Hot sauce as a condiment has been on dinner tables for nearly 200 years. It is rapidly becoming one of the go-to condiments for a variety of different foods. Statistics show that consumers are eating more hot sauce than ever, and these numbers are only going to increase over the next five years.
There are over 200 hot sauce manufacturers on the market currently who make several varieties of hot sauce. This can be overwhelming if you have become a hot sauce connoisseur who loves trying new sauces. Selecting a hot sauce for the first time should use proper tasting methods to determine how hot a sauce is along with understanding the foods it will pair with. A hot sauce will also have a specific flavor to it, and this will guide you to the foods it should be paired with.
Hot sauce is available just about everywhere! More and more grocery stores, convenient stores, specialty shops, online shops, and restaurants offer hot sauce for sale, sample, or for use with almost any meal. Having few calories, it has become a phenomenon and is not going away anytime soon. It has been the consumer’s demand for these new sauce creations that has fueled the increase in new products. As the demand for hot sauce increases so does the manufacturer’s intent to produce exotic hot sauces that go beyond the traditional or classic hot sauce with the different flavors and various heat levels they offer.
Many of these products incorporate specific flavors for a certain type of sauce and have become Gourmet, Artisan, or Craft Hot Sauces using exotic ingredients, complex processes, and layers of flavors. Some of these varieties can be driven by the cultural introduction of specific sauces and their use can be guided by the foods they are eaten with. If you have determined that you love hot sauce understand that there are hundreds of brands, varieties, styles, and types to choose from. This guide is intended to clarify how to taste, eat and use many of the available hot sauce products on the market.
How to “eat” hot sauce
It may seem ridiculous that there is a guide telling you how to eat a hot sauce but I have seen many people ignore these three principles and walk away with a bad experience, end up eating a sauce that is too hot or realize they may have an allergic reaction to one of the ingredients.
3 Principles of Hot Sauce Consumption – know your tolerance, understand the heat level, and be aware of what is inside…
Hot sauces have developed into gourmet sauces with layers of flavors that are intended to enhance foods and heighten someone’s eating experience. Hot sauce is a condiment that was intended to help complement foods such as tacos, rice, or quesadillas but has evolved far beyond Mexican Foods into many other uses. Before you dump bottles of sauce on your food you should know, understand, and practice a few principles.
Know your tolerance level
All hot sauce will have some level of heat to it no matter who the manufacturer is or what the variety is and in recent years some manufacturers have prided themselves on making hot sauces with extreme levels of heat. If you have never tried some of the newer sauces available, you must know your tolerance level. You can build a tolerance to very hot sauces but it can take some time and effort at eating a lot of sauces.
If you have never eaten a hot sauce other than Franks RedHot (SHU 500), Sriracha (SHU 2,200), or Tabasco® (2,500 SHU), and you think these are hot…then you have a low heat tolerance. While these have become the staple go-to table sauces for flavor, other manufacturers have used hot peppers of high heat levels for other reasons. The rise in heat levels continues as cultivators are constantly developing and growing peppers of extreme heat levels. This is driven by the consumer’s desire to try new sauce creations with each one being hotter and more flavorful than the next.
If you simply do not enjoy eating spicy food…then you have a low heat tolerance. Tolerance to hot sauce can be built up to accept the heat of hotter peppers or sauces but should be done gradually. This tolerance is needed to enjoy the many varieties of hot peppers and hot sauces available on the market.
Determining how hot a sauce is can be tricky if you have never eaten it before but there are some common sense tactics as well as some general informative methods. Refrain from pouring an unknown hot sauce all over your food if you have never had it before.
All hot sauce labels will include a list of the ingredients, and this will provide the type of hot pepper that has been used to make the sauce. Knowing what hot peppers are used to make a hot sauce will provide a general idea of how hot the sauce is. All hot peppers are ranked by their pungency by a measurement known as the Scoville scale. Although this scale is not always directly applied to a hot sauce, knowing the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) will keep you from mixing up an Anaheim Pepper used in a hot sauce with a Trinidad Scorpion.
