Check your calendar. The Fourth of July is literally around the corner. And aside from acknowledging the obvious patriotic sentiments, this is also a time when we gather with friends and family to fire up the grill and slap some sauce on the meat.
I love grilling. And I don’t like to relinquish the duty to anyone else. I am the grill meister. Whatever that means. And during the Fourth holiday, I’m expecting friends from out of state as well as those who live nearby. Some serious grilling is going to take place. And with that in mind, I thought I’d test out three different BBQ sauces. Chances are, you’re probably going to grill, too, and maybe you’re in a rut with the same ole same ole sauce. But picking up a new one is a bit risky. Check out what I checked out.
I tested Emeril’s Kicked up BAM! B-Q Barbecue Sauce, Stubb’s new Sweet Heat Bar-B-Q-Sauce and Food Network’s spike-haired darling, Guy Fieri’s Kansas City Smokey & Sweet Barbeque Sauce. (Look, I know it’s spelled “smoky,” and so do you. But it seems that Guy’s copy writers don’t care. And I’m also getting dizzy with all of the barbecue/barbeque/bbq/bar-b-q permutations.)
I tried the sauces on skinless, bone-in chicken thighs, but to be fair and let the sauces shine, or not, I didn’t season the chicken beyond a light brushing of canola oil to make sure they didn’t stick to the grill.
Pitifully naked chicken thighs awaiting a bit of sauce and grill marks.
The revelation in this test came after a couple of us tasted the sauces from the jar. I’ll tell you right now that I hated one of them. It was a one-note Johnny that tasted of strong smoke followed by more smoke. Double yawn. And the favorite from the bottle popped with sweet and smoky notes with a hint of black pepper heat. Put a straw in that bottle, suck it up and call yourself happy. The third sauce from the jar offered up an assertive jolt of heat with an elusive, complex spice that grabbed our attention.
OK, for the actual revelation part: The sauces were dramatically altered once they were brushed on the meat and sat on the grill for a few minutes. And we did a complete reversal as to which sauce was our favorite and, well, which wasn’t. Here are the results.
Emeril’s Kicked Up BAM! B-Q Barbecue Sauce, about $4 for a 18-ounce bottle at most grocery stores.
First look: Emeril’s sauce comes in a tall, thin plastic bottle with the chef’s smiling mug on the front. The label boasts that BAM! B-Q doesn’t contain any high fructose corn syrup. Notable ingredients include water, tomato paste, sugar, distilled vinegar, cayenne peppers, salt and liquid smoke followed by a lot of things that don’t sound appetizing, such as modified food starch, xanthan gum and hydrolyzed soy protein. These days, I’m not so fond of the letter “Z” showing up in too many of my ingredients. All three sauces were tomato-based.
Good news: Emeril’s sauce was the Cinderella of the bunch in that it went from drab to fab in one evening. Once the sauce was brushed onto the chicken and had a chance to cook for a couple minutes on each side, it ended up with a traditional smoky flavor and a good balance of sweet with a touch of heat. And, best of all, the assertive, in your-face liquid smoke flavor was totally tamed and had mellowed.
Bad news: Because it’s a harsh sauce from the bottle, Emeril’s makes a terrible dipping sauce.
Last words: This sauce needs to hit the flames in order to win you over.
Stubb’s Sweet Heat Bar-B-Q Sauce, about $3.79 at most grocery stores.
First look: Stubb’s comes in a chubby glass bottle with a drawing of its creator, C.B.Stubblefield (Stubb), on the label. Stubb, a military veteran who was decorated with a Purple Heart and the Oak Leaf Cluster, started feeding his Army colleagues barbecue when he transformed the mess hall into a barbecue joint. Today, he turns out a slew of sauces along with a reformulated line of rubs and injectable marinades.
Ingredients in Sweet Heat sauce include water, tomato paste, apple cider vinegar, molasses, sugar, brown sugar, chipotle purée, red chili flakes, spices, onion powder, garlic and corn starch. Stubb’s is gluten free.
Good news: I appreciate the natural ingredients, and my friends who don’t consume gluten are happy, too. This sauce offers a good blend of sugar and spice, with a nice kick from the chipotle. It’s not a cloyingly sweet sauce at all. The flavors mellow out a bit when the sauce is cooked on the meat, but the peppers don’t go into hiding. Heat it up and it makes a fine dipping sauce.
Bad news: It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this sauce tasted less smoky than the two others, with an elusive sweet spice we couldn’t place, giving it a non-traditional twist that might make some purists balk.
Last words: If you appreciate a little fire in your sauce, Stubb’s should do nicely.
Guy Fieri Kansas City Smokey & Sweet Barbecue Sauce, about $4.50 for a 19-ounce bottle.
First look: This dark sauce comes in a glass bottle complete with flames and Guy Fieri’s spiked hair image on the label. Ingredients include tomato puree, sugar, vinegar, molasses, cornstarch, salt, smoke flavoring, Worcestershire sauce and anchovy puree.
Good news: This was the straw-sucking good from the bottle sauce. It’s speckled with plenty of black pepper you can taste and it offers a smoky sweet finish. Although Fieri comes off as an edgy, uber cool, out-there personality, this sauce was the most traditional in flavor and a good go-to dipping sauce when you want to play it safe.
Bad news: Once the sauce was cooked on the meat, it wimped out and the flavors that were so prominent from the bottle pretty much disappeared.
Last words: Good dipping sauce but the flavor goes up in flames on the grill.
Having said all of that…
Check back tomorrow and I’ll show you what I’ve been conjuring up for decades as my barbecue sauce. You can easily make it, too. And if you have a favorite sauce, bottled or not, let me know.