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No matter what style of barbecue you are cooking, chances are you want to have a barbecue sauce (at least on the side) that complements and elevates that great meat flavor even more. The use of barbecue sauce when outdoor cooking meat dates back to as early as the end of the 15th century when Christopher Columbus brought a primitive sauce back from Hispaniola that was used for cooking Alpaca meat.

The variety and number of options now available in store-bought barbecue sauce are enough to make your head spin. There are definitely some great ones available. But, if you are spending time learning how to cook like a champion pitmaster, why not elevate your sauce game too by making a homemade barbecue sauce. 

Learning how to make barbecue sauce from scratch like a pro is actually easier than you may think. Plus, the most fun part is putting your own twist on the sauce, experimenting, and determining what flavor profile you like the best. 

In this article, we’ll break down some necessary background info you need to know first. We’ll also give you a good starting point for making a barbecue sauce that you’ll be proud to show off.


Pair Your Barbecue Sauce & Your Meat 

If you are not sure where to start when it comes to how to make barbecue sauce, a good jumping-off point is to consider what type of meat you’ll be pairing it with. 

Some flavor profiles pair better with certain types of meat. Remember, you want the flavors in your sauce to complement and enhance the meat. Not overpower or fight against it.

  • Savory Sauces - Sauces that have a more savory flavor profile tend to pair well with beef and other richer cuts of meat (especially beef brisket and other cowboy cuts).
  • Sweet Sauces - Barbecue sauces that have a sweeter profile pair well with pork (especially baby back and St. Louis ribs).
  • Tangy Sauces - If you like a tangy taste to your sauce, smoked pork (especially pulled pork) and beef (especially beef brisket) are both good pairings.

If you are grilling or smoking chicken, you can pair several different types of barbecue sauce depending on your taste preferences. Many people enjoy lighter, vinegar-based sauces with chicken. If you want to try a more unique sauce that pair deliciously with chicken, a mayo-based white sauce (like the Alabama White Sauce made famous at Big Bob Gibson’s in Northern Alabama) is a great option as well. 


Traditional Flavor Profiles Of Barbecue Sauce

flavor profiles of barbecue sauce | how to make barbecue sauce | BBQ sauceSource: The Daily Meal


When you are planning out what will go in your barbecue sauce, it is important to utilize several flavor profiles that balance and enhance each other to create a harmonious overall flavor. Of course, some sauces will lean heavier towards one flavor profile but will still have enough of other flavors to balance it. 

The traditional flavor profiles found in barbecue sauce include:

  • Sweet - Most often, sweetness in barbecue sauce comes from brown sugar. But, some other great alternatives or supplements include blackstrap molasses, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, sorghum, or even sodas.
  • Salty - You definitely don’t want your barbecue sauce to be overly salty, but salt enhances other flavors, like sweet, and balances others, like spiciness and bitterness. Kosher salt is a usual favorite. But, other options include Worcestershire, soy sauce, smoked salt, celery salt, onion salt, tamari, or even anchovy paste.
  • Sour/Tangy - Tangy or sour flavors balance perfectly with both salty and sweet flavors. Tangy starts with the acid component in tomato, which is the base for many barbecue sauces. But tangy and sour flavors can be boosted by using different types of vinegar, lemon, grapefruit juice, mustard, pickle juice, tamarind paste (which also adds a touch of sweetness), or even beer.
  • Spicy - Every good barbecue sauce needs at least a little bit of spiciness to balance any sweetness. An easy way to add a little bit of spiciness is with black pepper. You can amplify spiciness by using things like hot sauce, chili powder (like chipotle, cayenne, or ancho), fresh dried chilies, fresh chopped peppers in adobo sauce, pepper jellies, or even Habanero rib candy glazes.


Focus On The Base First

Now that you understand how the flavor profiles play a factor in a well-balanced sauce, it’s time to focus on the base of your sauce first. Your base will help guide you in what and how much to add from the other flavor profiles. Most barbecue sauces start with a tomato base in some form. As we mentioned above, tomato is going to put you at a starting point of a tangy flavor. 

