Kansas City Barbecue Sauce

Please welcome Hank Shaw as he continues on his tour through barbecue sauces, this time with a Kansas City style barbecue sauce. ~Elise

To me, Kansas City barbecue sauces are thick, tomato-based sauces that are just as sweet as they are spicy. Endless variations are possible, but the sweet-thick-tomatoey elements need to be there for KC BBQ.

This is a sort of apple-y version, with sweetness from both brown sugar and apple juice as well as an acid kick from cider vinegar. I add a little smoky chipotle powder, too, just because I like it; chipotle is not generally used in traditional KC barbecue.

The cayenne added at the end is purely optional: I like things hot, but if you really can’t take heat, omit the cayenne and cut the chili powder down to 1 teaspoon instead of a tablespoon.

This sauce will mature as it cooks. It needs at least 30 minutes to come together, but can cook for hours if you simmer it gently enough. Taste it periodically, and adjust the salt and heat as you go: Remember it’s easy to add more salt and spice, impossible to remove it.

Slather this sauce on slow-cooked chicken, ribs, pork or even beef. Don’t put it on until the end of the cooking process, though, because the sugar in it will caramelize fast… and the burn. Leave it to the final 10-20 minutes of cooking. Then brush a little on right when you serve.

Kansas City Barbecue Sauce Recipe

  • Prep time: 5 minutes
  • Cook time: 35 minutes
  • Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

This makes enough sauce for 10-20 chicken legs or thighs, 4 racks of ribs or a regular pork shoulder.



  • 2 cups tomato sauce or ketchup
  • 1/2 cup apple juice
  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 5 Tbsp butter
  • 3 Tbsp paprika
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp chipotle powder (optional)
  • 4 finely chopped garlic cloves
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • Cayenne to taste


1 Heat the butter in a pot over medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Add the onion and sauté until it begins to brown. Add the garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes.

2 Pour in the remaining ingredients and stir well to combine. Simmer slowly for at least 30 minutes, and up to 2 hours. Adjust the heat and salt levels with the cayenne and salt right before you plan to use this sauce, which is great on ribs, chicken and pork shoulder.

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  1. David Sandford

    This is wonderful. Sounds like a really good recipe and comes at just the right time for me.

    Lately I’ve been having the urge to make many meals with different types of BBQ sauce.

    I’ve been trying a few new sauce recipes, and going through my old work recipes to find some that I used in different restaurants I worked in.

    Yesterday I made something different, kind of a BBQ enchilada pie. This sauce sounds like it would work good in it.

    I made corn mush*, mixing in some lightly cooked diced green peppers and onion. Mashed half of the mush flat into a an oiled casserole dish. Covered it with a mix of BBQ sauce and shredded pork. Covered that with the rest of the mush. Baked at 350F for 30 minutes and served.
    My family thought it was great.

    *Corn mush is corn meal normally cooked with chicken broth (as I had it, I used pork broth instead).
    Recipe: Dampen 1 cup corn meal with one cup water. Add 3 cups boiling broth to corn meal. Stirring constantly **, cook over med low heat until it thickens to the consistency of peanut butter. Remove from heat.

    **If you don’t want to worry about burning corn meal to the bottom of your pan, or continually stirring, use a double boiler.
    -I couldn’t find my double boiler so I used a frying pan with a sauce pan sitting on a couple of strips of aluminum foil to keep the sauce pan off the bottom.

  2. Katrina

    This would go on so many different things. Yum!

  3. Mirescu

    Molasses is a defining flavor in most of the KC Style sauces I’ve had. Brown sugar helps, but doesn’t give the same depth of flavor.

    Then again, I assume there are as many versions as there are cooks who’ve made the sauce.

    I am a big fan of using molasses, and I almost used it here, but I wanted a redder sauce — molasses would darken it a bit too much. But I will often use molasses if I have it handy – just sub it in for the brown sugar. ~Hank

  4. Liane

    This weekend I made polenta, put black beans over the top, and smothered everything in barbeque sauce–heavenly. I used the Trader Joe’s “bold and spicy” mix. Your recipe sounds like it would do the trick!

  5. Georgia

    Love your recipes. Please can you tell me if this sauce can be kept in a jar and if so for how long.

    Yes, you can keep this in a jar in the fridge for a couple weeks, maybe even a month — although I have never kept it that long. ~Hank

  6. valarie moffett

    will this recipe work if I sub brown sugar with Splenda brown sugar. We are eating low carb and want a good sauce recipe.

    No idea. I have never used Splenda in my life. I don’t see any reason why it would not work, though. I say give it a go and let us know how it went. ~Hank

  7. angela

    So good! I had a good bit of leftover roast chicken so I made this sauce to use on a BBQ chicken pizza. Yum! Thanks for the burn warning, I didn’t put the sauce on until the last couple minutes.

  8. James Stroud

    Good sauce. Very KC style, that’s for sure. I just made this recipe.

    The chipotle is a bit dominant, though not bad if you like the flavor (like I do). I packed the brown sugar, so mine came out pretty sweet this time. Sauce I just had in KC was sweeter (SmokeHouse Bar-B-Que), but I would have preferred it less sweet and more hot, which your sauce would be with loosely packed brown sugar.

    I’m not going to cook this one longer than 45 min. I’ve noticed that longer cooking times rob these BBQ sauces of their nuances, which I enjoy.

    I think next time I make this sauce, I’m going to add some lemon zest and about a Tbsp of black pepper.

  9. Gregory

    Ketchup or tomato sauce? They don’t seem remotely interchangeable………world of difference in sweetness. Which do you recommend?

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