Kansas City Barbecue Sauce


Homemade Kansas City barbecue sauce! A rich tomato-based sauce that is just as sweet as it is spicy.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

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

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Sweet and Spicy

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.

Some Like It Hot

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.

Kansas City Barbecue Sauce in bowl

Matures as It Cooks

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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Hank Shaw

A former restaurant cook and journalist, Hank Shaw is the author of three wild game cookbooks as well as the James Beard Award-winning wild foods website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. His latest cookbook is Buck, Buck, Moose, a guide to working with venison. He hunts, fishes, forages and cooks near Sacramento, CA.

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10 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  1. saif

    very good


  2. Gregory

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

    Show Replies (2)
  3. 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.

    Show Replies (1)
  4. 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.


  5. 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

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