The World of Hot Sauces

I am not a fan of very hot foods. I much prefer flavor over heat. I made the big mistake of ordering my dish “hot” at an Indian restaurant once despite my husband’s warning. Needless to say, I will never make that mistake again. Heat in foods, though, is certainly popular if you look around the supermarket. It seems like some sort of spiciness is added to every other food item and the hotter the better. According to Fortune Business Insights, the global hot sauce market in 2018 was valued at $2.29 billion and was projected to reach $3.77 billion by the end of 2026.

Due to its popularity, I am devoting this Cooking Tip to the world of hot sauces.

The spicy component of hot sauce is derived from the chili peppers, specifically capsaicin. The heat level of the peppers is often rated by the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). This can range from zero for a bell pepper to over 2-3 million. I have written a prior tip on chili peppers with a link to the Scoville chart that can be found here.

There are different styles of hot sauce but all start with the peppers. Good hot sauces balance four elements – chiles, acid, aromatics and salt. Of course, there is a lot to those four variables such as the relative proportions, which type of chiles and acid and so forth. The particular brand’s blend of these ingredients along with other additions (garlic, sugar, molasses, fruit) is just one of the things that lead to different flavors and heat level.

Whereas the heat comes from the capsaicin, the flavor comes from the fruit of the actual pepper. It is easy to see that you will get different flavors in the hot sauce by varying which chili peppers are used and in what proportions. Also, some hot sauces are cooked whereas others are raw and even fermented. The type of sauce also varies from region to region of the world. Here is a map from Webstaurant Store. Let’s discuss some of the most popular hot sauces.

Tabasco

Tabasco is a registered trademark and is made by McIlhenny Company. It was founded by Edmund McIlhenny in 1868 on Avery Island, Louisiana. It always contains tabasco chili peppers (2500-5000 SHUs). The original is just a blend of the chili peppers, vinegar and salt. However, besides the original, you can find eight other varieties varying from Chipotle to Habanero. They will all have different ingredients and will rate different in SHUs. Although the SHU ratings are not on the bottles, Tabasco’s website allows you to see the heat level.

Frank’s RedHot Sauce

This popular brand is made from aged cayenne red peppers, distilled vinegar, water, salt and garlic powder. Although made from cayenne peppers, it rates relatively low (450 – 700 SHU) on the Scoville scale. They do sell a number of other varieties including the popular Buffalo sauce. Besides the ingredients found in the original sauce, the Buffalo sauce also contains canola oil, paprika, natural butter-type flavor and garlic powder.

Texas Pete

This hot sauce was developed in 1929 in North Carolina, despite the name. The full story of the name can be found here. Ingredients include vinegar, aged peppers and salt. It has a medium spiciness although hotter varieties as well as some with additional flavoring are offered.

Picante

This type of hot sauce is also known as “Mexican-style”. They are usually made from a combination of chiles. They contain little to no vinegar. One of the most common brands you will see is Cholula. The original is made from arbol and piquin peppers along with salt, vinegar and spices. Just as with Tabasco, they now have various other flavors with varying heat levels, which you can find on their website.

Sriracha

This sauce is named after the Thai seaside town of Si Racha. It is usually made from red jalapeno peppers, sugar, garlic, vinegar and salt. The most popular and highly rated is known as “rooster sauce” due to the logo on the bottle. It is made by Huy Fong and is easily available in most supermarkets. Because the pepper used is the fully ripened form of the jalapeno, it has a higher SHU than your typical green jalapeno. Another sriracha liked by tastes is made by Kikkoman.

Chili Garlic

This hot sauce is similar to Sriracha but is spicier with more garlic and less sugar. It is also thicker and chunkier. Once again, one of the favorite brands is Huy Fong.

Harissa

This is a spicy and aromatic chile paste with its origin in North Africa. Typical ingredient are hot chile peppers (often smoked), garlic, olive oil and spices (cumin, coriander, caraway and mint). Some versions also include tomatoes and rose petals.

Green/Red Chili sauce

We lived in New Mexico for a couple of years and whenever you ordered traditional food dishes, you were asked if you wanted “red” or “green” chili sauce with your meal, especially if you had ordered enchiladas. The green version is usually a mixture of green tomatillos, green chilies and other ingredients such as onions, garlic, vinegar and spices. The red sauce is made from a variety of red chilies, vinegar, onions, garlic and spices.

Gochujang

This is known as Korean red pepper paste. It is a thick fermented paste with a flavor that is sweet, spicy and savory. Typical ingredients are Korean red pepper flakes, fermented soybeans, glutinous rice, sweetener, and other spices. It is often made into a sauce with the addition of vinegar, a type of sweetener and oil rather than using the paste on its own.

How do you pick out a hot sauce? There are so many choices out there. My supermarket has no less than 15 brands with multiple styles within the brands. If you go to a farmers’ market, a bazaar or a specialty food store, you will also see many artisan and small producer brands.

Look at the label for the type of chili pepper as it will give you an idea of the heat level. If you are unsure, you may consult the particular brand’s website. Think about what you are serving it with. Is it southern food, an Asian dish or a traditional Mexican meal? Choose the hot sauce that will complement the dish. Use the above referenced map if you are unsure. If there is a way for you to sample it first, it will give you an idea of the flavor profile as well as heat level. Finally, you can make your own since the ingredients are easy to obtain.

Do you have a favorite hot sauce?
Let me know.