Hot sauce ranking and the Scoville scale
Not all packaged hot sauce is labeled or ranked by how hot it is and if it does not have a SHU ranking the heat level indicated on the label is probably only the manufacturers educated guess. Many hot peppers can be tested for their Scoville Heat Units (SHU) as well as hot sauces, but it is up to the manufacturer to provide this information on the label. The Scoville scale was invented to determine how spicy a pepper is and it is still used today to primarily rank the spiciness of a pepper. The scale can be a direct indication of how hot a sauce is that uses specific hot peppers in its recipe, if they are not diluted too much with the other ingredients.
The varieties of hot peppers used to make a hot sauce can be a direct indication as to how hot the sauce is. Much of the heat associated with the peppers can be diluted within the other ingredients but there is usually a reason that manufacturers are using a Carolina Reaper, Trinidad Morgue Scorpion, and a Ghost Pepper in their hot sauce…and it’s because they are some of the hottest peppers on the planet. Knowing some of the more common peppers on the Scoville scale is very important before trying new hot sauces.
25 Most Common Hot Peppers Used In Hot Sauce – Ranked by Heat Level
hot peppers have an individualized flavor to them that often goes unnoticed, overlooked or masked within the other ingredients of a hot sauce
A hot sauce that uses some of the spicier peppers on the scale will be very hot but how they are used in the sauce will also determine the outcome of the flavor. Common hot sauce ingredients like vinegar can diminish the flavor and heat of peppers. A strong, sour, bitter, or sharp flavor can also mask the flavor of the peppers used in a sauce. The flavor of a hot pepper can be almost unnoticed by the spiciness that a it has and can be completely ignored if you have a low tolerance to spice.
Be aware of what’s inside
Never consume a food product without first knowing what is inside…and this goes for hot sauce as well. Of course you are aware it is going to be hot and should know how hot…but what else is inside? Traditional and classic hot sauces are usually made only with hot peppers and vinegar. However, many gourmet hot sauces that are made today include a variety of ingredients to include mushrooms, citrus, syrups, fruit, carrots, mustard, sugar and other additives. This does not mean they are not good, that they are not good for you, or that they are not a hot sauce. The combination of different ingredients has allowed manufacturers on every level to explore and expand hot sauce as a condiment.
hot sauce is one of the most purest condiments without many additives, fats, or allergens
Always read the ingredient label before you eat a hot sauce. This will tell you almost everything about what is inside the sauce. An ingredient label will list each ingredient by volume. This information can be used to determine what type of peppers is used (how hot the sauce is) and other contents that may be allergens against your body. A high quality hot sauce will generally have the pepper used listed as one of the first ingredient before other “fillers” or flavors.
The type of hot pepper provides heat and flavor
There is more to a hot pepper than the amount of heat, spiciness, or pungency that it has. Many varieties of hot peppers can be distinguished by their color as well and can range from grassy green, pale yellow, bright orange, vibrant red, sharp violet and deep dark brown. These colors will directly show presence in a hot sauce that is made with them. What lacks to be emphasized about a hot pepper after it transforms into a hot sauce is that all hot peppers have a distinct flavor. Many times this flavor can be lost within a hot sauce. Read more on The Many Flavors of Hot Sauce.
Ancho (1,000 SHU), Poblano (1,500 SHU), and Hatch Chili (2,000 SHU) are on the lower side of the Scoville scale and are not typically used as the primary pepper in a hot sauce but that does not mean that they don’t have full flavor or contributions to a hot sauce. Many of these pepper varieties that are lower in heat are used for cooking but not as frequently used in hot sauces. They are more often used within a hot sauce in combination with hot peppers for their flavoring. There are 1,000’s of pepper varieties available and it is nearly impossible to taste them all. It would be a huge endeavor to try ALL the hot sauces made with every type of pepper, but hot sauce is a phenomenon and word travels fast if a hot sauce is flavorful. Most commercially available hot sauces will use about 25 Different Hot Peppers because these are the most well known and available for making great sauces.
