minimalist barbecue sauce

Every summer, I promise that I’m going to tell you about this shortcut barbecue sauce I use when I don’t have it in me to bring home 11 bottles and jars plus 2 vegetables for what I consider the ultimate, Queen Ina’s. I love that one, regardless. I make it every year or two and I freeze it in 1-cup packages. Sometimes, like last summer, I completely forget to freeze it and find it in the fridge 8 months later and it’s completely and totally fine to eat? It’s pretty magical like that. But it’s not simple. And most of the time, when it’s just weeknight chicken or tofu skewers on the grill or even as a base for what I call Fake Baked Beans (more on this at the end), three ingredients is all you need, plus up to two more to your tastes. Don’t look askance at me; I bet you already have them all.

all you need, but swap friendly
um, you don't even have to cook it
coats well!
ready to grill

What I never did is tell you what those ingredients are, really rather rude of me, so let’s fix that. The foundation is a mostly equal proportion of ketchup, molasses, and apple cider vinegar. Stir these in a bowl and look at that: you’re done. We don’t even need to simmer this. This is the best rushed dinner thing, ever. From there, you add shakes of hot sauce (Tabasco, Sriracha, Cholula, Chimay, whatever you love), and a spoonful of fish sauce or Worcestershire (note: this is no longer vegetarian once you add these) for a salty/fermented vibe. Salt will probably be unnecessary, but you can add it to taste, and pepper too. The sauce is a little thinner than the bottled stuff but this, to me, just means that it gets into your food better, praise be. If you, like me, are sad that summer feels like it just began but September is already way too close for comfort, things like this — quick, easy, deeply summery things that don’t take time away from all the other deeply summery things you’d like to be doing (swimming, naps after swimming, repeat) — are exactly what we need right now.

skewers with minimalist barbecue sauce
minimalist barbecue sauce


One year ago: Hummus Heaped with Tomatoes and Cucumbers
Two years ago: Corn Bacon and Parmesan Pasta and Blackberry Cheesecake Galette
Three years ago: Tomato and Fried Provolone Sandwich
Four years ago: Easiest Fridge Dill Pickles and Grilled Peach Splits
Five years ago: One-Pan Farro with Tomatoes and Hot Fudge Sundae Cake
Six years ago: Bacon Corn Hash and Peach Pie
Seven years ago: Whole Wheat Raspberry Ricotta Scones and Charred Corn Tacos with Zucchini-Radish Slaw
Eight years ago: Porch Swing and Mango Slaw with Cashews and Mint and Peach Blueberry Cobbler
Nine years ago: Cherry Brown Butter Bars
Ten years ago: Chopped Vegetable, Watermelon and Feta Salad and Chocolate Sorbet
Eleven years ago: Red Pepper Soup and Cherry Clafoutis

And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Boulevardier and Sheet Pan Meatballs with Crispy Chickpeas
1.5 Years Ago: Chocolate Dutch Baby
2.5 Years Ago: Ugly But Good Cookies, Swiss Chard Pancakes, and Blood Orange, Almond, and Ricotta Cake
3.5 Years Ago: Mushroom Marsala Pasta Bake and Key Lime Pie
4.5 Years Ago: Chicken Pho, Pear and Hazelnut Muffins, and Warm Lentil and Potato Salad

Minimalist Barbecue Sauce

  • Servings: Varied
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Needless to say, the recipe as written below will not make a lot, about 1/4 cup. I merely wanted to establish the base formula that I like and how to tweak it. Scale it as needed. I use about 1/3 cup to coat 2 1/2 pounds of chicken cutlets, in large chunks, with some brushed on as it cooks. It’s thinner than a bottled sauce, ideal for cooking on and into other ingredients.

  • 1 generously heaped tablespoon ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce of your choice, such as Sriracha or Tabasco, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire or fish sauce, plus more to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk everything in a bowl, taste, add more of ingredients to taste, and seasoning as needed. More ketchup, for example, will make for a less intense sauce that’s closer to what you’d have in a bottle from a grocery store. The amount above makes 1/4 cup; scale it up as needed.

