This article has been updated.
“In a society constantly driven to distraction by our phones, email, Instagram, etcetera, there is something deeply, almost sub-consciously alluring about hot sauce and the pain it causes,” says Denver Nicks. “Hot sauce, especially really spicy hot sauce, commands your full attention.”
Nicks would know. The author and (and Uproxx contributor) wrote a book on the subject, titled Hot Sauce Nation: America’s Burning Obsession. His choice of subtitles was fitting back when the book was released in 2016 and has only grown more so. Last week, TruTV bought not one but two shows based around Complex’s “Hot Ones” concept — a game show and a traditional interview — and the number of sauces on supermarket shelves has continued to grow. Nicks sees this as a good thing, further evidence of America’s melting pot.
“It’s not just the sheer number of immigrants we have in this country,” he says, “but how they have transformed and enriched American culture, transformed all of us, and made hot sauce fiends out of many more of us than there were before.”
He makes a great point, but it does make picking the two (or five) you decide to spend your money on a little tougher. What makes one particular hot sauce better than another? Is it just about heat? Is it the chilies used? Vinegar ratio? Hype? When does a hot sauce get played out? Did the world turn on Sriracha just because it went super mainstream, or did we all just come to realize that there are better options out there? These are questions that vex even Nicks.
“A good hot sauce is whatever you prefer at that moment,” he says. “I use different hot sauce on my gumbo — Crystal — than my tacos — Yucateco. My favorite hot sauces are Caribbean style, usually with lots of fruitiness, perhaps lemongrass, scotch bonnets or habaneros or other members of the Capsicum chinense chili species, and lots of heat. But I’m also very partial to a traditional, vinegar-forward, simple Louisiana-style hot sauce.”
I tend to side with him on the habaneros but don’t love the vinegar-forward sauces like Crystal or Tabasco. Still, my palate isn’t your palate — so I asked our team to enter their own favorites into the mix. It gave us a chance to argue in Slack over who best pairs fire and flavor, argue over “how many Scovilles are too many?”, debate the nuances of habaneros vs. jalapenos.
Now we’re ready to make our picks public, just in time for your holiday gift buying.
— Steve Bramucci, Managing Editor, Uproxx Life
EDITOR’S PICK: Truff — White Truffle Infused Hot Sauce
Look, I don’t know what to say. This stuff is hyped as hell (what hot sauce has 65K followers on Instagram?), Oprah chose it as one of her “favorite things” (twice!), and truffle oil is plaaaaayed out, but still… It’s freaking good. Like really good.
The heat and umami richness of the truffles are, quite literally, the perfect match. You get a hot sauce that hits those high, bright chili pepper notes and manages to have an “of the earth” mushroom quality. The fact that the sauce uses white truffle oil means it’s got a silkiness to it that most sauces lack and the heat, though it has a nice punch, doesn’t linger too long. In fact, I could use it turned up a quarter-notch.
Be warned: This sauce is pricey ($35). But if you’re having a dinner party and want a special bottle on the table that will elevate food rather than just making it spicier, this is a winner. The flavors are potent and the bottle is elegant.
The Last Dab XXX
Look, this is created by the team at Complex’s First We Feast — a direct competitor of Uproxx Life. So giving it love vexes me a little. But my god this stuff is good. It’s just the right amount of sweet on the front end and then… BLAM the heat comes.
And what heat. Two hybrid, lab-created peppers — Pepper X and Chocolate Pepper X — add so much fire to this that a few drops will endanger your whole meal. If you can handle it, this is a sauce that has all the fire without sacrificing taste. Plus you’ll sympathize with the celebs who go on The Hot Ones in a whole new way.
— Steve Bramucci
Yellowbird hot sauce isn’t just another spicy garnish — each dollop houses a number of flavors that go well beyond just heat. Depending on what type you prefer (I’m partial to the classic, carrot-heavy Habanero myself), there’s an abundance of taste, from smoky to citrusy, making this brand more than just the kind of hot sauce to clear your sinuses with (though it’s good for that too).
A beloved cult favorite made with quality ingredients in central Texas, Yellowbird seems to have some big ambitions. One glance at their website shows that they’re chasing after Sriracha to be the go-to condiment for making the most of those sad, day-old leftovers. Whether they’ll take the throne is anyone’s guess, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t make room for the bird on your shelf.
— Christian Long
Dragon’s Blood Elixir
Apparently, the secret to dragon’s blood is apples, because this stuff has apple cider syrup, apple cider vinegar, and apple puree. You don’t necessarily taste the apples, but what you do get is a very fruit-forward flavor before the heat comes on. I love chilis for their taste, not just their spice, and Dragon’s Blood does an ace job highlighting the uniqueness of the habanero here.