How To Determine the Heat Level of a Hot Sauce
Word of mouth
Information on how hot a sauce is can often be exchanged by the consumers, acquaintances, or friends who have eaten it. Many people like to boast and brag about the heat level they have “survived” so finding an individual who has enjoyed the hottest sauces can be found on almost any social media channel. This information may not be accurate if you do not have the same tolerance level of the person who has eaten the specific sauce they are recommending but it could still be a good estimate.
Heat level or type of peppers used
Understanding the heat level of the peppers used in a hot sauce is as important as knowing your tolerance level. The hot peppers on the Scoville scale will often have a range to them and their heat can often be diluted within the sauce but knowing the heat level of peppers used in a hot sauce will tell you how hot the sauce is.
Labeling on the bottle
Many hot sauces will indicate the level of heat from the labeling on the bottle. This could be indicated with the words mild, medium, hot, or extreme heat as well as other methods that the manufacturer chooses. Some hot sauces will indicate the Scoville Heat Units (SHU) ranging anywhere from 0 to 2,000,000 but this rating will fluctuate from manufacturer to manufacturer even if similar hot peppers are used in the sauce. Extracts will get up to the 16,000,000 SHU level.
Some manufacturers of hot sauce selling sauce on a commercial scale will have their sauces tested in laboratories to determine the heat level as well as many other attributes. Ranking a hot sauce by spiciness may be needed for a competitive analysis but also for marketing purposes. There is a demand for sauces of extreme heat and consumers are always looking for the next hottest sauce. Being able to boast “the hottest sauce in the world” will attract the attention of consumers and provide YOU with the information needed about your consumption.
Name of the sauce
The name of the hot sauce can be a good indication of the heat level of the sauce or even the contents. If something is labeled with the words “extreme”, “insanity” or “pain” then it will most likely have a greater heat level to it than one without this label. Many sauces will also simply include mild, medium, or hot as part of the name of the sauce or indicated somewhere on the label.
Companies and consumers love amusing graphics on a hot sauce bottle. Many graphics like the Grim Reaper or a skull and crossbones are indicating you will die if you eat this sauce, are a clear indication from the manufacturer that the sauce is hot. Although graphics can be amusing, they are not always a clear indication of the exact heat level. However, if you know you have a low tolerance to hot sauce stay away from bottles with a skull printed on the label.
Heat level by popular brands
Many brands of hot sauce may be known for their extreme level of heat. Hot sauces from Blair’s are known for their use of extremely hot extracts and are also known for indicating that in the brand name by including “sudden death”, “mega death” or “ultra death” to label sauces. Others may just utilize an average level of spiciness throughout their brand. Brands like Franks RedHot has consistently kept a reliable level of heat even with an expanded product line.
How to “taste” hot sauce
Hot sauce can be tasted like a fine wine to include its aroma and appearance. In recent years hot sauces have become a gourmet condiment offering layers of flavors like many decadent foods also do. Some sauces being hotter than others will need to be tasted with caution or in minuscule amounts as you build your tolerance. Never eat large portions of hot sauce that you have never had before or that are labeled as having an extreme level of heat.
1. Pour a minimal amount of sauce on a spoon
This will give control over sampling a sauce but will also provide the full flavor in its purest form. A white plastic spoon will show the appearance of the sauce. How foods appear or are presented can be a major part of the taste experience but it doesn’t need to be the sole influence on how a hot sauce tastes.
2. Dab a minuscule amount on your finger
Dabbing a small portion of the sauce with your finger will give you a sense of heat level before getting into the full flavor. Large amounts of very hot sauce or juice from very hot peppers can irritate the skin but a small dab of sauce on your finger should be fine. Eating an entire spoonful of extremely hot sauce that you are not prepared for could ruin the tasting experience.
3. Apply to the tongue but avoid the lips
The lips and mouth area are much more sensitive than the tongue. Enjoying a hot sauce with a meal will inevitably include getting sauce on the lips but for tasting purposes, they should be avoided. The tongue is where the taste receptors are so this will give the most accurate indication of flavor.
