Basic BBQ Sauce

I have been going around in circles about BBQ sauce for some time now. I like BBQ sauce.

There is a credible group of enthusiasts who make the argument that good meat needs no BBQ sauce. They are right. But I would say that very few meats make it to the level of transcendentalism where this is truly an issue. You can name the joints on one hand in this state, I suppose, perhaps two, where you might actually have some guilt over using BBQ sauce on such fine fare.

But, here is the dirty truth. I like my BBQ slathered up in sauce. I am a little more discerning now. I actually judge the meat and appreciate it before diving in for the sauce. I now even “dip” brisket or sausage into sauce instead of pouring sauce all over it. But still, I like BBQ sauce. I like dipping buttered Texas Toast into sauce. I like cleaning up my saucy plate with bread or that last bite of BBQ. I’m not ashamed.

But BBQ folk are a serious bunch of opinionated people and they like to argue and compare and beat each other about the head regarding the “rights” and “wrongs” of the enterprise and that is before you get into the regional feuds…all in good, tasty fun, or course. So my apologies if my version of BBQ sauce violates any cardinal rules of which I am unaware, or outs me as a classless BBQ poser or sauce floozy.

My passion for good BBQ sauce probably goes back to Callaway’s BBQ in downtown Wichita Falls. Clarence served a lunch crowd in a long skinny little joint where patrons lined up down the left side wall.  There was room for maybe 8 double tables in there, and everyone else bought it to go. The serving line was perhaps 10 or 12 feet across before the cash register (are you envisioning the requisite tree of Dum Dum lollipops?) And then there is the sound. WhapWhapWhap! WhapWhapWhap! That, of course is the sound of brisket being turned into chopped brisket for sandwiches. As I sit here typing, I can smell Callaway’s, I can open the door, I can see the trays, and I can see Clarence standing there taking orders and serving BBQ. Yellow potato salad, Texas Toast, Brisket, and seriously dark maroon, sweet, spicy sauce. I can taste it right this minute. I loved that sauce. It could have come out of a bottle. I don’t know and I don’t care. I loved it like mad.

Imagine my joy decades later to discover a recipe card that my Grandpa Virgil had of his own recipe for BBQ sauce. One of my aunts submitted it for our family cookbook. I couldn’t wait to monkey around with it and see what he thought was perfect sauce. Of course, it contained an entire can of Budweiser. There was a laundry list of spices. It was good, but the sentimental nature of using one of his recipes clouded my brain for a few years.

At some point, I started getting a little more methodical about my BBQ and tried to learn a bit about what made good meat, instead of just being the sides and dessert lady. I started playing with my Grandad’s recipe and finding that each time I was ditching an ingredient or two. The beer had to go, but not for any philosophical reason. It just made things too watery. I stopped using the diced tomatoes for the same reason. Then one fateful day, I sautéed my onions and made my sauce just as close to my Papaw’s recipe as I could, and I had an epiphany. It was: That batch of sauce tasted like crap.

Being me, I needed to know what in the heck had happened so I started working backwards. The problem was, there was so much STUFF in the sauce that my brain couldn’t suss out the offender easily. I think many cooks spend a lot of time thinking that the longer the list of ingredients, the better something must be. And I’m here to tell you, I am reborn. Generally. But, specifically with my sauce.

I did finally figure out where that batch had gone wrong. It turns out that I am very sensitive to the flavor of cooked canola (rapeseed) oil. It tastes fishy to me. I have suspected this as an “off flavor” culprit in other dishes and now I know it to be true. Some people are just wired that way. I think it is probably the same gene that makes me dislike cilantro, try as I might to enjoy it.

But, to make a long story even longer, figuring out the canola oil issue made me go back to the most fundamental stages of making BBQ Sauce. What does it need and what is just interesting taste decoration?

Here is my answer, and yours might be completely different: the necessary components are tomato sauce, brown sugar, white vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce.

This is my foundation. Beyond that, I found that I could modify in any direction that I wanted. I could make it sweeter, or less sweet by adjusting the sugar. I could make it a little more tart by tweaking the vinegar. But basically, those ingredients stayed in place. Now here is the fun part. YOU CAN NOW DO WHATEVER YOU WANT!!

I added chile powder, black pepper and Tabasco sauce to this base and I’m pretty much thrilled. You can start by cooking chopped onions to add some depth to the sauce. You can go in a spicy direction by using cinnamon or cloves. You can add dried mustard. You can add a little zing of lemon juice. You can try Chinese Five Spice powder and a little shot of pineapple juice. You can absolutely do whatever you like.

Also, Robb Walsh, in his wonderful book Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, suggests that many pitmasters will add brisket drippings to their sauce for that extra bit of greatness. But he also notes that it renders the sauce un-store-able. However, the next time I smoke a brisket, I’ll be adding the carving drippings to my sauce.

There are people who have spent a great deal of time developing sauces that are more entertaining than this, I assure you. I in no way want to demean the art form. Many will consider this formula overwrought ketchup.

I’ve just found that for me, simple is better. I like the texture and the flavor and it works with just about anything. What’s more, I will never again find myself without BBQ sauce, because I always have these four ingredients on hand…always. But, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a last minute trip to the store to find BBQ Sauce. Now I feel a little silly.

So, here is MY version of this very basic sauce. Remember, you can omit any of the ingredients save the first four and go in whatever direction you want to go. And you may also exhibit some effort and sauté the onions first. This recipe makes 1-1/2 to 2 cups of sauce.

Basic BBQ Sauce
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 2 cups yield
Basic Sauce
  • 1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce
  • ½ cup distilled white vinegar
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
My Add-Ins
  • 1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
  • ¼ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  1. Combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken. If you desire a thicker sauce, at this time you can stir in a cornstarch slurry (1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed into just enough cold water) and simmer for an additional three minutes. Serve warm.


