Healthy barbecue sauce you can actually feel good about slathering on all your favorite foods! It's thick, tangy, and sweet, with a hint of smoke and spice. Made from whole food ingredients, this easy BBQ sauce recipe is vegan, refined sugar-free, and gluten-free, with half the calories of store-bought.
I love barbecue sauce. You love barbecue sauce. I mean, who doesn't? And you can't blame us. It hits all of our favorite tastes - sweet, acidic, salty, umami.
But what gets me down is reading the labels on the bottles of BBQ sauce at the grocery store. It's definitely convenient to just grab a bottle, but when I do, there's always that nagging voice in the back of my mind saying, "Dang, I might as well just slather my meal in frosting."
First, there's the challenge of finding one that's vegan. Once you rule out the brands that contain worcestershire or honey, you're left guessing which one will taste best, which company uses the best quality ingredients, how to balance quality with cost.... and they all contain loads of sugar.
Call me strange, but if I'm going to eat sugar, it's going to be in the form of dessert, not coating my dinner. Know what I mean?
The great news is that it's remarkably easy to make your own barbecue sauce. It also costs less than springing for those better quality store-bought ones, AND you'll know it's free from oil, refined sugar, and any sketchy ingredients like artificial colors and preservatives.
Another awesome thing about making your own barbecue sauce is that you can tweak the sweetness, acidity, and spiciness until it's just how you like it!
How to Make Healthy BBQ Sauce
TIP: I like to begin by sautéing onion and garlic, but if you're in the mood for a shortcut you can always substitute 1 teaspoon each of onion and garlic powder.
Here's a summary to show you how easy it is; be sure to scroll down for the full recipe.
- Preheat a saute pan over medium heat. Cook the chopped onion for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Go for a bit of color and caramelization in the pan. We'll deglaze with water and other ingredients in a few minutes.
- Once the onion is golden, add the minced garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds. Now add ¼ cup of water to the pan, and stir to coat (photo above was taken at this stage).
- Add the remaining ingredients:
- tomato sauce (to clarify, since "tomato sauce" means different things in different parts of the world, this is just cooked, pureed tomatoes, usually with salt added)
- apple cider vinegar
- balsamic vinegar
- maple syrup
- smoked paprika
- chile powder
- cayenne pepper, optional
- black pepper
- tamari (or soy sauce if not GF)
- liquid smoke, optional
- Stir to combine, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until slightly reduced (photo below).
- Remove from heat and let cool 15 minutes. Transfer to a blender, and blend until smooth.
- Pour into a jar and let cool. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container, homemade barbecue sauce will keep for up to one week. So if you know you plan to use it more than once, and/or depending on the number of people you're feeding, why not go ahead and double the recipe?
If you double it you'll have enough barbecue sauce on hand to use some right away and some for dinner later in the week.
Tips and Substitutions
Opinions vary a lot about what makes the best BBQ sauce. So whether you prefer a sweeter, stickier sauce or maybe a more vinegary or spicy version, feel free to tweak the ingredients to suit your preference. Here are some ideas...
To adjust sweetness:
- Reduce the maple syrup to ¼ cup for a less sweet sauce (or even down to 3 Tbsp if you're very anti-sweet).
- Want it on the sweeter side? Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of coconut or brown sugar in addition to the maple syrup. Another option is to add 1 or 2 pitted medjool dates to the blender.
To adjust smokiness:
- Reduce or omit the smoked paprika for a less smoky flavor, and/or omit the liquid smoke.
- For a smoky barbecue sauce, increase the smoked paprika to 1 ½ teaspoons, add a pinch of dried chipotle flakes, and/or increase the liquid smoke to ⅛ or ¼ teaspoon (it doesn't take much; add carefully!).
To adjust spiciness:
- Omit the cayenne and black pepper for a non-spicy sauce.
- Add a bit more cayenne plus a pinch of dried chipotle flakes for more heat.
To adjust acidity:
- Make the BBQ sauce less tangy by reducing the total tablespoons of vinegar from 3 to 2.
- Kick up the acidity by adding a tablespoon of either apple cider vinegar or white distilled vinegar (I probably wouldn't increase the balsamic because of its distinct flavor).
We all know how much our taste buds love sugar, right? So, I get it. I understand why brands load up their BBQ sauces with refined sugar. They just want to sell sauce.
But with the use of maple syrup, we can have a sauce that's just sweet enough, and has about half the calories (none of them "empty calories").
The labels on most store-bought sauces indicate 2 tablespoons as one serving. Like salad dressing, who uses just 2 tablespoons of barbecue sauce?
For this recipe, I'm calling ¼ cup a serving (that's 4 tablespoons), with the same number of calories in 2 tablespoons of the store-bought stuff. Just a little perk I wanted to point out for those of you watching your caloric intake.
I didn't skimp on saltiness in this recipe, but again, that's one of the great things about making our own sauce! If you prefer a sauce with less sodium, feel free to reduce the salt and/or tamari.
I hope you enjoy this Healthy BBQ Sauce! Stay tuned for some delicious vegan recipes that will put it to good use.
If you try this recipe be sure to leave a comment below and give it a star rating. Let us know about any tweaks you make to the flavors and your favorite ways to use barbecue sauce.
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Healthy BBQ Sauce (Vegan; Refined Sugar-Free)
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup tomato sauce (Cooked, pureed tomatoes + salt; can usually be found in 8 oz. cans.)
- ¾ cup water, divided
- ⅓ cup maple syrup
- 2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 Tablespoon molasses
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- ¼ teaspoon chili powder
- 2 teaspoon tamari (GF) or soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- pinch of black pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional
- 3 or 4 drops liquid smoke, optional
- Preheat a saute pan over medium heat. Cook the chopped onion for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Allow some color and caramelization to develop in the pan. You'll deglaze with water and other ingredients in a few minutes.
- Once the onion is golden, add the minced garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly so the garlic doesn't burn. Deglaze the pan with ¼ cup of water.
- Add the remaining ingredients - tomato sauce, ½ cup water, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, molasses, smoked paprika, chili powder, cayenne, black pepper, salt, tamari, and liquid smoke, if using. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until slightly reduced.
- Remove from heat and let cool 15 minutes. Transfer to a blender, and blend until smooth. Pour into a jar, and allow to cool. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Estimated Nutrition (per serving)
Nutrition information is an estimate and will vary depending on the exact amounts and specific products and ingredients used. We calculate this information using the online calculator cronometer.com. For the most accurate nutrition information we recommend calculating it yourself to reflect the specific ingredients used in your dish.