This Easy BBQ Sauce Recipe Will Upgrade Your Next Cookout

Calling all summer grilling lovers.

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

Making the perfect BBQ sauce is a science, an art, and an eternal competition in some parts of the country. However, making a pretty damn good BBQ sauce is surprisingly easy, and is absolutely worth the (minimal) effort.

In the pantheon of easy things you can do to look like a cookout pro, homemade BBQ sauce is at the top of the list. It's one of those things that looks and sounds impressive, but is remarkably effortless. Chances are, you already have most of the ingredients laying around the kitchen, and you won't even break a sweat putting it all together.

Here's how to make your own BBQ sauce. 

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 adding fluids to it until it’s thin enough. The other method involves taking something thin and cooking it to minimize the water until it’s thick enough to call a sauce. For simplicity's sake, opt for method two. 

Now that we've got that sorted, it's time to think about how you want your 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 of when they think barbecue. 

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 half 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 a quarter 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 half a 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. Start with about half 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. This will make up about a quarter of your core ingredients.

6. The spice mix. This can get very complicated, and includes elements like allspice, onion powder, garlic powder, multiple 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 half a 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.

Consider this blueprint to DIY BBQ sauce. Once you've mastered it, experiment with different ingredients until you find your signature version. For instance, you can do combinations, like using marmalade and brown sugar for your sweet and a mix of vinegar and lemon juice for your tang. When you find a winner, make an extra batch to keep in the fridge in case your next experiment goes awry. 

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Making a Last-Minute 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.

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

For tangy, use a combination of balsamic vinegar and yellow mustard, one-eighth cup of each. Pour them into the saucepan.

For tomato, grab that ketchup in the door of your fridge. Give the pot a quarter 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 spicy, keep it simple. Give it four good shakes of salt and four good shakes of Tabasco, Valentina, Sriracha, or whatever hot sauce you have. 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 it can be a serious help for beginners.) 

Put it all into a saucepan, on medium heat, and stir it with a whisk until it’s smooth, brown, and delicious. Cook until it starts to boil, whisking it continuously. Once it’s boiling, turn the heat to low and let it reduce.

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

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