Some popular choices for a tomato base include ketchup, tomato-based chili sauce, tomato sauce, tomato paste, and pureed tomato. Ketchup is a popular choice for a base because it already has some spices built-in, as well as high sugar content which helps achieve a nice sticky glaze on your meat when it is cooked.

Of course, there are some regional style variations when it comes to barbecue sauce and your base may not be tomato at all. If you’re going for a traditional Carolina style sauce, you’ll start with a vinegar or mustard base. Or, as mentioned above, the Northern Alabama style sauce will start with a mayonnaise base.

Whether you are starting with a tomato, vinegar, mustard, or mayonnaise base, focus on your base’s flavor profile first and build out from there to complement it.


Get Creative With Flavor Boosters, Herbs, & Spices

barbecue sauce ingredients | barbecue sauce | how to make barbecue sauceSource: Cooking Channel


One of the best parts about making barbecue sauce from scratch is that once you’ve combined the basic ingredients you have the opportunity to flex your culinary creativity. Those basic ingredients will get you started on hitting the essential flavor profiles. You can elevate and expand on flavors by using flavor boosters, herbs, and signature spices.

  • Experiment with even more creative ways to add sweetness by using fruit. You can add guava paste as part of your base, use fresh blueberries or blackberries, or even add a little bit of fruit jelly/preserves.
  • To add extra texture and depth you can opt to add in some aromatics. Things like minced garlic, chopped onions, diced jalapenos, or diced bell pepper are good examples.
  • Some herbs can help enhance a delicious savory flavor. Examples that work well in barbecue sauce include dried rosemary, thyme, basil, sage, bay leaf, cilantro, mint, and parsley.
  • Getting creative with additional spices is an easy way to boost the existing flavor profiles in the base. Depending on how sweet of a sauce you want, or the meat you are cooking, you can use things like cinnamon, nutmeg, Allspice, cardamom, and ginger to add sweetness. While things like paprika, coriander, cumin, and curry powder can be used to achieve a savory flavor.
  • All barbecue sauces need some type of liquid to provide a smooth texture. This is an opportunity to get creative as well. Different kinds of beer are an easy way to enhance tangy and savory flavors. Bourbon and even red wine are other options. Root beer and colas are a way to enhance a little sweetness. Brewed coffee can even add delicious bitterness. Even a little bit of bacon drippings can add a robust savory flavor.


A Starting Point For How To Make Barbecue Sauce

Now you have the knowledge of flavor profiles and how to build on the different flavors to create a great barbecue sauce. But, you may still be wondering exactly where to start once you’ve decided on a base. 

This recipe below from Char-Broil is a simple, traditional tomato-based sauce that can give you a starting point. It touches on all of the traditional flavor profiles to give you a well-balanced overall flavor. From this recipe, you can modify it, add in different things, and get creative until you’ve made your own signature sauce built around your flavor preferences. 

Makes 1 1/2 cups


  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black ground pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried minced onion
  • 1 teaspoon BBQ rub or 3/4 teaspoon chili powder


Mix all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a slow boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Allow sauce to cool before serving. Store refrigerated for up to 1 month.


How To Correct Homemade Barbecue Sauce

homemade BBQ sauce | barbecue sauce | how to make barbecue sauce


So you’ve been mixing up your barbecue sauce and maybe now it tastes too salty, too sweet, or even too spicy. Don’t worry, you don’t have to throw the sauce out and start over. There are easy ways to correct it and still end up with a great tasting sauce.

  • Too Salty - If you find, after mixing your ingredients, that your sauce is too salty then you have a couple of options. One is you can simply double the batch while leaving out any of the salty ingredients you have already used. Or, lemon juice or brown sugar can be used to tone down an over salty sauce.
  • Too Sweet - If your sauce is tasting too sweet DO NOT add salt. Remember from earlier in this article, salt enhances sweet flavors. To cut down on the sweetness you can add a little bit of vinegar or lemon juice. Another option is to add more of the base and sour ingredients.
  • Too Spicy - If your sauce has too much of a kick you also have a couple of options here. One is to add a little bit more of a sweetener plus an acidic ingredient to tone the spiciness down. For example, brown sugar with vinegar. But just add a little at a time and taste as you go. Your other option is to increase the amount of all of the other ingredients (except the spicy ones of course).


