Published May 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.
Of course a good hot sauce should pack some heat. But a great hot sauce should also enhance the flavor of your food.
The hot-sauce industry has never been, well, hotter. A stroll down the condiment aisle reveals a dizzying array of bottles, and that’s before you consider online sources and specialty stores. Altogether, the category includes literally thousands of brands that generate well over $240 million in annual sales, not to mention countless websites, blogs, and competitions, where hot-sauce diehards fanatically debate which brand is best. That said, hot sauce isn’t just for chile heads: Even cooks who don’t crave spicy food are likely to keep a bottle handy to give recipes a little kick. On any given day in the test kitchen, you’ll find us adding a few drops to everything from eggs and pasta to soups, sandwiches, and sauces. And of course we keep plenty on hand for the most famous application of all: Buffalo sauce.
To find the best all-purpose hot sauce, we decided to hold a competition of our own and looked to sales figures to help narrow the field. We compiled a list of eight top sellers in the traditional Cajun or Mexican styles, as well as an outlier in a distinctly different vein: a brand of Sriracha. This thick, bright-red condiment not only boasts a cult following in the test kitchen but has been flying off store shelves at the rate of 14 million bottles a year. We then rallied our boldest panel of tasters and presented them with the hot sauces in two applications: straight up over steamed white rice and in a Buffalo sauce that we used to coat fried chicken tenders. Then, to satisfy the daredevils among us, we held a separate, smaller tasting of sauces that are reportedly the hottest on the market (see “The Hottest of the Hot" in a related taste test). The ideal specimen in both cases would have to pack more than just a fiery punch; as with any condiment, we wanted something that evened out the flavor of each dish—in this case, with heat, bright tanginess, and all-around good chile flavor.
With the exception of the more viscous Sriracha, the consistency of most sauces was similar: fluid but not runny, with enough body to amply coat the rice and chicken. Heat levels ranged from “mouth-melting” to more “pleasingly” moderate. There were also surprisingly big differences when it came to overall flavor. Whereas a few samples delivered only sharp, vinegary shots of heat, others revealed more complex, nuanced flavors with hints of sweetness and smokiness that enhanced the overall taste of the chicken tenders.
Salt was a major factor when it came to a sauce’s flavor-boosting potential. Each of the top five samples contained at least 100 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon (two boasted more than double that amount), while most of the sauces that placed in the lower half of the rankings had significantly less salt. Vinegar was also a good thing, as long as it didn’t dominate: Our least favorite sauce listed vinegar as its first ingredient, racking up a slew of complaints for a “mouth-puckering” punch. Many of our top-ranking brands included garlic, and while in some cases the spices added to the Mexican brands contributed flavors reminiscent of barbecue sauce or even ketchup, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Pepper(s) to Pick
And what about the chiles themselves? Among the nine brands of hot sauce, there were at least seven different varietals. The fieriest brand used searing-hot habaneros for a sauce that only true chile heads appreciated. Most agreed with the taster who complained, “This one’s too hot—I can’t take it!” Meanwhile, cayenne showed up as the lone varietal in two of our three favorite sauces, which may not be a coincidence. A chile’s ability to enhance rather than overwhelm flavor is directly related to how much capsaicin it contains. Capsaicin, of course, is the compound in chiles that gives them their heat. In the chile realm, cayenne boasts only a moderate amount (or about a quarter of the capsaicin found in habanero peppers), allowing other flavors to shine through—including its own. Tasters appreciated the fruitiness this chile brought to both our co-winner and third-ranked Original Louisiana.
How the chiles were processed also influenced our choice of favorites. Cajun-style sauces ferment the fruit for months, concentrating flavor and adding complexity. Some Mexican-style sauces, on the other hand, incorporated both fresh and dried chiles, the latter contributing a “dusty” flavor that some tasters found distracting.
But cayenne wasn’t the only chile we liked in hot sauce. Our winner was the only brand in the lineup made with red jalapeño, a milder, even fruitier-tasting chile than cayenne. It was also the only hot sauce we sampled that contains sugar, giving it a noticeably sweeter quality that tasters enjoyed. It even scored a surprising runner-up vote in the Buffalo chicken test, in which tasters didn’t mind that it was a departure from the thinner consistency and tangier kick of a more classic Buffalo-sauce base. Instead, they embraced our top-ranking brand's thick texture and bright flavor, both of which come from the fact that this condiment is made with freshly ground peppers that go into the sauce unstrained.
Despite their differences, what really put the distance between our two winning sauces and the rest of the pack was flavor balance. With just the right combination of punchy heat, saltiness, sweetness, and garlic, both of our highly recommended co-winning hot sauces have earned a place in our pantry.