.

We’ll skip the fluid because the cola is wet enough on its own. But keep the can nearby just in case.

For hot and spice, we’ll keep it simple. Give it four good shakes of salt, and four good shakes of Tabasco, or Valentina, or Sriracha, or whatever you have in your fridge. If you happen to have liquid smoke, pour in a tablespoon, but don’t panic if you don’t. “Real” barbecue people consider this cheating, but for beginners it can be a serious help.

Plunk it all into a sauce pan, turn it onto medium heat, and stir it with a whisk until it’s all as smooth, brown, and delicious. Cook until it starts to boil, whisking it real good pretty much constantly. Once it’s boiling, turn the heat to low and let it reduce (remember reducing?).

Stir with a spatula every couple of minutes until the stuff moves like something between maple syrup and honey. If it gets too thick too soon, pour in a little more cola, and carry on.

Then put that shit on everything. You’ll surprise your friends, and even yourself, with the miracle you have wrought. You'll never want to step foot in the grocery store's sauce aisle again... unless you need a backup to keep in the pantry, just in case you go a little too crazy with power.

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