It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where a Nashville sauce came from. Like many regional sauces, for lack of a better name they are distinguished by cuisine by the area in and around the vicinity it came from…in this case, it’s Nashville Tennessee USA, and the sauce is called Nashville sauce. Spicy hot chicken has been consumed by communities across the US, but modern versions of Nashville chicken originated in the ’70s.
Nashville hot sauce is similar to a Buffalo-style chicken wing sauce but has more sugar added making it sweeter. It is usually served covering a chicken sandwich topped with pickles and has a heat level of about 1,500 SHU (Scoville Heat Units). Butter is the main ingredient like Buffalo sauce but a commercially bottled sauce will often use oil as a replacement.
Throughout the US there are many communities, demographics, or races that are populated in metropolitan areas or their suburbs. These populations of people will often likely all prefer a similar cuisine or have a preferred taste for certain foods. In the case of Nashville sauce, it was black communities in the 1970s in and around the Nashville area that liked hot and spicy chicken. Hence the name Nashville chicken or Nashville hot chicken. The sauce has now evolved and gets bottled to be simply called Nashville sauce or Nashville hot sauce.
Similar occurrences have happened elsewhere in the US in specific regions to create individual hot sauces but not all are culturally driven. A similar style of sauce was created for chicken wings in Buffalo NY about the same time as a Nashville chicken was invented. The sauce is called…yup you guessed it…Buffalo sauce! Although there is controversy about where Buffalo sauce came from it doesn’t conflict with a Nashville sauce but there are some similarities. Also, like many great hot sauces, it gets duplicated, replicated, or imitated.
Recently the recipe has been adopted by Kentucky Fried Chicken and like any great sauce, many brands have adapted the recipe and sell it as a bottle sauced. Other establishments have capitalized and offered similar sauces served on a similar style chicken sandwich.
Like many hot sauces, Nashville sauce is primarily used on deep-fried bone-in chicken. It is brushed on, poured on, or dumped on after the chicken has been deep-fried in oil. If using a bottled sauce, the amount used is your preference, but the sauce is usually very thick and needs some form of a basting brush to coat the chicken.
How hot is Nashville sauce?
Nashville hot chicken can have a range of heat to it depending on the company that manufactures the sauce or the establishment that provides the chicken. Compared to the vast levels of heat available for most brands of hot sauce a Nashville hot sauce is around 1,000 to 1,500 SHU or what may be called medium hot. In comparison, Tabasco® is about 1500 SHU. These sauces are made with red cayenne peppers which by themselves have a heat level of about 30,000 to 50,000 SHU.
Once processed and mixed with other ingredients the heat of the pepper is reduced significantly, like Tabasco®. Once poured onto a breaded chicken breast the heat or spice level of the sauce can diminish as well because bread products absorb some of the heat. The chart below indicates just over 20% of the sauce is red cayenne pepper powder making a homemade sauce about 6,000 SHU because 30,000 (SHU) divided by 5 (parts) equals 6,000.
What is Nashville hot sauce made of?
Like all hot sauces, there is a huge variety of flavors and ingredients even within a specialty sauce like a Nashville sauce. It typically uses red cayenne peppers either in the form of powder or used fresh and put through a process like many hot sauces.
Although the same red cayenne peppers are used in a Nashville sauce as are used in a Buffalo sauce, there isn’t always vinegar-like there is in a wing sauce. A Buffalo wing sauce will use a vinegar-based hot sauce as the base for the sauce. This is replaced with oil in a Nashville sauce, often vegetable, soybean, or canola that Buffalo chicken sauces don’t have. Sugar or some sort of sweetener is another common ingredient found in a Nashville sauce. This can sometimes “cut” the heat slightly in a hot sauce and will certainly add another dimension of flavor.
Homemade Nashville sauce
A homemade Nashville sauce is made with red cayenne pepper, brown sugar, paprika, garlic powder, butter, and salt with the majority of the contents being butter, and just melted together. Butter has been a common ingredient in many homemade wings sauces as well.
Homemade Buffalo sauce
A homemade Buffalo sauce has similar ingredients but without sugar and paprika. A wing sauce will often use a hot sauce that may already have a combination of spices as well as vinegar. The heat level of a homemade Buffalo sauce depends on the SHU of the hot sauce added. Also, many bottle hot sauces will have garlic, salt, and spices which will also affect the overall flavor. The original wing sauce used Franks Redhot which has a high sodium level so salt may not be needed if you are using it.
How is Nashville sauce different from Buffalo sauce?
Nashville hot sauce and a Buffalo wing sauce will similarities in the spice level, the type of peppers used, and some of the same spices. One of the main differences in flavor is that a Nashville sauce will include brown sugar and some recipes include honey. There have been variations of Buffalo wing sauces to include sugar and sweeteners but the original does not.
It is easy to argue the similarities between hot sauces, especially a Nashville and a Buffalo sauce. Perhaps in the late 60’s someone from Buffalo traveled down to Nashville and added some sugar to the sauce? There is undoubtedly a difference in the way these two sauces are presented and consumed but they can be very similar in bottle form.
The main ingredient in many bottled versions of a Nashville sauce is oil either in the form of vegetable, soybean, or canola. This differs greatly from a Buffalo wing sauce or traditional hot sauce. Many traditional and classic hot sauces usually do not have any oil at all in them but in the case of a Nashville sauce, it is to replace the butter. Using real butter in bottled hot sauces is not typical and is cause for refrigeration or will also decrease the shelf life of the sauce.
Nashville hot chicken
A Nashville sauce is usually served up on a chicken sandwich or the sauce is poured and smothered over a breaded chicken breast. Buffalo-style chicken wings are placed in a container or bag and shaken up until the sauce covers the wings. The coating on a deep-fried Buffalo chicken wing is minimal to none.
The breading on a piece of Nashville chicken is made of breadcrumbs therefore the sauce gets absorbed and it still maintains its crispiness. The sauce will also be thicker than many traditional hot sauces, so this also helps it from watering down the coating and making it soggy.