14 Ways To Elevate Your Homemade Barbecue Sauce

A warm summer breeze tousles your hair, the hot sunshine trickles through the clouds onto your skin, and the smell of barbecue wafts all around you. There's nothing like a cookout in the summertime, ice-cold beer in hand, kids running around barefoot, and the designated grill master guarding the sizzling meat and vegetables with a spatula in hand. If you know your way around a basting brush and own an ironic grilling apron then you're probably making your own barbecue sauce from scratch at this stage. Good for you! Homemade is always better than store-bought, but as any good chef knows there is always room for improvement. That's why we've gathered together tips and tricks for elevating your homemade barbecue sauce to make those summer grill-outs even more memorable.

While you may have your own secrets to making homemade barbecue sauce, that doesn't mean you can't enhance what you already have. Use your diehard special ingredients and techniques and add a few new ones to the mix this season. If you're new to the scene, start with a simple sweet and tangy barbecue sauce recipe, and then experiment with embellishments. There's nothing like adding your own finishing touches to make your recipe unique.

Make sure it's the right consistency

There's nothing worse than tossing your wings in barbecue sauce and having it pool at the bottom of the bowl, or basting your ribs with a brush only for the bulk of the sauce to drizzle through the grates of the grill. When a barbecue sauce is too thin, it doesn't stick as easily to the surface of the protein or vegetable that it's dressing up. Unfortunately, that means that you'll lose that intensity of flavor, and perhaps even the crispness that comes with grilled or air-fried dishes. 

If you need to thicken runny barbecue sauce, just add a combination of flour and water to the mix. Use a fork or whisk to ensure the mixture (2 tablespoons of flour for every 1/4 cup of water) contains no lumps and is smooth throughout. Add the combo as your sauce simmers and continue until you've reached your desired consistency. Remember, using a thickener is a great way to elevate your homemade barbecue sauce, and help it to stick instead of drip. Lay it on thick, and let the grill do the rest.

Sweeten it the right way

Barbeque sauce should be sweet, sticky, and irresistible. While white sugar has its place in the kitchen, you'll want to keep it in the pantry for this recipe. Barbecue sauce is all about depth of flavor, and while sugar is quite sweet, it's rather flat.

Consider adding molasses for a warm, smokey caramel flavor. Use maple syrup for an earthy, woody sweetness. Or try honey for a rich and smooth distinctive taste. All of these options add layers of flavor beyond the general sweetness of sugar and contribute in a multifaceted way to the overall composition of the sauce.

Highlight the distinctive flavors by playing up on food combinations and themes. For instance, use honey in combination with chili peppers, or combine bourbon with maple syrup. If you want something sour to complement your sweet, consider a pomegranate molasses barbeque sauce recipe. Why miss out on the opportunity to add an additional dimension of flavor? And hey, throwing the words "maple" or "honey" in the name of your sauce can only make it sound extra enticing.

Flavor with fruit

Although fruit might not be the first word to come to mind when you think of barbecue sauce, its base of tomato technically falls under that category. But you also consider adding other sweeter fruit options. The added sweetness will pair flawlessly with vinegar, tomatoes, sugars, and many of the spices found in barbecue sauce. When it comes to selecting your fruit, the sweeter the better. Keep in mind that fruit contains natural colors, so it may change the aesthetic of your sauce, likely for the better.

Dark cherries, dates, and fresh berries including blueberries and blackberries can be included to elevate the flavor, depth, and visual appeal of the sauce. The natural sugars of the fruit act as a sweetener and the undertones of flavor give the composition some direction and flair. Our favorite easy barbecue sauce hack is to simply add fruit juices like pomegranate juice, or pineapple juice. Aim to add unsweetened juices made with 100% real fruit juice.

For a mild flavored whole-food sweetener, consider making date paste by blending soaked and pitted dates with warm water until smooth. Add the mixture to your sauce and enjoy a rich and balanced sweet pop of flavor, packed with fiber and nutrients. Dates have a caramel-like flavor and pair beautifully with dark alcohol, cocoa powder (we'll get there), and other fruits.

Tap into your condiment shelf

While it can feel quite satisfying to make everything from absolute scratch, it may be worth it to consider adding some sauces you already have on hand. This isn't cheating, we promise!

