How to pair a hot sauce with food

If you have created an awesome hot sauce recipe that you are super proud of and you want to share it with other people…then you need to know some foods that it will pair well with. If you want to sell your sauce to a mass audience, suggesting food pairings is a great marketing tactic.

All hot sauces have one thing in common…heat. Sometimes described as spicey, tangy, poignant, zesty, scorching, or tongue-numbing, they will have flavor profiles and flavor undertones within the sauce as well.

Hot sauce can be paired with foods by knowing the flavor profile and defining the secondary flavors of the hot sauce. A gourmet hot sauce may use many different ingredients, and this creates flavor undertones either at the beginning, middle, or end of the sample. It is the flavor profiles from the undertones that reflect the foods that a hot sauce goes well with. The flavors, along with the heat of a hot sauce are a great addition to many foods.

Just eat it

One of the best ways to determine if a hot sauce goes well with certain foods is to just eat it along with some of your favorite meals. Considering all the different varieties of hot sauce and ALL of the possible food combinations…this process could be endless.

Tasting a hot sauce on its own will give you its purest flavor. Know your tolerance to heat and research the sauce you have chosen. If you make your hot sauces, then you should already be aware of the heat level and the base flavor.

Know your sauce

Before you begin dumping your hot sauce all over every kind of food you should understand the flavor profile and style of the sauce. Hot sauce can fall under one of the five flavor profiles: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicey, and umami as well as having flavor undertones. It is not uncommon for a hot sauce to fall under one of these flavor profiles, although bitter is not a common hot sauce flavor profile.

I taste all my sauces plain in very small doses. I will do this at various moments of processing and various times of the day, but my taste buds seem the most refreshed in the morning. I then use a specific brand of tortilla chip to taste test my hot sauces to determine if the flavors will cut through a simple flavor of a chip.

Flavors hit certain taste receptors on the tongue, and they will generally be perceived before the heat. These receptors that connect your tongue to these flavors are at certain locations on the tongue and the heat can also be “tasted” differently. Certain varieties of peppers will hit areas of the mouth, tongue, and throat differently and can create complex flavor profiles. Once the flavor profile and undertones have been established the hot sauce can then be consumed with foods that combine well with these profiles.

How does texture play a role in pairing a hot sauce?

Texture can be an important part of enjoying many different types of foods. Most hot sauces will have a thin to medium consistency to them but the foods they are paired with usually have a different contrasting texture. The thin texture of a hot sauce allows it to cover a large portion of a dish and not just be sporadically dispersed throughout.

Hot sauce is between a watery and creamy texture

There are only about five textures in foods, and they are watery, creamy, chewy, firm, and crunchy. Understand these textures for pairing a hot sauce with food. Often the best pairings to complement textures are opposites like creamy and crunchy. Therefore, I sample my new hot sauces with a crunchy tortilla chip to start with and move on to more common foods that pair well with a hot sauce.

Choose foods that are commonly paired with hot sauce

There are many popular foods, entrees, and dishes that are commonly consumed by many people that pair well with a hot sauce. Deciding what foods pair well with your hot sauce should begin with some of these common foods and gradually move to specific dishes particular to your style of hot sauce. This is an easier way to narrow down a food pairing as opposed to grabbing every food available.

A hot sauce can overpower a meal

The heat of some hot sauces can overpower the overall flavor of a meal. Always use a hot sauce on the side when pairing it with other foods for the first time instead of covering the entire entre. Some hot sauces of extreme heat may not work on the same plate of food like a hot sauce with less heat.

Some foods can reduce heat of a hot sauce

It has been my experience that bread, noodles, and milk or cream can reduce the heat of a hot sauce after it has been consumed. It is the starch in the bread and noodles and protein found in milk that can break down the capsaicin in a hot sauce. This will have the most adverse effects if the hot sauce is mixed well within the food but should not tamper with its flavor profile.

Understanding flavor profiles of food

Similar to the flavor profile of a hot sauce you need to be familiar with the flavor profiles of certain types of foods. One or more combinations of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy, and umami can be found in all foods. Understand the flavor profile of the food you are pairing with because a sour-tasting food may not pair well with a hot sauce that has sour overtones. Here are some common foods to pair with your hot sauce.

Eggs are great with hot sauce

Eggs are a favorite of mine to be paired with a hot sauce. I tend to stay away from fruity, barbecue, or sweet hot sauces and prefer a classic vinegar-based cayenne pepper sauce. This goes against the principle of opposite textures but works with the accepting flavor of eggs. The fresh pepper flavor of jalapeno-based green sauce also complements scrambled eggs.

