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Barbecue sauce testing for sauce selecting

You may already be a barbecue "sauce-iopath" or a competition-class smoke-pit purist. Or maybe you're just a backyard kettle-grill amateur. But everyone, and I mean everyone, can use a splash of tangy love from time to time. Because there is no char-marked sin a good sauce can't cure, no triumphant beer-can chicken that can't fly higher with a brush of the perfect fiery glaze.

But how to choose? There are literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of sauces out there, and the variations seem endless, from international flourishes (Hawaiian, Mexican, Asian) to star chef endorsements, and renditions claiming to be inspired by every county, rib shack and pit master in the Deep South.With grilling season heating up, I decided to put 25 of them to the block-party test.With each bottle posed atop its ID number, and our plates piled high with strips of grilled chicken (the ideal neutral canvas for our test), my neighbors and I dipped, slurped and savored a vast range of flavors, from the most commercial to the most esoteric specialty brew.

Many of the mass-produced sauces, thick and treacly sweet with high-fructose corn syrup, tasted like synthetic paste beside some of the more natural products. But high-end wasn't always better, either, as frou frou flavors were often added to the point of distraction.

Whether you like tangy, ketchup-based Kansas City sauces, the vinegary pucker of East Carolina, or the sweet molasses and smoky spice of Texas, balance is always the key to a champion sauce. Here are some of the most memorable ones we tasted (in no particular order):

Spatulas up

Archer Farms Barbecue Sauces, $3.99 (T). Target's house label was a big surprise with all three flavors getting high marks: the Texas-style, for its deep molasses sweetness and lingering kick; the tomatoey KC-style for balancing a cider tang with honey; and the Hawaiian-style, for its pineapple-mango fruit and garlicky-chile finish, a favorite.

Whole Foods Market Carolina Smokehouse BBQ Sauce, $2.99 (WF). This was a straightforward rendition of the East Carolina-style peppery vinegar used with pulled pork. Some of Whole Foods' other sauces were terrible, like the gooey sweet maple sauce.

Frontera Border Barbecue Sauce Roasted Chipotle Pineapple, $3.79 (WF). Star Chicago chef Rick Bayless brings his Nuevo Mexicano touch to a "border sauce" that balances pineapple with the roasty, smoky spice of chipotles.

Stubb's Bar-B-Q Sauce, $3.79 (SF). These are as close as you get to homemade on a supermarket shelf. The Texan spices shine through these vinegary brews, and while the "spicy" brings heat, the balance is more obvious in the "mild."

Hot Bone Suckin' Sauce, $4.99 (WF). The dueling chile fire and honeyed sweetness, backed by an assertive cider twang, reminded vaguely of a Thai-style chile sauce. With a thinner texture, it would make a stellar marinade.

Emeril's Kicked Up Bam!B-Q, $3.59 (SF). Despite the kitschy made-for-TV name and big-time corn-syrup cameo, this sauce has a great balance that highlights Emeril's earthy, cayenne-flickered Louisiana spice.

Okie's Barbecue Sauces, $6.99. Okie Whitcraft is the name behind this well-known Surf City butcher shop on Long Beach Island, and he has excellent sauces brewed to his own recipes. The Bourbon BBQ, bolstered with exotic fruits and whiskey, was one of the best all-purpose sauces of the tasting. The coffee-dark teriyaki glaze, meanwhile, is one of the rare Asian-themed sauces that doesn't go too sweet. Available only at Okie's, at 2107 Long Beach Blvd., Surf City, N.J. 609-494-5577.

Spatulas down

KC Masterpiece Barbecue Sauce Original, $3.69 (SF). This mass-market standard was the low-end of the tasting. It's at the root of a surprising number of gussied-up "house-made" restaurant sauces. But alone, against real competition, it tastes like a cartoon sauce, its sweetness, sharp smoke and thick shine too vivid for real life.

Bull's Eye Original, $2.49 (SF). All the industrial flaws of KC Masterpiece, though slightly redder, tangier and less distinctive.

NOH Hawaiian Bar-B-Q Sauce, $6.99 (WF). Big-ticket gourmet sauces don't always deliver. This "all natural" "fat free" product from Hawaii is all luau sweet, but could use some more attitude of spice or tang.

Note: Unless otherwise noted, these sauces are available at Whole Foods (WF), SuperFresh (SF) and Target (T).

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