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In terms of sales, A.1. rules the steak sauce market. But in a blind taste test, would the king be dethroned?
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What You Need To Know
Created for King George IV of England, or so the story goes, A.1. Steak Sauce reigns supreme in the United States, accounting for 70 percent of steak sauce sold last year. Although we’ve never had a formal taste test of steak sauce, in the past, we have defaulted to A.1. in the test kitchen; when we call for the condiment, our recipes read: “Steak sauce, such as A.1.” But it’s not the only brand on the market. Steak sauce ingredients tend toward the eclectic and the pungent: raisin paste, turmeric, tamarind, grapefruit puree, malt vinegar, and salty anchovies. We like steak sauce that can slice through rich, meaty beef with a jolt of flavor that’s at once sweet, sour, and salty. But we don’t want it to overwhelm the steak’s own flavor.
Every brand but one in our lineup is ready to use straight from the bottle; Zip Sauce is heated with melted butter and served warm. The idea sounded promising, almost like a shortcut pan sauce. Well, no, as it turned out: “What fresh hell is this?” asked one taster. Another compared it with “fish sauce and butter in salt water.” Excruciatingly salty, it has a whopping 585 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon when combined with unsalted butter, which is a quarter of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s daily recommended sodium intake. But it was not the only loser. Other sauces were so sour that we scarcely noticed the meat or else so vinegar-laden that they were as astringent as “rubbing alcohol.” Still another was too sweet and was heavy-handed with clove and nutmeg, prompting tasters to ask if they were eating gingersnaps, pumpkin pie, or molasses cookies. Textures varied almost as much as flavor—from too thin to too thick. Tasters preferred a sauce squarely in the middle, with enough body to cling to the steak but not stiff and gluey. One sauce “ran away from the steak”; unsurprisingly, water was the first ingredient on the label (meaning the sauce has more of it than any other ingredient). Another sauce lost points for its chunky, stringy texture, caused by too much minced onion. We preferred our steak sauce smooth.
In the end, the king was toppled: A.1. finished third. We recommend it but only with some reservations about its sourness and acidity, which tended to overpower the meat. Our favorite brand showed more restraint. It had a mellow tomato base and offered fruitiness; tangy acidity to temper sweetness; a zippy, peppery kick; and a hint of smokiness. Unlike what we found in other brands, these flavors were in harmony, with no one component dominating. This balanced sauce stood up to a rich steak without stealing the show. The meat tasted better with a dollop of our winning sauce...
Everything We Tested
Our top-rated brand provided “a nice counterpart that let the meat shine through without overwhelming.” It’s “tomatoey, spicy, and earthy,” with a “sweetness [that] is rich and fruity,” and it has a “peppery tang.” A hint of smoke was kept in check: “Not exactly smoky but has a woodsy, campfire feel.” Finally, the “smooth” texture was spot-on: “Coats the steak but isn’t gloppy.”
This flavorful sauce had hints of “prune,” “tamarind,” and “molasses.” It was bolder than our winner, a quality that some tasters liked. The sweetness was balanced by a “nice bit of heat” and lots of black pepper. A “kick of vinegar” added a zippy “tartness” that wasn’t “metallic, like others,” and “complemented the steak.”
Recommended with reservations
This brand won points for nostalgia, with more than half of tasters recognizing its flavor in our blind tasting: “I’m a little biased because I grew up on A.1. and London broil”; “Boy, A.1. is distinct”; “Tastes like good old A.1., part nostalgia, part sweet, salty, tangy, tamarind.” An equal number found this ubiquitous sauce too sharp: “It totally overpowers the meat; very acidic”; “Tastes like a lime freeze pop”; “Super tangy, big anchovy, and too bold.”
Tasters disliked the “chunky,” overabundant “oniony lumps. UGH.” “Like burnt rubber with stringy bits in it, both unexpected and unpleasant.” Almost half of our tasters picked up on a smoky, burnt flavor (“natural smoke flavor” is among the ingredients): “I could burn my own food, thank you very much!” Plus, it costs more than twice what our winner does.
Only one taster noticed the booze (whiskey flavoring is added). For the rest, the sauce was simply “syrupy sweet,” tasting “like pancake syrup with molasses” and turning the steak into “meat candy.” Tasters weren’t crazy about the aggressive cloves either: “Weird; here we go again with nutmeg and cloves. Flavors like a pie”; “Too much warm spice.”
Tasters were “zapped” by this jolting sauce (vinegar is the first and fifth ingredient), noting its “overly tart,” “crazy tang.” “My lips are puckering” with its “medicinal sharpness,” said one. This aggressive acidity was paired with a “super molasses-y, syrupy” sweetness that was “like hoisin sauce.” The combination was described as “sour honey” and “syrupy mouthwash.” Many also noted that the sauce gave the beef “metallic” flavor.
This unconventional steak sauce is heated in a saucepan with butter (a 4-ounce stick combined with the 12-ounce bottle). Even made with unsalted butter, it was a “salt lick” and “crazy salty,” our tasters said. We also found it too thin, like a “watery beef bouillon” that “separated in the cup”; even after vigorous whisking, the butter stayed in an “oil slick” on top.
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