A decade ago, many Americans hadn’t even heard of sriracha. Then, sometime around 2010, this Thai-style chile-garlic sauce went from specialty ingredient to phenomenon. Suddenly it was as common to see sriracha on a T-shirt or water bottle as it was to see it in a Vietnamese pho shop. Compared to other popular hot sauces such as Frank’s RedHot Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce, the winner of our hot sauce taste test, sriracha is thicker and more garlicky, with a pronounced sweetness and a fiery finish. We use it often: As a condiment straight from the bottle, it adds zip to fried or scrambled eggs and all sorts of noodle or rice dishes. We also use sriracha in marinades, stir-fry sauces, and dips and sometimes even for a garlicky-sweet twist on spicy buffalo wings.
Like Xerox photocopiers and Kleenex tissues, a single brand of sriracha has come to be synonymous with the entire category. But Huy Fong, the iconic brand with the rooster logo, isn’t the only option. It wasn’t even the first sriracha (more on that later). But now that Huy Fong has paved the way for sriracha in America, other companies have entered the game. Even Tabasco is making a version. With more options available, we wondered which was best. To find out, we purchased five srirachas priced from $2.49 to $6.99 per bottle ($0.12 to $0.38 per ounce). Panelists sampled them in a trio of blind tastings: plain, in spicy mayo sauce with potato chips for dunking, and drizzled over fried rice.
Like Xerox photocopiers and Kleenex tissues, a single brand has come to be synonymous with the entire category.
Although sriracha is best known in America as an accompaniment for Vietnamese pho and as a key ingredient in spicy tuna sushi rolls, the sauce originated in Thailand. The original incarnation can be traced back to the 1930s, when Thanom Chakkapak started making a chile-garlic sauce in the seaside town of Sriraja (the Thai characters are also sometimes translated as Si Racha). At first, Chakkapak made it just for family and friends, but when she began to sell it commercially, she named it after her town. In the 1980s, Chakkapak sold her company to the Thai Theparos Food Production Public Co., Ltd., a major Thai food manufacturer, and it became known as Sriraja Panich. According to a cookbook produced by Thai Theparos, Chakkapak’s sauce was used mainly as a dip for seafood. It’s now primarily found in restaurants, where it’s used as a condiment for foods such as Thai omelet (khai jeow), pad thai, and grilled or fried appetizers. It’s still the most popular brand in Thailand and has some limited distribution in the United States.
Around the same time that Chakkapak sold her company, a different sort of sriracha was taking root in southern California. David Tran, having emigrated from Vietnam to California, started making and selling a chile-garlic sauce in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. He used the name “sriracha” and the same key ingredients as Chakkapak: hot peppers, garlic, salt, and sugar. But his sauce wasn’t a copycat. In the 2013 documentary Sriracha by Griffin Hammond, Tran explains that he wanted to create a sauce to go with Vietnamese foods such as pho for anyone who craves a bit of heat.
Like the original sauces, every product in our lineup is made from some sort of chile pepper, garlic, sugar, and vinegar. Whatever the style, we believe that a hot sauce should be two things: spicy and flavorful. Tasters looked for a sriracha that hit every note. In addition to being “pleasantly garlicky,” our favorites “started sweet” and had “a heat that builds.” These tasted great plain and enhanced the flavor of the fried rice without stealing the show.
A few sauces missed the mark on flavor. One, from Tabasco, is a combination of the company’s original sauce and other ingredients, such as garlic and sugar, that are typical of sriracha. Tabasco itself is pretty fiery, but our panel thought that this version tasted “mild” and “flat.” When we asked an independent lab to measure the spiciness of the sauces (using the Scoville Heat Unit scale), Tabasco scored lowest. Tasters wanted more heat, and they found it in both Huy Fong and another high-spice sauce. Two other products had unexpected flavors that competed with the classic sweet-spicy-garlicky notes. One had a “funky” quality that reminded us of the Korean chile paste gochujang. We liked it, but we preferred sauces that didn’t have that distinctive earthy-sweet fermented flavor. Another sauce tasted fruity, like “pineapple,” “orange,” and even “Juicy Fruit gum.” It was also the only Sriracha made with “anchovy extract” (or fish sauce), which may explain the slightly “briny” and “fishy” quality we noticed. Our five srirachas contain from 75 to 190 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon, but none tasted too salty. The amount of sugar per serving didn’t determine our preferences, either. Most contain 1 gram per serving, and the one sauce with less didn’t taste any less sweet.
In all three tastings, our panelists had strong opinions about the texture of the sauces. Two had a coarse, grainy texture that reminded us of sambal oelek, a thick Indonesian chile-garlic sauce, which has also been popularized in America by Huy Fong. Another was a little “loose” and “thin,” and it made for a slightly thinner dipping sauce. Our tasters wanted a thick, smooth sauce that kept its shape on top of the fried rice but also wasn’t too thick to stir in. Two nailed it. They were “smooth” and “clung to the rice” nicely. Dipping sauces made with these thicker srirachas were “creamy” and had just the right consistency for dunking.
If you’re a devotee of Huy Fong’s Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce, we’ve got news for you: It wasn’t our favorite. Tasters really liked it, and it came in a close second place, but a sriracha from Kikkoman, the manufacturer of our favorite soy and hoisin sauces, outscored it in two of our three tastings. Kikkoman Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce won because tasters found it more robustly flavored all around. It has more than twice the sodium of Huy Fong, and while tasters didn’t find it salty, sodium can enhance the perception of other flavors. The Kikkoman sauce was the spiciest of the bunch, registering 2,200 Scoville Heat Units: the burn started early, built quickly, and lingered, but it didn’t blow out our palates. That heat was balanced by a bold sweetness and “pleasantly garlicky” flavor. It got top marks for texture, too. Tasters especially liked that it was thick enough to “zigzag” over food but could still be whisked smoothly into mayonnaise. America’s most famous sriracha isn’t our go-to product anymore. From now on, we’ll be stocking Kikkoman Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce ($3.29 per 10.6-ounce bottle).