4. Have milk, bread, tortilla chip, or crackers on hand
Milk and other dairy products will break up the capsaicin oils found in hot peppers, the source of the heat in a hot sauce. Ice cream can stay in the mouth longer because of its consistency and this helps reduce the “burn” of a hot sauce that lingers. Bread, crackers, tortilla chips, or other grain-based foods can absorb the spiciness from hot peppers.
5. Eat on a full stomach
Eating with food in your stomach will absorbs some of the hot sauce but you will still receive the full flavor in your mouth and taste buds. This does not mean need to be full beyond capacity where you can’t enjoy trying new hot sauces but eat a modest meal before you go trying dozens of sauces.
If you plan on sampling
If you intend to try sampling multiple sauces in one sitting then you must take several minutes or longer between each sauce. This not only allows your lips, tongue, and mouth area to cool down but it will also cleanse your palate. All flavors from the previous sample need to be “rinsed” from the taste receptors to enjoy the next sample.
How to deal
There is always going to be a new hot sauce tasted for the first time that may be more than you prepared yourself for even with all the research that has been done. I can still get caught off guard even with sauces I have eaten several times. Always be prepared with some bread, milk, or ice cream. The dairy products will soothe the hot sauce burn while bread will absorb the capsaicin oil. The effects the hot sauce has on the body will eventually go away so waiting between tastings is a great way to enjoy several sauces in one sitting.
Other common effects hot sauce has on the body are running or watery eyes, sweating, and hiccups. These are natural reactions and can happen from eating any hot sauce, depending on your tolerance. The hotter the sauce the better the chances are that it could cause these adverse effects but there ways to deal with a hot sauce that is too hot or causes hiccups.
Many hot sauces with a high level of spiciness can agitate the diaphragm and cause hiccups during or after consumption. This is not unusual but will go away eventually if you don’t try to force it. The best method for controlling hiccups agitated by a strong hot sauce is to create steady and controlled breathing. Long inhaled and exhaled breathing allows the body to take control of the diaphragm and cease the hiccups. The hiccups from eating hot sauce are caused by the capsaicin in hot peppers and can occur no matter what type of sauce it is.
Types Of Hot Sauces
There are many variations of a hot sauce and many sauces with spices that may not be classified under the same umbrella as a hot sauce. Buffalo sauce, for example, is not considered a hot sauce by many consumers but is more of a sauce specifically used for chicken wings, even though they are often available with extreme levels of heat.
Other types of sauces can be classified by the consistency, the ingredients they contain, or how they are used. Salsa can often be found among and used with hot sauce but is a thick and chunky condiment, unlike hot sauce which can be a very thin consistency. Often this can be many of the same ingredients as hot sauce but of a different evenness, texture, or consistency.
A hot sauce can be defined by WHERE it comes from
Where a hot sauce originates can define how it is classified, labeled or how it is referred to. In the US sauces like Louisiana style, Buffalo sauce, or Nashville sauce all became popular in the regions where they originated. Other sauces such as Mexican or Caribbean may be a more generalized title for a style of sauce because those regions are much larger and the sauces can have many variations. Other hot sauces defined by region are due to the availability of certain ingredients specific to the area.
Other ingredients of a hot sauce are important
The type of hot peppers used in a hot sauce will give a fairly accurate indication of the heat level as well as an influence on the flavor but it is the other ingredients that create the flavor profile of a hot sauce. Hot sauces have come a long way from a simple hot pepper and vinegar combination but there ar still many typical ingredients used. Salt and garlic have always been standard ingredients but many hot sauce manufacturers are expanding their use of ingredients to include lesser-known components to make unique creations. Truff’s uses truffles for a creamy textured sauce, Seed Ranch now uses mushrooms and Mitch’s uses cream for a decadent Buffalo sauce. Read here for the 50 Most Common Hot Sauce Ingredients.
Types of hot sauces
A simple hot sauce of hot peppers and vinegar at one time defined what a hot sauce was. Instead of flavors getting defined into 7 Types Of Sauces now flavors are evolving, new peppers are getting cultivated and sauces from certain regions are being (re) discovered. This could be a lot a sauce, condiments and toppings that could get classified under the heading “hot sauce”. Some sauces can have the same ingredients but the consistency could classify it as another sauce. Although connoisseurs may be adamant about what is defined as a hot sauce here are 13 that each has a distinct flavor with one thing in common…heat!