Ketchup is already sweet and tangy, and could be a quick way to get your creation rolling. Use it as a base, or add some into the mix while it's cooking for extra more intensity. Teriyaki sauce is a simple addition that guarantees rich, sticky barbecue sauce. It also offers a rich umami depth and a garlicky kick that will take your sauce's flavor to the next level.  The addition of soy sauce can be used in place of salt to give your sauce a savory, full flavor. 

Go one step further and add soy sauce's tangy cousin, Worcestershire to your recipe. Adorned with vinegar and spices, Worcestershire is loaded with complementary flavors and can elevate any barbecue recipe. 

Consider a different vinegar

Perhaps even more important than its sweetness is the tanginess in barbecue sauce that comes from vinegar. It's an ingredient that is particularly important when the sauce is being slathered on ribs and brisket as they cook on the grill. Beyond enhancing the sauce the flavor of the sauce, the vinegar can help to tenderize the meat using natural acids.

While the universal go-to vinegar used in barbecue sauce is typically of the apple cider variety, there are plenty of options to choose from. Apple cider vinegar tends to work well because it has a sweet undertone of the signature fruit's flavoring. Balsamic vinegar is another option that tends to go well with sauces like barbecue that include strong tomato flavors. This vinegar is quite sweet and has a prune or molasses flavor that tends to complement dark fruits. Red wine vinegar is lighter and sharper than balsamic but carries the same subtle grape flavorings. And you can't go wrong with a basic white vinegar that has a sharp and intense bite reminiscent of buffalo sauce. If you're considering an Asian barbecue sauce, try plum vinegar which is smokey and sweet, or rice vinegar which is lighter and quite aromatic.

Give it depth with cocoa powder

While you may have heard of adding cocoa powder to elevate your batch of chili this is actually a quite common practice for savory foods and sauces across the board, especially when it comes to flavoring meats. Mole sauce is a perfect example of bringing cocoa into the fold to top savory Mexican dishes.

While chocolate typically isn't a main ingredient in barbecue sauce and is rarely even detectable, a small amount can go a long way when it comes to adding richness. Unsweetened cocoa powder has earthy undertones that can add a savory creaminess that is unmatched. Don't worry, when combined with sugars your sauce won't end up tasting like Hershey's syrup. Start small with just a tablespoon or two. The cocoa powder is meant to enhance the recipe, not dominate it. This is one of those secret ingredients that your guests won't quite be able to put their finger on, and can be passed down through generations. And let's be real, who doesn't love cooking with chocolate?

Add a splash of coffee

Coffee is always reliable for a caffeine kick, but it can also be used to provide a boost to your barbecue sauce. It adds a quality of flavor and mouthfeel that can enhance your sauce in several ways. Next time you brew a batch and rib night is on the horizon, remember to reserve some of that dark liquid. Even if you're not generally a java fan, you should consider incorporating coffee in your next barbecue sauce.

The addition of coffee will amp up that backcountry, open-flame flavor of barbecue sauce that reminds us of tumbleweeds and cowboy boots. Like cocoa, it can add richness to the mix. In addition, coffee is slightly bitter and smokey which can elevate any sauce and balance the sugars. The darker the better (espresso is ideal), and since you're dealing with the strong stuff, it's important to add it little by little with frequent taste tests so it doesn't overwhelm your sauce.

Bring some sweet fizz

Whether you call it soda or pop, the fizzy drink that has kids bouncing off walls is more than just a sweet sipper. Surprisingly enough, soda can act as an ingredient in the kitchen. Although it may seem like an oddball move, the addition actually makes quite a bit of sense if you really break it down.

Root beer and Dr. Pepper are top candidates since they are tangy, rich, multifaceted, and sticky sweet — essentially all the core characteristics of barbecue sauce. The popular soft drinks will truly allow your sauce to stand out from the pack. After all, Dr. Pepper's blend of 23 flavors would be impossible to replicate. Bite the bullet and dump a full 16-ounce soda right into your pot of barbecue sauce before you add any other sweeteners. It's not at all far-fetched to declare that this secret ingredient will change your barbecue sauce forever.