Wrapping It All Up

As you can see, there’s more to making barbecue sauce like a pro than just throwing a bunch of ingredients together. It is important to understand the different flavor profiles, how they complement and enhance each other, and how they pair with different meats.

Learning how to make barbecue sauce can be just as fun as actually cooking the meat. It is also a time where you can show off your culinary creativity. There are many options for ingredients to use to end up with your own signature barbecue sauce that you’ll be proud to share with friends and family.

For tips on how and when to use your homemade barbecue sauce when you are doing your outdoor cooking, check out our other great article here.

This insider information and tips like we’ve covered above are the type of barbecue insight you’ll get from the award-winning pitmasters and grillmasters here at BBQ Champs Academy. You’ll learn step-by-step outdoor cooking techniques alongside insider secrets, all in stunning high-def 4K video. Check out our All-Access pass to get the full inside look.

When meat is cooked properly, you can often turn out a great-tasting flavor that speaks for itself. But sometimes you might want to add a little bit extra flavor to kick it up a notch. 

With so many different options available to impart that flavor, from rubs to barbecue sauces to rib glazes, it’s easy to become a little overwhelmed with exactly how and when to use them. The key to flavor-infused meat is the careful application of rubs and sauces at the right time so that it doesn’t overpower the smoke and natural meat flavor.

In this article, we’ll break down some tips straight from champion pitmasters to help get the best results from using rubs, barbecue sauce, and glazes.


The Right Way To Rub

Sometimes, depending on what type of meat you are cooking, as well as your preferred tastes, a barbecue rub is a great way to impart additional flavor. Especially, for example, if you are a Memphis-style barbecue purist and like your ribs with a great dry rub. Or those Central Texas barbecue brisket fans will tell you all you need is a rub of salt and pepper and let the meat speak for itself.


barbecue rub | how to use barbecue rubs | how to use rubs | bbq rubsSource: IHeartRecipes


Whether you are going with a pre-made rub, like, for example, the “What’s Your Beef” BBQ rub from our pitmaster Sterling Smith’s own Loot N' Booty BBQ or making your own rub, there are some dos and don’ts to follow to ensure you are enhancing the flavor.

Here are some rub specific tips:

  • When making your own rub, the usual three core ingredients are salt, pepper, and garlic (SPG). But don’t be afraid to get creative in adding additional elements for heat and flavor. Other great ingredients can include things like coffee grounds, smoked red pepper, or ground dried apples. Make note of what you are creating. If you find that you love the combination you made, make extra next time and store it in an airtight container. Rubs can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for months.
  • If you are making a homemade rub, you can really amplify the flavors by buying the spices whole and toasting them in the oven or dry skillet. Then grind the toasted spices right before using them with a heavy pot or spice grinder.
  • Rubs should be applied 30 minutes or more before cooking. At 30 minutes before cooking, you can get a good, flavorful crust. Some pitmasters and grillmasters let their meat sit longer with the rub before cooking to get a more intense flavor. Just keep in mind, if the rub is salt-based, there is a chance of it drying the meat out if you let the meat sit refrigerated overnight.
  • It is important to show restraint when it comes to how much rub to use. Of course, every cut of meat will require a different amount. But a good rule of thumb is to start applying it slowly and stop when it looks evenly covered. You want to avoid pouring on too much to where it is falling off.
  • Even though it is called a rub, you want to gently apply the rub by sprinkling it onto the meat and not actually rubbing it on. You don’t want to damage the delicate surface of the protein.
  • One way to help the rub stick to the meat is to add a moist base for it to stick to first. This would then technically make your rub a wet rub. This can be done by slathering a light coat of olive oil, Worcestershire, or even yellow mustard (don’t worry, this won’t make the meat taste like mustard) onto the meat first. Then apply your rub.
  • Keep an eye on your meat if your rub contains sugar. Sugars start to burn at 275 degrees Fahrenheit so be careful to make sure your rub doesn’t start to burn and impart a not so great tasting carbon flavor.