You’ll want a solid few dollops to make it work, but there is heat there. It comes on late and doesn’t linger long, allowing the other flavors to shine and not disrupting your meal.
— Steve Bramucci
Dat’l Do It
If you’ll pardon a bit of blatant homerism, I have to go with Dat’l Do It. It certainly doesn’t hurt my case that this sauce born out of the cuisine and favorite pepper of Floridian Minorcans is actually the best and most versatile hot sauce around.
Its tomato-heavy recipe makes it a good stand-in for anything that you might put ketchup on. I know that sounds like sacrilege stacked up against other traditional sauces, but before you balk you should know that Dat’l Do It kind of has to lean on tomatoes to be edible. Like the state they call home, datil peppers are hot as hell, y’all. And toning down that heat allows the sweet and somewhat fruity undercurrents in the pepper to shine.
Most self-respecting Floridians have their own recipe or know a guy whose homemade version they like, but first-timers can do far worse than this readily available brand.
— Alex Gailbraith
Frankie V’s Spooky White
I’m always wary of white-colored hot sauces. It just feels like someone somewhere had something to prove and they made a white-hot sauce that will tear up your mouth like a box full of Cap’n Crunch. Then they call it something simple and ominous like “The Ghost.” Frankie V’s kinda does all of that: the sauce has skeletons on the bottle and packs a serious bite. But here’s the thing: this stuff is good. Yes, you get the fire but you’re also getting habanero fruity-ness, rice wine vinegar brightness, and notes of lemon and ginger.
This is the hipster, artisanal, small-batch hot sauce that annoys the shit out of you… until you taste it.
— Steve Bramucci
All it takes is aged red cayenne peppers, distilled vinegar, and salt to create Crystal — Louisiana’s pure hot sauce ambrosia. It’s that simplicity that makes this sauce special — promising to fill holes in hearts rather than blow holes in asses. You can put the stuff on anything: eggs (scrambled or fried), chicken, fish, or even on plain, saltless chips. It’s versatile. It’s spicy, but it begs you to overdo it.
You can drown an avocado in Crystal. You can baptize your firstborn in Crystal. It’s cheap, straightforward, and simple — top to bottom the best and most well-rounded hot sauce money can buy.
— Jason Nawara
If you haven’t had the Aardvark, it means one thing: You’ve never been to a hipster taco place in LA. Ever. Because this stuff — made in hipster Utopia of Portland — has got a buzz bigger than America’s last remaining bee colonies.
Secret Aardvark is a spicy, liquid version of your taco seasoning packet. It’s fire-roasted and you taste that, I feel like there’s some cumin too — though the package doesn’t cop to it. Most of all, it’s the sweet/spicy balance and the nice fruitiness (while still being somewhat similar to a Taco Bell salsa packet) that makes this the new Sriracha for all of hipsterdom.
The hype is huge, this sauce lives up to it. Just as good (and similarly fruit-forward) is their drunken Jerk Sauce. It literally brings me back to Jamaica, and the jerk chicken shacks that line the road there, every time.
— Steve Bramucci
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No, it’s not classy or hip. It doesn’t have a cult following or any sort of cultural cachet. Hell, the bottle’s entirely in English. That’s gonna look mad goofy sitting out when your foodie friends come over.
But Texas Pete is still the best sauce available for the very specific purpose of topping off any meat that comes with the adjective “shredded” or “pulled” attached. The vinegary taste and slightly spicy kick are perfect for topping off barbecue whichever way you prepare it. In fact, Texas Pete might be the starting point for a truce between the Carolinas… if we could ever get them to the same table.
— Alex Gailbraith
Sriracha Chili Garlic
Yeah, yeah, Sriracha, whatever, put it in the bin next to mustaches, fixies, and cupcake shops. But while the hot sauce itself has had its day in the sun and become just another condiment, take the time to seek out the garlic chili variant. The spice profile is more complex, especially when you cook with it, and the garlic adds a lovely flavorful note that gives it more than just a burn.
— Dan Seitz
Trader Joe’s Green Dragon
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I had some left over sea bass that made the perfect fish tacos for lunch! Love this new @traderjoeslist green dragon hot sauce! It has a nice kick of heat and cilantro! I also LOVE their Israeli feta for a bit more flavor pop in tacos! #fishtacos #greendragonhotsauce #israelifeta #fuelinguptoknockoutwork
I’m not what you’d call a “one hot sauce” kind of girl, so it’s hard for me to pick a hands-down favorite. I like Crystal for Southern cooking, Sriracha for pho and banh mi (it goes great in deviled eggs as well), Cholula’s original for pizza, eggs, and sandwiches, not to mention the mixed bag of habanero, chipotle, and other random flavored or speciality hot sauces I keep around depending what I’m in the mood for.