Here is a better history of BBQ sauces than I could ever come up with. Meathead Goldwyn (aka has a website full of such nuggets of information.

That’s it. Now, let’s hear it. What is your favorite sauce? What are your favorite secret ingredients? Do you buy bottled or make your own?


  1. Juli Taylor Bedgood says

    Kelly, I have used the sauce from M.F.’s beans recipe for my BBQ sauce too. A bit thicker, but such a wonderful flavor. I just immersion blend everything, including the bacon. I also sauté the onions. I too miss Callaway’s. Daddy used to take us down there for lunch on quite often when Mama wanted to get us out of her hair.

  2. Kelly says

    Juli, that is a great idea. That is just a basic BBQ sauce too. Plus, then you have sauce for beans and the BBQ. One of the things I always loved about Callaway’s was the really saucy BBQ beans (as opposed to pinto beans). I think that I can thank Callaway’s for getting this 10 year old to finally start eating her beans…just going to show that if you cover something in enough brown sugar, I’ll eat it.

  3. Kimi says

    Wow! Great post, Kelly. I always make my own sauce for ribs and barbecue at home. Everyone raves about it, but its always a bit different because I start from scratch and just go with flavors that appeal to me at the time. I’m so glad that you mentioned Callaway’s! Not only do I fondly remember the hundreds of meals shared with my parents there in the shop, but even now – out here in the desert – I crave his fare.

    A favorite Tucson deli makes a special sandwich for me when I’m in the mood: Turkey breast, shaved lettuce, a hint of mayo, pickle and barbecue sauce on white. We call it The Callaway.

    Thank you for reminding me that I owe the deli a visit!

  4. Kelly says

    Kimi…that sounds like a killer sandwich. Callaway’s had amazing turkey! My parents used to get big trays of the turkey and brisket to take on ski trips. We would eat little else for 5 days. I loved going for lunch downtown because it always seemed like a privilege to be with the lunch crowd on a weekday…probably because I only got to do it on “hooky days” like doctor appointments or like. My dad’s office was right up the hill on Burnett and getting to actually GO to Callaway’s as a kid was always a special treat.

  5. susan marie says

    I love a thinner, tangy, peppery sauce. My husband is the self-appointed barbecuer and sauce maker at our house. He starts with a commercial sauce, usually Stubbs, and doctors it up. I’ll buy both the regular and the spicy, and he’ll mix the two together. Honestly, it never comes out the same way twice – he just starts throwing stuff in there. Mustard, apple cider vinegar, fresh lemon juice, black pepper, garlic powder, maybe some sugar if it needs a touch of sweetness, and a splash of Maker’s Mark to smooth all the rough edges. One ingredient both of us don’t care for much in our sauce is Worcestershire, so we stay away from sauces that have that as a pronounced flavor.

    The only meat I like with the sauce cooked on is chicken. Otherwise, leave it off, and dunk it when you eat it! And now you have me seriously craving some brisket!!

  6. says

    Love this post! Many years ago I ran out of barbecue sauce and I had about 5 men waiting on supper. I made my own and turned it into a thriving barbecue sauce business. It was the most fun in business I’ve ever had. I miss it and may have to return to it one of these days!

  7. Courtney says

    BBQ sauce is one of those things I know I should be making, but usually end up buying bottled sauce. I am so excited to try your recipe. (Same thing with the taco seasoning!)

  8. Jon Taylor says


    I really liked the dark sauce at Callaways, but one time Clarence convinced me to try the light sauce. It was delicious and the sauce that I ordered from then on out. I think it may have been a mustard based sauce but I can’t remember for sure. However, my very favorite sauce is the very watery but very delicious sauce from Prines. It is so unique but so complementary to the meat. I wish I knew how they made it.

  9. Kelly says

    Hi Jon. It made me smile to see your name pop up on here. I never ever tried the mustard based sauce and now I’m feeling a wee bit sorry for myself. Nor do I know of the great Prine’s sauce. My WF BBQ bona fides are not in order at all.

  10. says

    I like sauce too, even if the meat is perfect. I always take the first few bites wihtout sauce to enjoy the meat au naturel, then start dipping into sauce because I LOVE the combination. Same with a great steak. Eat the first few bites without, then start dipping into some sauce (how can you not like bernaise!).

    Jardines Killer is my favorite sauce. Spicy, not too sweet. Yumm!

  11. Amy Schweinle says

    I like simple, too, but will also finish “cooking” the sauce in the smoker if it is already running. It gets just a touch smoky without having to add liquid smoke.

  12. Greg Oldham says

    I like your basic sauce idea and ingredients. Would you or any other posters have any ideas for a basic sugar free recipe? I know it sounds like no fun at all, but we have a diabetic in the family and I’m determined to come up with a decent tasting homemade sauce either using no sweeteners, or possibly stevia. I’ve found a couple of commercial brands online but am not thrilled with the artificial sweeteners they contain. Thanks!

  13. Kelly says

    I’m seeing a lot of recipes that use a little bit of molasses instead of a ton of sugar (mine does have a ton of sugar) and I even came across a recipe that used a diet coke as the sugar component and then cooked it down into the sauce. That intrigues me more than I think it is a good idea, if you know what I mean. I ran across this thread awhile ago and it contains 2 recipes from people cooking for diabetics. I know NOTHING about the rights and wrongs of blood sugar issues though, so make sure you check them out thoroughly before you try them. I wish I could be of more help. My mom is a dyed in the wool low carb gal and she would probably appreciate having a good no sugar version, too. So, if you come up with something please let me know. Sorry it took me so long to respond, Greg, but I had to think a little bit on this one before saying “I don’t know.” I wish I could be more helpful and I hope someone else will weigh in, as well.

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