Using Barbecue Sauce For Added Flavor

Many people love a good barbecue sauce on the meat. But, to cook the meat properly with a sauce that flavors, and more importantly, compliments it beautifully takes some strategy and restraint. Whether you are smoking or grilling, to do it right, there’s a lot more to it than just slathering on the sauce and cooking. 


barbecue sauce | how to use barbecue sauce | how to use BBQ sauce


Here are some tips specific to barbecue sauce:

  • When to apply barbecue sauce comes down to science, time and temperatures you are cooking at, personal preference, and regional style. (For example, Kansas City ribs are cooked with a dry rub and sauce on the side, while St. Louis rib are slathered with a sauce towards the end of grilling) Usually, if you are going to use a barbecue sauce it should be applied towards the end of the cook. Often during the last 10-30 minutes depending on the meat, but no more than 30 minutes. Many barbecue sauces contain sugar, which we mentioned above starts to burn at high temperatures. You want to use it just long enough to heat it and bake it onto the meat, allowing it to caramelize, without burning it.
  • Show restraint when it comes to how much sauce you are using. You don’t want to overdo it and risk the sauce burning. Usually, no more than two even coats is sufficient. For example, for ribs, a good rule of thumb is 3/4 cup of sauce for both sides of a full slab of spareribs with the tips still on, a slab of St. Louis cut ribs will need 1/2 cup, and a slab of baby back ribs will need 1/3 cup.
  • Use a small sauce brush or sauce mop to apply the sauce evenly. Make sure not to use too much pressure when applying the sauce to not damage the delicate outer layer of the meat.
  • If you can, warm the barbecue sauce a little bit before applying it to your meat. One of the most important things in cooking great meat is maintaining steady temperatures. So you don’t want to put 40-degree sauce out of the refrigerator directly onto your 200-degree ribs.
  • Usually, you’ll want to serve a side of barbecue sauce with your meat when it is finished. So keep cross-contamination in mind. You don’t want to serve the remaining sauce from the bowl you used to baste your meat with while cooking. Even if the meat is cooked when you are basting, uncooked meat juices can end up on your mop or brush and back into the sauce. So it is always safest to serve a side of fresh barbecue sauce at the table.


Mops & Glazes Are Great Ways To Add Flavor Too

Mops and glazes are also great options when it comes to adding a little more flavor to your meat. If you’re fairly new to outdoor cooking, these are things you may not have even heard of.


mop sauce | how to use barbecue mop sauce | how to use BBQ mop sauceSource: Jess Pryles


A mop sauce is great for flavoring tougher cuts of meat that you are going to be cooking for long periods. These sauces are thinner than barbecue sauces and often made from vinegar, apple cider, or even beer. Mop sauces can be basted onto the meat every 20 minutes or so with a sauce mop or small brush to impart flavor throughout the cooking process. 

Barbecue glazes are another great option for adding a little extra flavor. Compared to barbecue sauce and rubs, glazes are a more recent addition to the outdoor cooking scene. Often found in varieties known as Pepper Jellies and Rib Candy, like the ones from Craig’s Texas Pepper Jelly company, these are great ways to add a mix of sweet and spicy flavors. 

Glazes, similar to mop sauces, work well being applied throughout the cooking process to impart additional flavor.


Wrapping It All Up

As you can see, there are a lot of options when it comes to adding a little extra flavor to your meat when cooking outdoors. Some pitmasters will argue their preferences in what to use for certain meats, but that’s what makes it fun. Don’t be afraid to experiment with using different things and discover your favorites.

Just make sure to use restraint and some of the strategies above and you’ll end up with great flavors that don’t overpower the meat.

Do you have a favorite type of barbecue sauce or rub for certain types of meat? Have you discovered some other helpful types when it comes to flavoring barbecue? Leave a comment below and let us know. We want to hear from you!

These insider tips like we covered above are the types of things you’ll learn from our Champion Pitmasters and Grillmasters in the online barbecue cooking classes here at BBQ Champs Academy. You’ll learn how to consistently cook contest-worthy barbecue in high-definition video step by step and have fun doing it. Check out our All-Access pass to get the full inside look.

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