To make chicken skewers, as shown: I cut 2 1/2 pounds of large, thick chicken breast cutlets into large chunks (about 1 to 2 inches). In a bowl, I pour 1/4 cup of the sauce over it, just to thinly coat each piece. Thread them on skewers and grill on a very hot grill, rotating only when lightly charred underneath on each side, and continuing to rotate until they cooked evenly, about 7 to 10 minutes total, brushing occasionally with another tablespoon or so of sauce as they cook.

To make “fake baked beans”: Mince 1/4 of a onion and sauté slowly in 1 tablespoon of oil in the bottom of a medium saucepan, until soft. Add one 15-ounce can (1 3/4 cups) small white navy beans, drained and rinsed, plus the ingredients for one yield of the sauce above. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of water and gently simmer the mixture together for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, adding more water if it gets to dry, and adjusting seasonings to taste.

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88 comments on minimalist barbecue sauce

  1. Russell

    Brilliant. Making my own barbecue sauce usually sends me down a rabbit hold of recipes for hours, then to the store for hard-to-find items. If you want this to be vegetarian I’d betcha some good Shoyu or a tiny bit of Miso would take the place of the Worcester or Nuoc Mam (though it would make it saltier)


    I make a similar simplified barbecue sauce and love it! I often add other ingredients such as a splash of whiskey or a bit of smoked paprika. I always add a good amount of freshly ground pepper.

  3. JP

    Simple is wonderful and straight from the pantry even better. Thanks for the easy summer excuse to grill! This is my kinda recipe!

  4. araminty

    I prefer a fruitier BBQ sauce, so my shortcut is: jam! I often have homemade jam made from excess fruit, but store-bought works fine too. I usually put about equal quantities of jam and ketchup, then balance the flavours with mustard/chili sauce/liquid smoke/vinegar/pickle juice to taste. I love it on grilled chicken drumsticks, just a little brushed on in the last 5 min.

    Everyone loves it and nobody has guessed the secret ingredient.

  5. YES! I discovered something easy like this sauce (too lazy to go look at my scribbled recipe and didn’t blog about my bbq grilled chicken yet) early this summer. I will never go back to the complicated homemade BBQ sauce, no way.

  6. Marcia

    I make a similar sauce with honey instead of molasses, and sometimes lemon juice instead of vinegar. The night I was in a hurry and used Cider instead of squeezing a lot of lemons was a revelation. I also add powdered ginger, and chopped garlic if I have a few more minutes. Mine is a riff on a barbecue sauce in James Beard’s American Cooking.

  7. SuzyQH

    How long to broil or can you cook this successfully in the oven? Appreciate some guidance for indoor cooking of this recipe.

      1. SuzyQH

        In my quest for tender oven-baked chicken BBQ. I made a crazy recipe for something called “Mall Chicken” from the Lucky Peach 101 Easy Asian Recipes cookbook.

        Adapted their sauce recipe to make it much less sweet and more like BBQ sauce. Technique involved coating chicken chunks with a small amount cornstarch and then pan frying just to develop crust. Then you pop into a pan, coat with sauce and bake for 20 minutes at 375.

        I wanted a one dish meal, so I layered red and yellow peppers, red onions. zucchini just sprayed with Pam on one side of the roasting pan and cooked at the same time — served everything with baked Basmati rice on the side.

        Am now going to try your fabulous, out of this world, simple BBQ sauce using this cooking method. Suffice it to say that I am broiler challenged and have no access to an outdoor grill.

        Love your recipes, writing and photography–which make everything you create irresistible.

    1. Emily

      I do tofu with BBQ sauce often! I press firm tofu, cube it, and toss with a seasoning that goes well with bbq (either a bbq rub, or chili powder, or smoked paprika or something like that + optional cornstarch. Then I pan fry the tofu in a little oil till crisped (can do in batches). When all the tofu is done, I add it all back in the pan, pour in bbq sauce to coat well, and heat through so it gets glazey.

    2. Ttrockwood

      I am lazy and like a hands off cooking method:
      I buy extra firm tofu that doesn’t need to be pressed (sold vacuum packed) or press and drain the block from a tub.
      Slice about 1/2” thick or cut into cubes.
      Toss with bbq sauce
      Bake at 375, check at 20min and turn over tofu. Bake another 10-15min, when done the edges will be firm and tofu will be sticky but not wet.
      Add more bbq sauce just before serving if you want.

