Ketchup-less BBQ Sauce + Easy Slow Cooker Pulled Chicken

Bug is officially terrible! He just turned two, and you know what that means – we are in for it.

He’s already been a bit of a handful, so when I was planning his birthday party, I wanted something quick and easy I could throw together in between temper tantrums and melt downs.

At first I was thinking homemade pizza because that is always a crowd-pleaser, but I didn’t want to do any real cooking the day of, and opening and shutting a hot oven with little ones running around didn’t seem like the best idea.

I considered spaghetti briefly, since the theme of the party was Curious George and he has been known to polish off a few bowls of the stuff, but it seemed like it would be a hassle to cook it all in advance then warm it all up after the guests arrived. Then I thought …Crockpot!

What better way to cook for a big crowd ahead of time, yet make sure the food will still be piping hot when you finally get around to serving it, whenever that may be? Oh, and with minimal prep, and no monitoring needed during cooking, which is awesome since you kinda forgot about it after that wee drinky drink?

Up until now I’ve mostly used my crockpot for making big batches of beans, but I’ve been meaning to try a recipe for pulled chicken that I came across on thekitchn.

So before the party, I did a test batch with homemade BBQ sauce and it was totally the bomb! Plus super easy!

On the day of, I was all sweaty and crazy trying to get ready for the party, so I just skipped the homemade and threw in Bull’s-Eye Original BBQ Sauce instead – still totally the bomb!

I ended up researching two different recipes for this dish – homemade BBQ sauce and slow cooker pulled chicken.

For the homemade BBQ sauce, I checked out Cooks Illustrated, Martha Stewart, Pioneer Woman, Homesick Texan and Ina Garten by way of smitten kitchen. But I went with the CI one, just because it seemed like a good basic version to start with. And boy howdy, it was about to become my go-to recipe, until I realized just how much sugar is in ketchup. The CI version starts with 1 full cup of ketchup, to which you add another 5 tablespoons of molasses! Oi!

Warning, math ahead, skip to the end of this graph if you just want the summary: 1 tablespoon ketchup has 4 grams of sugar, which is about 1 teaspoon sugar. There are 16 tablespoons in a cup, so 16 teaspoons of sugar in 1 cup of ketchup. There’s 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon, so about 5 tablespoons of sugar in that cup of ketchup. Then you go and add another 5 tablespoons of molasses. That brings you to about 10 tablespoons of sweetener for 1 1/2 cups of BBQ sauce. Of course it’s not like you would scarf down 1 1/2 cups of BBQ sauce in a single sitting, but you could easily inhale 1/2 cup without thinking about it (well, I could, don’t judge) which would be just over 3 tablespoons of sugar, or 9 teaspoons. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake to no more than 6 teaspoons a day for women! (OK technically, in the above example, we don’t know how much of the sugars in the ketchup are naturally present in the tomatoes and how much are added in refined form. The manufacturer does not have to break that info down. The AHA recommendation is for added refined sugars, not for the sugars naturally found in food. But 9 teaspoons is pretty high, though, especially since you are probably getting a whole lot more from other sources throughout your day.)

Summary: ketchup has a lot of sugar! Anyway, the CI recipe was also kind of fiddly, what with blending the onions then straining them through a sieve, so it was back to the drawing board.

So I started looking for another version that doesn’t use ketchup as the base, which turned out to be a bit more challenging. It seems like a lot of “homemade” BBQ sauce recipes I came across call for ketchup, and often a mix of other condiments, like hoisin or mustard or weirdly, barbecue sauce (how meta, barbecue sauce made from barbecue sauce to which you add ingredients found in barbecue sauce).

Hey, I’m not like militant about homemade or anything, but I do think it would be tough to get any sort of consistency if your recipe calls for ingredients that can taste drastically different from product to product. So I tried to avoid recipes that went heavy on the condiments too.

I finally found one ketchup-less recipe on the kitchn and decided to give it a go. Instead of ketchup, the recipe starts with an 8 oz can of tomato sauce, which has about 2 teaspoon of sugars, and a tablespoon of tomato paste, which has about 1/4 teaspoon of sugars. To this you add 1 tablespoon of molasses and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, for a total of 4 tablespoons or so of sugars per 1 1/2 cup of sauce, which seems a lot more reasonable than the whopping 10 tablespoons in the CI recipe.

