There are many varieties of hot peppers but all of them may not be used to make hot sauce. Some of the more common peppers used for various cuisine have a lower level of heat to them. However, the best peppers used to make hot sauce can reach some of the most extreme heat levels.
There are about 25 varieties of hot peppers that are most commonly used to make hot sauces. They are used to boost the heat of a sauce and are often overlooked for the flavor they add. Other hot pepper varieties may be used because of their availability or abundance of products obtainable. Although there are over 500 varieties of peppers, the best peppers to use in hot sauce provide, heat, flavor and vibrant color. A commonly known hot pepper in a hot sauce can be the best pepper to support a strong marketing campaign.
Three things distinguish each variety of pepper from each other, and they are heat level or the amount of capsaicin, the vibrant color, and the often neglected flavor. There are high and low levels of heat within each variety of pepper and there can also be an assortment of colors and flavors from the same species.
Download the FREE infographic here that lists each of the best hot peppers to use in a hot sauce from this article. The infographic is an expansion of the Hot Sauce Worksheet and part of the Hot Sauce Recipe Workbook, designed to help create gourmet hot sauce recipes. Get the INSTANT DOWNLOAD here or the PAPERBACK here! This is the perfect document to guide you through making gourmet hot sauce!…and it starts with selecting the best hot pepper. Read more below…
The level of heat defines a hot pepper
There is a huge difference in the level of heat from one pepper type to the other and there can be variance within that pepper species as well. The intensity of heat from a hot pepper and hot sauce is measured in Scoville Heat Units or SHU. The SHU of a pepper is also an indication of how much capsaicin a pepper contains. The hotter the pepper…the more capsaicin it contains.
Capsaicin is responsible for hot pepper heat
Capsaicin is the chemical compound in a pepper that is responsible for heat. This occurs as a natural deterrent to prevent natural predators from consuming the fruits. It seems to work the opposite for humans because they seem to be drawn toward hot sauce. The hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it has, and this is a good thing.
Capsaicin has many health benefits to it, but the advantages could be lost in the hot sauce. Capsaicin does not have any flavor to it so the amount of heat in a hot pepper will not affect the flavor of a hot sauce.
Ripeness makes a difference in flavor and heat
Peppers will turn different colors throughout the ripening process beginning with green. If they do not reach their full ripeness, they will be very bitter in flavor and firm in texture. Tabasco® uses a bright red colored stick to determine the ripeness of each crop so they can harvest at just the right time.
Soil conditions determine heat level
The proper pH balance of soil can make a difference in how hot the peppers will become. However, even the most acidic soil will not make a bell pepper any hotter. Growing peppers in soil with lower acidic levels can be achieved by adding organic matter like compost or natural acids like vinegar. The soil conditions won’t affect the color of hot peppers as much as the right harvest time will.
Hot peppers come in a variety of colors
Throughout history, a hot pepper has always been commonly associated with the color red and this has been synonymous with heat. The color of a hot pepper can range from yellow to pale and dark greens into orange and red hews. There are some varieties such as a chocolate habanero that are dark brown and a purple Jalapeno that is…well…purple. These colors will change differently for each pepper variety throughout the growing season, and this will make a difference in the flavor as well.
Some varieties of hot peppers will change colors as they are left on a plant to ripen, and this will lead to an increase in heat level. The best pepper for a hot sauce can sometimes be determined by color especially if you have a series of different sauces.
Hot peppers are full of flavor
Aside from heat, many people may not be aware that a pepper has a variety of flavors as well. Flavor, like heat, can vary from pepper to pepper. I love the sweet and fruity flavor of a ripe Red Bell pepper…but I wish they had just a little heat to them. I make sauces with them but also include a spicier pepper as well. A jalapeno or habanero combines nicely with the flavor of orange or red bell pepper and if used correctly can retain the flavor of both.
Pepper varieties and their SHU
The best pepper to use in a hot sauce can often be defined by personal preference towards the type of sauce you want to make. Making a hot sauce with an extreme level of heat may include a Carolina Reaper, Trinidad Scorpion, or Ghost Pepper…or all three! However, a hot sauce unique in appearance may include a Scotch Bonnet or Habanero.
*contains Amazon affiliate links
Carolina Reaper 1,400,00 – 2,200,000 SHU
This is one of the hottest peppers in the world if harvested at the right time. Be cautious in using a Carolina Reaper in a hot sauce but it works well with some other common hot sauce ingredients. Always wear gloves when preparing a hot sauce with these peppers! Get seeds here, fresh peppers here or try Elijah’s Xtreme Regret using Carolina Reaper. This is the best pepper for a hot sauce of extreme heat!
Trinidad Scorpion 1,500,000 – 2,000,000 SHU
The full name of this pepper is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion. These peppers mix well with fruits in a hot sauce but do not worry about the appearance because it just gets blended into a sauce. Get a bottle of CaJohns Trinidad Moruga Scorpion here or get live plants to grow your own through this link.
Naga Viper 1,200,000 – 1,382,000 SHU
This was at one time the hottest pepper in the world. Like the Carolina Reaper and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the Naga Viper has a fruity flavor to it. However, because of the slower “burn”, the flavor can be tasted more. This is one of the best peppers to use in a hot sauce that also uses fruit or fruity flavors.
Ghost 800,000 – 1,000,000 SHU
The Ghost pepper or Bhut Jolokia grows in many colors to include white and purple, but the most well-known variety is a bright and vibrant red. The flavor profile of a Ghost pepper is earthy and resembles root vegetables or vegetables grown in the ground. Yellow Bird makes a Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce that is under 24,000 SHU so you appreciate the flavor of the pepper. Get it here!