Mac and cheese deserves hot sauce

Macaroni and cheese can be such a rich and creamy dish that the sharpness of a hot sauce can complement it well. I prefer a thin to watery textured red cayenne pepper sauce, keeping and complimenting the creamy texture of the mac and cheese. A bright red cayenne pepper sauce makes a great appearance over macaroni and cheese.

Chicken wings are more than a classic heat

Chicken wings have come a long way since the introduction of cayenne, butter, and garlic buffalo sauce. Spicy honey glazes, mustard-style hot sauces, and garlic parmesan have all become popular wing sauces. Almost any style, flavor, heat level, and variety of hot sauce works with a chicken wing.

Hamburgers found a new condiment

Hot sauces are gradually replacing ketchup and mustard as the go-to condiment on hamburgers. The umami notes of the beef work well with a straight pepper sauce (no fruits, veggies, or sugars). Sriracha, Tabasco®, and Franks Redhot all pair well with a hamburger. It’s the traditional style red pepper hot sauce that compliments a classic beef flavor. Try mixing it in before cooking…yum.

Pizza could use some heat

There are many versions of pizza as there are hot sauces. Tomato sauce with mozzarella on a wheat crust works well with many hot sauces. Stay away from sour, strong vinegar-based hot sauces that could clash with the acidity of a tomato sauce if it is on your pizza. A creamy hot sauce can complement the cheese and spices in a tomato sauce.

Tacos…of course tacos

Tacos, burritos, and almost any Mexican-style food pairs well with a traditional hot pepper and vinegar or tomato-based hot sauce. Vinegar is a sharp flavor and is a common hot sauce ingredient that pairs well with the starchy, firm textures of beans, rice, and flour tortillas.

Sour cream mixed with hot sauce makes a great dip

Most hot sauces pair well or mix well with sour cream to become a zesty dip. This combination also works well with a taco on top of a plate of extreme nachos. A red pepper-based hot sauce makes a Southwestern-style dip or topping.

Chili needs hot sauce?

Chili is a very flavorful dish that may already have some spice to it. Adding heat can deter from the heat of chili especially if it is dumped on top as an afterthought. A cream-based hot sauce, or a sauce mixed with sour cream pairs well with chili.

Pork and hot sauce…yum

Pork pairs well with a fruit-based or Caribbean-influenced hot sauce. These types of sauces will often contain pineapple, mango, or passion fruit and will have a reduced amount of heat. These types of sauces can be used when cooking or also as a topping on your favorite grilled pork recipe.

Noodles and hot sauce?…um

Lo Mein noodles have a subtle flavor to them that pairs well with hot sauce. A rich teriyaki or soy-based hot sauce complements the noodles, but these styles of sauces don’t always pack a lot of heat. If you have a teriyaki or soy-based hot sauce pairing it with noodles good prove to stand out in the hot sauce market.

Flavors overtone of common hot sauces

Flavor overtones are the flavors in a hot sauce that are dominant and stand out. Aside from heat, there are many common flavors of hot sauces and these are expanding from the original pungency of a vinegar based sauce.

Sweet works well with heat

There are many brands and varieties of hot sauces that have a sweet flavor to them that hit the taste buds before the heat. A sweet sauce works well with pizza, noodles, bread, and makes a great spread mixed with cream cheese.

Fruity flavored hot sauce

Hot sauces that mimic Caribbean flavors will use combinations of tropical fruits. Jellies and jams are popular and can be used as a chicken wing glaze or a dipping sauce. These types of sauces make a great sweet and heat spread on sandwiches and crackers.

Smokey is a delicious hot sauce flavor

A smokey flavored hot sauce works well with meats like steak, pork, and chicken. A thick and smokey flavored hot sauce is delicious over a grilled hamburger. I do not like a smokey-flavored hot sauce on my eggs, tacos, or pizza.

Sour is an acquired taste

Sweet and sour hot sauce flavors are more common than a stand-alone sour flavor. Sour, citrus, or berry-based hot sauces and are great that pair well with a crunchy or firm-textured vegetable stir fry.

Mushroom based hot sauce

A mushroom-based hot sauce will have a strong and rich umami flavor along with the heat from the hot peppers. Although also an umami flavor, steak pairs well with a mushroom-based hot sauce of creamy texture. These sauces are also great with the firm texture of a wild rice dish…and can liven it up.

Tomato based hot sauce

Tomato-based hot sauces pair well with the Mexican-inspired foods listed above. Some of these styles of sauces will be thick textured or chunky like salsa or picante.

Less popular foods paired with hot sauce

Because recently hot sauce manufacturers have boldly expanded the flavor combinations of the hot sauce varieties, they can be paired with foods outside of the common and popular food pairings. Desserts and snacks, as well as other combinations with other condiments, are all getting “spiced up”. Sometimes these foods are complemented by a popular sauce flavor like Huy Fong Sriracha.

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