Traditional / classic
A traditional or classic hot sauce will usually only combine hot peppers with vinegar and maybe a couple other ingredients like salt and garlic. It will have a sharp and pungent flavor from the hot peppers but will also have a strong and almost sour vinegar flavor. Because of the high vinegar content, a classic hot sauce will be very watery but still full of classic flavor.
Harissa originates and is popular in North Africa and Moroccan regions. It has a thick consistency and is typically made with many combinations or varieties of hot peppers specific to the region. Harissa is a medium heat paste used for dipping or to flavor the main dish.
Gochujang is a Korean hot pepper paste that is similar in consistency to harissa. It can also be medium heat but contains glutinous rice and fermented soybeans to give it a thick consistency. Korean chili paste or gochujang is often used as a barbecue-style sauce on pork ribs.
Sriracha is a type of hot sauce, not a brand name. It will usually use a fermentation process and some type of sugar after it has been fermented. Its medium level of heat and full flavor has made it one of the more popular sauces in recent years.
A Mexican hot sauce will usually have a medium to a high level of heat. A thin consistency along with a red chili pepper and vinegar combination creates the signature flavor. Many varieties of Mexican hot sauce use guajillo or Arbol peppers for a subtle smoky flavor. Tomatoes are often added for a taco-style hot sauce.
A Louisiana hot sauce is one of the oldest forms of hot sauce and uses a simple combination of aged cayenne peppers and vinegar. This sauce has a very thin consistency with reddish-orange color and is the classic representation of a hot sauce.
Chili oil is NOT considered a hot sauce by many…it is however a sauce that is hot! These types of sauces have a high oil content and the amount of heat is only determined by the amount of crushed red pepper they have in them. Also called chili crisp, their level of heat is usually under 1,000 SHU.
A Picante can be similar to a Mexican hot sauce with the addition of tomatoes. This sauce is similar to salsa but is usually cooked down to a much thinner consistency. Picante is used as a sauce whereas salsa is used more for dipping.
Many Caribbean-style hot sauces will include fruits such as mango, papaya, coconut or other fruits and will usually not have extreme levels of heat. These types of sauces will also have added sugars to enhance the sweetness of the fruits and are used during cooking or as a finish.
A Thai-style hot sauce can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer but will usually be made with a Thai chili or bird’s eye chili. Lime juice, garlic, and cilantro are common ingredients but it is the addition of fish sauce can make many Thai hot sauces stand out from other styles of hot sauce.
A Buffalo sauce is made from a cayenne pepper sauce or hot sauce and butter. This has been a classic combination enjoyed with chicken wings and has since seen many adaptions. Also called wing sauce, chicken wing sauce, or Buffalo wing sauce a homemade Buffalo sauce can have added vinegar and garlic. Franks RedHot was the original hot sauce used for a Buffalo sauce.
A Nashville sauce is similar to a Buffalo sauce except that it also includes sugar, brown sugar, or honey to slightly sweeten it. Nashville sauce is used almost exclusively on a breaded chicken sandwich although it is also eaten with wings as a buffalo sauce would be.
Shatta is a thick and coarsely blended sauce of Middle Eastern origin. The simple combination of hot peppers, lemon juice, garlic, and spices gives this sauce a fresh taste. Shatta can have distinct red or green color and doesn’t have complex ingredient combinations or intricate processes to create its fresh flavor.
Flavor classifications of hot sauce
There are two distinguishing characteristics, heat and flavor, that make a hot sauce stand out as a condiment and also stand out among itself as a unique hot sauce. The level of heat can be defined by the type of peppers used but the flavor of a hot sauce may involve complex ingredient combinations and intricate processes.
Many hot sauce brands that follow a traditional or classic hot sauce have a distinct consistency but may utilize unique ingredient combinations. It is this combination of ingredients that allows the hot sauces to have different “flavors” that can be different from flavor profiles.