Chocolate Habanero 500,000 – 1,000,000 SHU
These peppers are slightly larger than a typical habanero and the pods are slightly larger. Chocolate Habanero is a deep rich dark brown color. These peppers still have the fruity flavor of a Habanero but also an earthy or smoky flavor as well. Punch Drunk uses Chocolate Habanero using peppers grown in the US. Get it through this link.
Scotch Bonnet 100,000 – 350,000 SHU
These peppers are named for the shape of a hat from Scotland they resemble. Their variety of colors and fruity flavors allow them to blend well with fruits like mango and papaya. Like other varieties of hot pepper, the Scotch Bonnet blends well with carrots in a hot sauce. Queen Majesty makes a delicious hot sauce using Scotch Bonnet and ginger. Try a bottle here! OR get plants and seeds to grow your own.
Fatalii 125,00 – 325,000 SHU
Fatalii peppers are a dark yellow to light orange color. These peppers can bring bright and vibrant color to a hot sauce not typically seen. Originally from Africa, the Fatalii have a citrus flavor to it not typical of a hot pepper. These peppers mix so well with a Mango Fatalii sauce from Horseshoe. Check it out here! A Fatalii is the best pepper to use in a hot sauce that you want to have a unique color.
Habanero 100,00 – 300,000 SHU
Habanero is the most common pepper used in a hot sauce recipe. These come in a variety of flavors but orange is the most common. They have a fruity flavor to them that hits the tongue before the heat, and they are often combined with fruits within a sauce as well. This is the best pepper to use in a hot sauce because of it’s familiarity to consumers.
Datil 100,000 – 300,000 SHU
Peri Peri 100,000 – 120,500 SHU
Also called African birds’ eye or Piri Piri. These peppers pack a lot of heat for their size. A Peri Peri has a slightly smoky flavor to them with a bright red color. A pepper this small would take a lot of peppers but fortunately, that pack a lot of heat and flavor.
Thai Chili 50,000 – 100,000 SHU
There are many varieties of this pepper and all of them will have varying degrees of heat. This pepper is most often used in Thai curry paste and is the best hot pepper for a Thai inspired hot sauce. Like many hot peppers, a Thai Chili has a fruity taste to it and is used in many Asian-inspired hot sauces.
Peqiun 30,000 – 60,000 SHU
The nutty flavor of a Pequin packs a lot into a small pepper. These little bright red peppers are very hot for their size. Fat Cat has a great sauce with Pequin and papaya…yum!
Tabasco 40,000 – 50,000 SHU
Tabasco peppers are mostly grown in Central America, Mexico, South America, and the gulf coast states of the US. These are similar to Cayenne peppers in appearance and heat but very different in their flavors.
Cayenne 30,000 – 50,000 SHU
An aged Red Cayenne peppers are very common in many hot sauces and is usually the type of peppers used in a Louisiana-style hot sauce. This is the typical image you see when referencing a hot pepper; a long thin red pepper. Many classic hot sauces like Franks RedHot use a cayenne pepper.
Chile de Arbol 20,000 – 22,500 SHU
Serrano 5,000 – 15,000 SHU
A Serrano pepper has a dark green color to them similar to a Jalapeno but is much hotter. Their bitter flavor can be decreased with the addition of sugar in a hot sauce but they also pair well with other hot peppers.
Fresno 2,500 – 10,000 SHU
Fresno’s are slightly hotter than a jalapeno but look very similar. This is another type of hot pepper known for its smoky flavor. A Fresno adds great stand-alone smoky flavor to a hot sauce without using liquid smoke or other additives.
Jalapeno 2,500 – 5,000 SHU
Jalapeno is one of the most common peppers to use in a hot sauce due to the low SHU and its availability. Distinct from its dark green color and versatile use the Jalapeno can have a fresh and bright flavor without overwhelming heat. I have seen the SHU listed as high as 8,000. Get fresh Jalapeno here for about $.28 an ounce.
Chipotle 2,500 – 5,000 SHU
Chipotle peppers are smoked and dried Jalapeno. The smoking process reduces the SHU making them a popular pepper for chili. The smoky flavor works well in a hot sauce making it a popular selection in many hot sauces. This is the best pepper to use in a hot sauce meant to be consumed with meat.
Guajillo 2,500 – 5,000 SHU
A Guajillo is a dried Mirasol pepper from Mexico. Their heat level is considered very mild. A Guajillo has a great smoky taste with a hint of a berry flavor. This is a larger pepper that does not pack much heat for its size.
Hatch Chili 2,000 – 5,000 SHU
These are peppers grown in a specific region of New Mexico called the Hatch Valley. These well sought-after chilis are often roasted and used in a chili sauce. This is the best pepper to use in a hot sauce at a gathering where consumers have a low tolerance level.
Poblano 1,000 – 2,000 SHU
Poblano is mild in heat but has a delicious fresh pepper taste to them. They are one of the larger peppers on the list with an average weight of 55 grams. These peppers are often stuffed with chili and cheese.
Anaheim 1,000 – 1,500 SHU
Anaheim peppers have a pale green color to them with a mild level of heat. An Anaheim pepper has a bright and tangy flavor but will make a mild hot sauce if they are used by itself.
Ancho 1,000 – 1,500 SHU
An Ancho is a dried Poblano pepper. They have a dark maroon to brown color that will also present itself in a hot sauce. Another commonly uses pepper in Mexican cooking. They are typically used to make a paste-style hot sauce.
Bell 0 – 100 SHU
Although any color Bell pepper will have zero heat to them they are packed with flavor and complement many varieties of hot peppers. These peppers are available all year long in most grocery stores and markets. Try the Creamy Garlic Red Pepper Sauce from Dave’s Gourmet. It used Red Bell Peppers and Red Jalapeno for heat.