Making a BBQ sauce is all about balance. You need to balance the flavors of sweet, tangy, salty, spicy, and smoky.
Most people agree that store-bought BBQ sauce is too sweet, but even with homemade BBQ sauce, there’s potential to overdo the sweetness.
So, how do you make BBQ sauce less sweet? To make BBQ sauce less sweet, add something that’s either bitter, sour, or spicy to counteract the sweetness. Apple cider vinegar is a popular option. Other things you can use include lemon juice, mustard, hot sauce, and even coffee. Avoid salt as this can enhance the sweetness.
How to make BBQ sauce less sweet
In simple terms – you need to add another ingredient that isn’t sweet. Anything bitter, spicy, sour or tangy will do the trick.
I’ve listed a whole host of potential candidates. Some of the suggested fixes will alter your sauce’s flavor profile more than others, so it might take a few attempts to find your favorite.
When it comes to how much to add, there’s no hard and fast rule. The best thing to do is to add any new ingredients slowly. Mix in a small amount and taste. If the sweetness is gone, great. If not, go back and add a little bit more of the new ingredient.
The below solutions will work for both home-made and store-bought sauces.
My first recommendation is what not to do.
Adding salt to a dish that’s too sweet can be a natural reaction, but it’s not recommended. While salt itself isn’t sweet, it works to enhances the sweetness in a dish.
That’s why dishes such as salted caramel or sea salt flavored ice cream have become so popular.
If your first reaction was to reach for the salt, put it back!
This is by far the most popular option for cutting through the sweetness of a BBQ sauce. The acidity of the vinegar counteracts the excess sweetness brilliantly.
You can use most types of vinegar but the most common are:
- Apple cider vinegar
- Rice vinegar
- White wine vinegar
Apple cider vinegar and rice vinegar have milder flavors, with rice vinegar being the least potent. White wine vinegar is tart in comparison.
Some people use balsamic vinegar in their BBQ sauce, but there’s an inherent sweetness in balsamic vinegar which means it’s not the best choice if you’re trying to unsweeten a sauce.
Staying on the theme of acidic ingredients, lemon and lime juice will work in much the same way as vinegar. They’ll overlay the sweet sugar with a more sour, tangy flavor.
Fresh lemon juice is best, and if you really need to dull the sweetness you can also grate some zest into the sauce.
Coffee has a tart flavor that can help round off excess sweetness in an BBQ sauce.
My advice would be to use instant coffee and not coffee grounds. You want something that’s going to dissolve in your sauce, not make it grainy!
Instant coffee doesn’t make the best coffee, but the coffee’s actual taste doesn’t matter so much when you’re mixing it with other ingredients. Unsweetening a BBQ sauce could be the perfect use for your jar of unwanted instant coffee.
If you don’t have instant coffee, then you can add an espresso shot instead. However, depending on how much you need, this can thin your sauce.
Mustard shouldn’t be too much of a surprise because there are quite a few mustard-based barbecue sauce recipes.
I like to use yellow mustard because it’s the mildest. Brown mustard is hotter, so good if you also want to add a bit of bite to your sauce.
You can add prepared or dry mustard. Prepared mustard also contains other ingredients like vinegar and salt, so it’ll impart a slightly different flavor.
My preference is dry because then I know exactly what’s going into my sauce and in what proportions.
If you don’t mind your BBQ sauce having a bit of a kick, adding some heat will eliminate any sickly sweet taste.
There’s a variety of different things you can use to add spice including:
- Cayenne pepper
- Hot sauce
- Harissa paste
- Chilli powder
- Fresh chilies (if making a fresh sauce – sautee the chili with onions and garlic)
- Chipotles in adobo (adds a smokey note)
Only you know how spicy you can handle, but be careful not to go overboard, especially if you plan on serving the sauce to guests.
If you’re after a bit of umami, soy sauce is an excellent choice. A splash of soy sauce will keep the sweetness in check while also adding a rich meaty note.
Go for a low salt say sauce to avoid over-salting the sauce.
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
It might sound strange adding chocolate to something to make it less sweet, but pure unsweetened cocoa powder is actually quite bitter. It contains zero sugar.
The cocoa powder will add a rich chocolate undertone that can complement a BBQ sauce quite well.
How to make homemade BBQ sauce less sweet
The above methods work well for both store-bought and homemade sauces, but some methods are specifically for homemade sauces.
Swap the ketchup for tomato paste
This is a great option for home cooks. Many popular recipes call for tomato ketchup to be used in the base, but you might not realize how much sugar is in the tomato ketchup your adding.
On top of the sweetness from the tomato ketchup, sugar and molasses are often added as well. Blended together this can create a sickly sweet sauce.
Swapping the ketchup for some tomato paste removes one source of sweetness. If you’re worried about the tomato paste making your sauce too thick you can mix it with water to thin the consistency.
Another option is to opt for homemade ketchup. That way you know exactly how much sugar is going into your ketchup and can adjust your BBQ sauce recipe accordingly.
Add more base
Most BBQ sauces are made by creating a base of tomato, vinegar, and sugar first. From there, you can add extra flavors to build the complexity.
If the sweetness has come from the extra flavors you added, you can dilute the sweetness by adding more of the base mixture.
Before doing this, always taste your base mix to make sure it’s not the base that’s too sweet! If it is, dilute the sweetness by adding more of the vinegar or one of the extra ingredients mentioned above.
Reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe
This one is kind of obvious but still worth mentioning. If everything else is perfect, you can simply cut down on the amount of sugar in your recipe.
Plain sugar, molasses, honey, syrups, and ketchup can all add sweetness to your sauce. Either reduce the amounts of all the sweet elements you’re adding or remove something entirely.
How To Make BBQ Sauce Less Sweet
- 1 portion bbq sauce
Ingredients to make BBQ sauce less sweet
- 1 portion vinegar Apple cider vinegar is most commonly used
- 1 portion lemon juice
- 1 portion coffee
- 1 portion mustard
- 1 portion spice
- 1 portion soy sauce
- 1 portion unsweetened cocoa powder
- Avoid adding salt. Adding salt to a dish that's too sweet can be a natural reaction, but it's not recommended. While salt itself isn’t sweet, it works to enhances the sweetness in a dish.
- Add vinegar. This is by far the most popular option for cutting through the sweetness of a BBQ sauce. The acidity of the vinegar counteracts the excess sweetness brilliantly.
- Add lemon juice. Staying on the theme of acidic ingredients, lemon and lime juice will work in much the same way as vinegar. They'll overlay the sweet sugar with a more sour, tangy flavor.
- Add coffee. Coffee has a tart flavor that can help round off excess sweetness in an BBQ sauce.
- Add mustard. You can add prepared or dry mustard. Prepared mustard also contains other ingredients like vinegar and salt, so it'll impart a slightly different flavor.
- Add spice. If you don’t mind your BBQ sauce having a bit of a kick, adding some heat will eliminate any sickly sweet taste.
- Add soy sauce. If you're after a bit of umami, soy sauce is an excellent choice. A splash of soy sauce will keep the sweetness in check while also adding a rich meaty note.
- Add unsweetened cocoa powder. The cocoa powder will add a rich chocolate undertone that can complement a BBQ sauce quite well.