In reporting a story on fast food barbecue, I ate more fast-food barbecue sauce in a two-week period than I had in the previous decade. I had nuggets, fries, pork patties, and even smoked brisket, all of it covered in barbecue sauce and most of it delivered in a bag through a window. I’d collected a few fast food sauces and wondered how many varieties I might be able to locate in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I enjoy comparisons and chicken nuggets, so a sauce tasting was the logical conclusion.
I asked for suggestions through Twitter and found sixteen different barbecue sauces at fifteen different fast food restaurants. Chick-fil-A has two—a Honey Roasted BBQ Sauce and regular Barbeque Sauce. The rest of the entrants (using the barbecue sauce name from each label) were Arby’s Tangy BBQ Sauce, Burger King BBQ, Carl’s Jr. BBQ Sauce, Church’s Chicken Honey BBQ Sauce, KFC Summertime BBQ Sauce, McDonald’s Tangy BBQ Sauce, Popeye’s Bold BQ Sauce, Shake Shack BBQ Sauce, Sonic BBQ Sauce, Wendy’s BBQ Sauce, and Whataburger Honey BBQ Sauce. A few people also directed me to A&W, Chicken Express, and Dairy Queen. I included their sauces as well, but rather than their own recipes, they provide Marzetti Barbecue Sauce, Sweet Baby Ray’s Hickory & Brown Sugar Barbecue Sauce, and Bull’s Eye BBQ Sauce, respectively.
This was not a highly controlled blind taste test. I came home with a bag of McDonald’s fries a few times over a couple days to get the first rounds out of the way. I sat at my dining room table, peeled back barbecue sauce lids, and used the patented two-fries-at-a-time dipping method. I tasted four sauces at a time, picked a winner from each group, and then pitted those four finalists against each other to choose an overall winner.
I’ve said in the past that barbecue sauces that taste great on barbecue rarely taste good on their own. They’re thinner and more acidic than your average supermarket sauce. Most fast food restaurants aim for the latter style. Thick barbecue sauces with lots of sugar taste good on their own—and also on fries. I tested them with fries because that’s what I consider the highest and best use of fast food barbecue sauce. I used McDonald’s fries for every tasting because I wanted to ensure that I enjoyed the experience.
All the sauces except Shake Shack listed their ingredients on the label. If you read my piece on fast food barbecue, you know the importance of “natural smoke flavor” in this type of sauce, and every one of them includes it. I contacted Shake Shack for its ingredient list, and a representative said their sauce contains mustard, tomato paste, vinegar, molasses, natural smoke flavor, and spices. It was one of the few sauces with mustard. Also, Shake Shack’s, Jack-in-the Box’s, Sonic’s, and Chick-fil-A’s were the only sauces that didn’t have more sugar or corn syrup than tomatoes. Sonic’s was the lone sauce with more vinegar than tomatoes, and Chick-fil-A’s Honey Roasted BBQ was thankfully the only mayonnaise-based sauce. I was hoping for some frites-and-aioli vibe, but nope.
Before we get to the winners, I’ll offer a few observations. I wasn’t expecting any subtlety in the lineup, but the Jack-in-the-Box sauce had a blend of spices reminiscent of apple butter. Chick-fil-A’s sweet sauce had a pie filling overtone. I applaud Sonic for going against the grain with the heavy vinegar flavor, but it didn’t stand a chance against the rush of sweetness from the others. The same goes for the bold spices in KFC’s sauce. The soy sauce kick was noticeable in McDonald’s, but it’s better as a dipping sauce for nuggets than for fries or on its own.
The top four finishers were:
Arby’s Tangy BBQ Sauce. It’s a cheap, middle-of-the-road bottled barbecue sauce, perfect on fries.
Church’s Chicken Honey BBQ Sauce. You can taste the chili powder and honey.
Shake Shack BBQ Sauce. Its zing of mustard is pronounced, especially alongside the others. Admittedly, I’ve always liked a bit of mustard in my ketchup for fries.
Wendy’s BBQ Sauce. The massive amounts of sugar and molasses, along with a strong flavor of liquid smoke (which I would find appalling on actual barbecue), were a perfect pairing for the salty, fatty fries. It also contained the highest number of spices, at least those divulged on the labels.
When I sampled the final four head to head, that mustard zing from Shake Shack was harsh. It’d still be my pick for nuggets, but it’s not the best fry dipper. The Arby’s sauce was too thick and too smoky, and the sweetness of the Wendy’s was overwhelming and one-dimensional compared with the winner.
Every time I went back to the Church’s Chicken Honey BBQ Sauce, I got a tang that was hard to pin down. Although it contains high fructose corn syrup, molasses, and honey, it somehow didn’t taste as sweet as Wendy’s. There’s no fast food sauce I’d rather dip my fries into than Church’s.