  8. LaceFlower

    I’ve been hoping for a recipe for small quantity BBQ sauce I can make as needed. Thanks so much Deb and it’s so easy. OK, I have molasses on hand but does everyone?!

    1. Adrian

      The customary substitute for a grill is a broiler. I’d do the usual thing to marinate tofu if time permitted. (Freeze, thaw, squeeze like a sponge to get some of the water out.) Then cut into 1″ slabs and marinate. Then cut into cubes and thread on metal skewers. (Or marinate as cubes…but you’ll lose more to crumbling.)

      Then broil as far from the heat as your broiler lets you. As far as I’m concerned, my lack of outdoor grill disqualifies it as “easy summer recipe,” because my broiler heats up my kitchen like crazy and it’s such a pain to watch it. But I’m saving the recipe for fall.

    1. JP

      I’m betting on honey, maple syrup or even sorghum (if you happen to be in the South!). Even corn syrup (don’t anyone go ballistic!) and some dark brown sugar. Yep.

  9. Marianne Henderson

    Deb, expected to see as the addendum to this recipe, my favorite quick & easy pork & beans recipe, but alas, didn’t. So have to share……. I found this years (decades?) ago in the Seattle Times (back when they used to have a great food section once a week) as the perfect addition to family BBQed meals. Originally I cooked this in the oven or took the ingredients all mixed together in a bean-type pot along to cook on a camp out. But now, years later, I throw everything into a crock pot. Ingredients can be doubled or tripled for a larger cook-out.

    large can (or 2 small) of pork & beans
    a decent size slosh or 2 of white vinegar
    3 slices of bacon cut into about 8 pieces each that are fried till cooked but
    are “just done” (not crispy)
    small onion, chopped, add to bacon grease in the same pan as you fried the bacon in, after the bacon is removed, cook till translucent, about 5 minutes.

    Stir everything together in crock pot, cook on low at least an hour, or till you need it, stirring occasionally. (Or cook in oven @ 350o for about an hour, leave on warm till you need it.) (Or cook on camp fire at least 15 minutes after it starts bubbling.)

  10. wedje

    oh my. “making some smitten kitchen casserole that involves chard”
    you’ve come a long way baby. :) smitten kitchen and orange is the new black together. just finished binge watching the new season and you are mentioned in the last 4.5 min of the season. awesome! did you know?

  11. Katie

    When I have even LESS time, my cheater BBQ sauce go-to is: ketchup + your BBQ dry rub! (From the low-and-slow recipe.) I keep a jar of the dry rub in the cupboard anyway so it’s basically instant… sometimes it’s even mixed at the table. It lacks that vinegary tang but works in a pinch!

  12. Dani

    I tried the beans last night and they were great! If you were to use this as a chicken marinade as opposed to a sauce, how much would you recommend for 2 lbs of chicken?

    Thanks so much!

  13. kamalpreet2923

    Thanks for sharing this amazing recipe. I just love chicken and this barbeque recipe seems awesome. I am definitely going to try this at home. Keep posting and writing such great and tasty recipes

  14. ezachos

    Made it, loved it, saved my life. You know when you’re excited to host a party, but the smaller tings like barbecue sauce fall off your radar until the last minute? Well…this was my desperate measure for a desperate time, but now it’s my go-to. So tasty with just the three ingredients, but I added the Sriracha and Worcestershire, and glad I did. Loved the thinner consistency, imparts taste but doesn’t overwhelm.

  15. cfetherlin

    My husband and I love making our own barbecue sauce. Usually we use brown sugar instead of molasses, but I will definitely try molasses next time. I’ve also never heard of using fish sauce, but that would be a great substitute if you don’t have access to Worcestershire sauce. Great recipe!

  16. Monica

    Tried for first time while hosting large bbq and of course, it’s Deb’s recipe, so it’s awesome. The recipe is very flexible…made a couple batches and varied cider and molasses balance for different sweet/sour taste. I used “Barbados” molasses, which is light, like the one pictured. I think blackstrap might be too bitter for this sauce.