Some flavors present themselves clearly in the overall flavor profile of the hot sauce while others can be mixed in and tasted throughout the tasting experience. A sweet flavor within a hot sauce will usually hit the tongue first because those receptors are on the tip of the tongue. A sour flavor of vinegar or citrus will also hit the tongue first whereas the pungency of a hot pepper will be tasted towards the end of the flavor experience and can linger down the back of the throat.
Many other hot sauce flavors are unique that can also make each bottle and variety original. Smoke, garlic, fruity, earthy, buttery, and bitter are all flavors that can be found within a hot sauce. These flavors fall under a larger umbrella called “flavor profiles”. The five flavor profiles are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Certain ingredients that fall under these flavor profiles will allow a separate flavor aside from heat to be tasted.
Hot pepper flavor
Hot peppers will have a flavoring that is unique to each variety that is separate from the pungency, spiciness, or heat. This flavor can often get lost within a hot sauce if the hot pepper is not featured as one of the main ingredients.
Bitter, earthy, grassy, and nutty are common hot peppers flavors used to describe how they taste. These flavors can be subtle, are usually overlooked due to their heat, and can also be masked by including many ingredients in a hot sauce. Processes such as roasting or toasting peppers can enhance the natural flavors of hot peppers but overcooking them can completely reduce the flavor and heat. Many consumers eat hot sauce for the heat and ignore the flavor of the peppers they are made with or overlook the foods they are paired with.
Pairing Hot Sauce With Food
Many hot sauces can be defined by the types of foods they are eaten with. After all…hot sauce is a condiment meant to be eaten with and compliment many types of foods. A Mexican-style hot sauce will be eaten with tacos, quesadillas, and beans & rice, a Thai-style hot sauce may be consumed with stir fry and noodles whereas a Louisiana hot sauce is usually consumed with gumbo, crawfish, or other creole foods. Other uses of hot sauce on food can be used to enhance, embellish, or engage the consumer. Because hot sauce is a condiment it is often only used as a topping or finish sauce but there are many other uses that a hot sauce can have on foods. Read more on How To Pair A Hot Sauce With Food.
Hot sauce and food
Consumers are eating hot sauce with more food types than they ever have because the flavors of hot sauces are continually changing. Hot sauces of any variety are being consumed with eggs, pizza, and hamburgers all over the US. and consumers are also venturing into dessert sauces and spicy snacks like popcorn as well. Read 9 Foods Great With Hot Sauce for more delicious combinations.
Knowing what foods a hot sauce goes well with is just as important as accepting the flavor of the sauce. Remember that hot sauce is a “sauce” and is intended to complement other foods. Generally speaking, other spicy foods don’t need hot sauce as a topping. Many hot sauces that are labeled by region will also go well with foods from the same region. Examples would be a Thai, Mexican, or Louisiana-style hot sauce that will go well with foods from those regions.
Create exhilarateing eggs
Eggs and hot sauce are a classic combination but the origins are unknown. The combinations between the many hot sauce varieties along with the many ways eggs can be cooked could be endless. Fried or scrambled eggs are the more common form eaten with hot sauce instead of hard-boiled or poached. I love an over easy egg with tons of Cholula.
Enhance a drab ol’ dip
Dips are an excellent way to enjoy hot sauce flavors without needing to conquer the extreme heat some peppers have. A dip can be made by simply mixing a hot sauce with sour cream, hummus, or cream cheese but this will still bring out the flavors of the sauce. It will however also diminish the heat of the hot sauce and also mask the pungency slightly.
Spice up a burger
Burgers have always accepted a condiment and beef blends will with spiciness. Topping a burger with your favorite sauce is a simple selection process and can turn any burger into an exceptional flavor. Hot sauce can be mixed in before the burger is cooked so the flavor permeates through.
Make mac & cheese magnificent
Mac & cheese is another classic food that goes well with hot sauce. The cheese and pasta can reduce the heat of a hot sauce but the generalized flavor can provide an excellent base to complement a pungent hot sauce. This is another type pf food that I like with a Louisiana style hot sauce.