Get a little boozy

While you might be tempted to keep your booze strictly for drinking, it's worth sacrificing some for your barbecue sauce recipe. Like soda, alcohol is loaded with sugar and similar to vinegar helps to break down proteins to tenderize meat. And really, can't you put beer in just about anything these days? For those of you who cook with red wine often, you know the power that even a light splash into your pasta sauce can hold. Alcohol can help bring out existing flavors and add distinctive notes of its own.

Many types of alcohol can bring your barbecue sauce to the next level, but we recommend tequila, bourbon, beer, wine, hard cider, or whiskey. Pull together a bourbon-chile barbecue sauce recipe or for added sweetness, swap in honey-flavored whiskey.

Whichever type of liquor you land on, just remember that the alcohol will cook off during the heating process, so there is no need to worry about getting tipsy off of your rack of ribs! Add one drink per batch, meaning a full beer, a glass of wine, or a shot of hard alcohol. And, of course, save a few sips for yourself while you're at it. Tending the grill is hard work after all.

Incorporate dry mustard

There is one tangy ingredient that makes South Carolina barbecue sauce unique. Mustard is what gives it that yellow color that stands out on the condiment shelf, and although it's sweet and sour like its siblings, it packs more of a punch. Similar to horseradish, mustard seeds offer a spicy and earthy flavor. Dijon mustard sauce often has vinegar undertones, and sometimes even a little sugar to balance the condiment. 

When added to barbecue sauce, mustard can add a unique nip and spiciness, as well as a slight bitterness that works in tandem with all of those natural sugars. Think about it, mustard is often an ingredient in salad dressing, which carries similar tangy sweet flavorings. It's all about balance, so even just a tablespoon can make a world of difference. You can even simply add a sprinkle of mustard powder if you only want a subtle upgrade. If you plan on preparing pulled pork or barbecue chicken, give your sauce some South Carolina inspiration.  

Cook it down

Just like marinara, the longer you cook barbecue sauce down, the sweeter it gets. This is because as ingredients like tomatoes and onions heat, their sugars break down and the acidity slowly cooks off. In addition, the more concentrated the tomatoes get, the more their umami flavor comes to the surface. Essentially, by cooking down a sauce, you are concentrating it, leaving only the strongest, brightest flavors in the final product.

Although there are ways to make a quick barbecue sauce, we recommend taking your sweet time. You can't rush a good thing, and barbecue sauce is no exception to the rule. Good cooking takes patience, but luckily letting a sauce cook down does not require too much attendance. Let it simmer on low heat and give it a stir every once and a while so it doesn't stick. Try to aim for a minimum of one hour, but the longer the better.

Bring the heat with chipotle

It's no secret that some of us put hot sauce on absolutely everything while others can't stand the heat. And while barbecue sauce traditionally has a mild kick to it, you are the master of your own creation. It's up to you whether you want steam coming out of your ears like a cartoon character or you'd rather be overpowered by the soothing sweetness. For a nice, balanced heat along with ample complexity, we recommend using chipotle peppers.   

The dried jalapeños have a strong smokey flavor and offer the perfect amount of spice for your barbecue sauce. They come in many forms, so look for powdered chipotle in the spice section or canned chipotle or chipotle paste in the condiments or Latin section of the grocery store. Just one pepper or a touch of spice or paste should do the trick. For our fire-breathing fanatics out there, feel free to bring heat more heat to your recipe. Chipotle pairs beautifully with maple syrup, honey, and fruits like cherry and blackberry.

Use both fresh and powdered aromatics

There's nothing like walking down the street on a hot summer day and getting that overwhelming waft of a barbecue cookout smell from a neighboring yard. Smoked wood chips, grilled meat, and that unforgettable tangy sweet barbecue sauce smell are irresistible. Not only is the vinegar powerful on the nose, but a good barbecue sauce is loaded to the brim with aromatics that just seem to get stronger the longer they cook.

When it comes to aromatics, we are all about variety. Garlic and onions are a must in barbecue sauce, and we recommend starting by caramelizing your onions until they are sticky and sweet. Foolproof caramelized onions are easy to make but require enough time to let all of those sugars break down and come to the surface. Don't forget the garlic, and when it becomes fragrant add spices like cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, cayenne, allspice, paprika, thyme, Mexican oregano, and cumin. Let everything simmer for a few minutes before adding liquid in order to release their flavors.