  17. Ellen

    Deb, I was flipping through posts from last summer and saw the Elmo cake. Anna should have celebrated her third birthday by now – was there a cake, and will we hear about it? Thanks

  18. My dad’s BBQ sauce is a pretty similar formula with two changes: brown sugar instead of molasses (also keeps it slightly thicker) and the addition of mustard (usually some kind of Dijon-y style). I used to make it with him and we’d “test” if it was right by taste-testing with tortilla chips. I’ve made way more complicated versions involving tamarind and 15 other ingredients and etc, but it’s still the one that reminds me of home!

  19. Carly


    I find that maggi seasoning mimics that savory oomph that worcestershire sauce adds while still being vegetarian (and fish free). Can’t wait to try this!

  20. Molly

    It’s a good feeling to know that never again will I run out of barbecue sauce, which happened last night, but it didn’t matter because I was able to mix up this yummy sauce in minutes. This recipe is a treasure. Thank you, Deb!

  21. Awads

    I made these last night and my family went bonkers for it! Such a great recipe to have in my back pocket. thank you! (i served it with a brown rice salad: brown rice, handful of toasted walnuts, feta, arugula, chopped grape tomatoes, chopped mint and vinaigrette)

  22. Pamela

    Best BBQ sauce recipe I’ve tried. Usually I find recipes for BBQ sauce are made far too complicated and you lose the simplicity of the flavours. I used this with my Instant Pot shredded chicken and it is fabulous. The perfect easy summer flavour I was looking for.

  23. lee

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I, too, am a huge fan of Ina’s barbeque sauce, but every time – every time! – I make it, I think to myself, “goodness, so many ingredients.” Like you said, sometimes you need something simple that can be thrown together. I am looking forward to trying this!

  24. Sarah P

    Very smart! Just used a 3x of this for some toddler-friendly Instant Pot pork ribs. Liquid seemed a bit low so I added juice of 1 orange. Did quite Saute function with some shallot, ginger and garlic.

    I too loved the nod on the new season of OITNB. I like your casseroles too ;)

  25. DJ

    We made the chicken skewers using your BBQ sauce recipe for a family BBQ this weekend. It was delish. Thanks for this one. I used just a few drops of Tobasco to give it a little kick. Our 4-year-old grandson doesn’t mind a little spice, but a whole teaspoon would be too hot for him. Everyone enjoyed them.

  26. Molly

    I was a little skeptical of such a simple BBQ sauce, but it was delicious. This was a really good, easy weeknight meal!

  27. Meagan

    Really great! Used it on ribs tonight cooked in my instanT pot, then basted this sauce and broiled for a few minutes. My husband loved it!

  28. chiarra barry

    Thanks for the recipe. Do you mind sharing the reference of the grill you are using please? I have been trying for a while to locate one one that could give me this nice charcoal like grilled effect. I live in a NYC apartment and would love to have a grill that I can use on the counter top or the stove.

    1. deb

      I have a Weber Q and it’s tiny, kind of the perfect apartment grill (especially if you’re not officially supposed to have one and need one small enough to hide in a closet if necessary, not that the Smitten Kitchen condones such behavior). It’s not robust, but it’s better than no grill.

      1. chiarra barry

        It looks fabulous… I will check it out… Thanks for the valuable info. I am allowed to have a grill in my place but the charcoal effect is hard to get. I have been using the broiler but I feel like it’s too harsh on the food and I need to be super cautious to grill without losing the moisture… A split of a second too long can ruin a meal with a broiler…

  29. Brianne

    I’ve made this many times, as it’s so much better than jarred bbq sauce. Thank you to Deb for another easy delicious recipe. We were out of molasses today, so I subbed in honey (maybe a third to half as much; was eye-balling it all) and that worked fine.

  30. Katherine

    Made this over the weekend and used it as a marinade. It worked PERFECTLY. I doubled the recipe and covered my chicken cubes in it for probably 3-4 hours before I skewered and grilled them. The result was incredibly flavorful, juicy chicken. Thanks, Deb!