Of course I tweaked the recipe a bit, I just can’t seem to help myself. I ended up using one 14.5 oz can of diced tomato (which I always have on hand) in place of the 8 oz can of tomato sauce (which I never have on hand). Nixed the water, nixed the cumin, added chipotle powder, added apple cider vinegar, subbed soy for Worcestershire, and, errmmm added a bit more sweetener (yes, hypocritical, aren’t we?). I may tweak it a bit more next time to be closer to the proportions in the CI version and to get rid of the honey mustard, but I’m pretty stoked with this not-too-sweet version.

Whew! Then I turned my attention to slow cooker pulled chicken.

It seemed like a lot of the recipes call for some prep work on front end, which I’m not totally opposed to, but not totally for either.

The kitchn version calls for sautéing onions on the stovetop first, then browning the chicken, before adding both with the BBQ sauce to the slow cooker to stew for 4 hours. Then you remove the chicken, shred it, reduce the BBQ sauce on the stovetop, and add the shredded chicken back to the thickened sauce.

But I am all about short cuts.

Since I was making homemade sauce, which started with sautéing onions, I didn’t see the point of repeating this step before adding everything to the slow cooker. And then, because I am lazy yet weirdly motivated to find justification for my slacker ways, I learned on CI that browning meat before adding it to a slow cooker just makes it more difficult to shred the meat when it’s done. Ha! So I skipped that step too.

So what I ended up doing was make the BBQ sauce, add raw chicken tenders to the slow cooker, dump sauce over the whole shebang, cook for 4 hours on low, shred. Boom. Crazy easy, crazy good.

The next time I made the dish, on the day of the party, I skipped the homemade sauce part and went straight for the glory: chicken, sauce straight from the bottle, slow cooker, shred, bam. Near instant gratification.

Ok so there was one peculiarity that I need to note. The BBQ sauce in first batch I made, with chicken tenders from Trader Joe’s, turned out nice and thick. I didn’t need to reduce the sauce as called for in the original pulled chicken recipe.

But the BBQ sauce in the second batch I made, with chicken tenders from Fred Meyer, came out watery, even though the sauce started out really thick. It occurred to me that the tenders might be plumped, that is, injected with salt water, to keep the meat nice and juicy no matter how mistreated or overcooked. I didn’t have time to reduce the sauce, hungry folks were hovering, so I just went ahead and shredded the chicken in the watery sauce and mixed it all up and it was fine, if a touch soupy.

The moral of the story is if you want to avoid the extra step of reducing the sauce, buy chicken that has not been “enhanced”. Or, cook the chicken in broth or water in the slow cooker, then drain the liquid and add the BBQ sauce at the end. Or, if you just want to skip the slow cooker thing entirely, shred a rotisserie chicken then add BBQ sauce. I am all about options.

Ketchup-less BBQ Sauce

olive oil

1/2 onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder

½ teaspoon chili powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 14.5 oz can diced tomato, blended (about 2 cups)

4 tablespoon molasses

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon honey mustard

Heat a splash of olive oil in a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the garlic and cook until the garlic turns fragrant. Add the tomato paste, chipotle powder and chili powder and sauté a bit to bloom the flavor (I don’t know, that’s what they always say on CI!)

Add the blended tomatoes and remaining ingredients. Stir until combined and heated through. Adjust seasonings to your taste.

Optional: If you want a smooth sauce, transfer to a blender or use an immersion blender to blend. I am all about rustic, so I skip this step. Add more water, a tablespoon or two at a time, if you prefer a thinner sauce.

Easy slow cooker pulled chicken with homemade BBQ sauce

1-2 pounds chicken tenders (not injected with saltwater)

1 ½ cup homemade BBQ sauce


Make BBQ as listed above. Put chicken in the slow cooker, sprinkle with salt. Dump BBQ sauce over. Cook on low for 4 hours. Shred chicken. Serve on buns with coleslaw, or don’t, whatever floats your boat.

Easy slow cooker pulled chicken with bottled BBQ sauce

1-2 pounds chicken tenders (not injected with saltwater)

1 ½ cup bottled BBQ sauce


Put chicken in the slow cooker, sprinkle with salt. Dump BBQ sauce over. Cook on low for 4 hours. Shred chicken. Serve on buns with coleslaw, or don’t, whatever floats your boat.

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