But lately, I’ve been kind of obsessed with Trader Joe’s Green Dragon sauce. It’s got a thick consistency and nice flavor without being overly spicy such as El Yucateco’s green habanero sauce (which I also like, but constantly forget that I have to use in moderation), and it’s great on tacos and burritos or white chicken chili; one of my go-to dishes in the chilly weather. And the best part is that it’s only $2.99 for an 18 oz bottle, so you don’t have to feel bad for liberally slathering it on.
— Stacey Ritzen
Skinny Fats — Jãlatcha
I’ve been stanning for ketchup around these parts for a long time. When someone talks smack about it, I fight back.
Why? Because flavor-profile-wise the tang of ketchup is a fantastic counterbalance to many an umami-rich, carb-heavy meal (eg burgers and fries). You know what could make ketchup even better though? The most unsung of the chilies — jalepeño. The flavor of a fresh jalepeño is bright and fresh and the heat comes in late, like a slow-rolling wave. It’s a joy.
So when I tell you that jalepeño ketchup is a thing, just go with it. Know that I won’t steer you wrong and that you’ll still get a shot of spice. Trust that your hot dog will never be the same.
— Steve Bramucci
Roburritos Midnight Mango Hot Sauce
HOT SAUCE FROM THE EAST COAST?!?!! Stay with me on this. Midnight Mango is the hot sauce for people who are afraid of hot sauce. Brewed and bottled in my hometown of York, Pennsylvania, this sauce takes mango and pineapple and adds just enough kick to make you feel like you tried something adventurous. Perfect for wimps looking to up their spice tolerance a little at a time (me) and fruit lovers. Mixes well with most plain hot sauces, great on top of sour cream, and is the perfect side for a pineapple quesadilla (ITS A THING, OKAY???).
Add this to your cabinet if you’re interested in starting an east coast/west coast debate at your next taco night.
— Frankie Greek
El Yucateco Chipotle
I love hot sauce. I put it on everything from mac and cheese to pizza to eggs. But I don’t need it to be so hot that it drowns out what I’m eating. That’s why I love El Yucateco Chipotle. In their line of sauces, it’s probably one of the mildest, but it has a smoky, sweet flavor with enough heat to make it worthwhile. It’s made from chipotle peppers and clocks in at 3,400 Scoville units.
Is that a lot? I actually have no idea. What I do know is that this sauce is fantastic.
— Chris Osburn
Gringo Bandito Spicy Yellow
Remember the band Offspring? This is part of the line of sauces created by the band’s frontman, Dexter Holland. While that turn of events might sound strange, even stranger (and more interesting) is the fact that Holland, a Ph.D. in molecular biology, takes the sauce game very seriously and produces one hell of a product.
The Spicy Yellow is the best of the Gringo Bandito line. It utilizes scotch bonnets and habaneros and carries the fruity flavors of those two chilies throughout. There are also some nice garlic, onion, and black pepper notes. It’s an excellent pick for eggs and tacos and a step up from the brand’s own, more popular, traditional red sauce.
— Steve Bramucci
Louisiana Original Hot Sauce
When it comes to hot sauce, I generally default to ones where the consistencies are watery, as opposed to gloopy, paste-like concoctions. Do I like these better because I can’t see them in my meals, thus tricking my taste buds into thinking the food I shove into my mouth won’t be piping hot? The jury is still out, but I’m not here to diss Louisiana Original Hot Sauce, I’m here to celebrate it.
The taste, heat level and not too mention the fact it comes in a 32 FL. oz. bottle are reasons why this elixir stands the test of time for me. I won’t stand here and pretend to I’m a high Scoville maverick — I keep it simple and stick with the classics, that’s why Louisiana Original Hot Sauce has got my vote.
— Chris Zois
There’s one sauce that rises above them all — Sambal Olek. What pushes this one to the top is its simplicity. It’s a blend of spicy chilis, salt, and vinegar. That’s it. It’s thick and often gooey. There’s always a jolt of joy when you sit down at a table and there’s a tub of sambal on it with one of those tiny spoons for scooping all that hot spicy goodness onto any dish.
Seriously, you can scoop it on each bite of your burrito or throw a nice big dollop in a bowl of noodle soup or fry some up to spice up a fried rice. That’s versatility.
— Zach Johnston
David Chang is loved for just about everything he does, and for good reason. His cookbook changed the game. His food shook the industry. Now he’s doing his own bottled gochujang sauce and it’s fire (not literally, though — it’s actually very mild). You need this stuff in your repertoire. It’s got a little fermented funk to it and a whole bunch of tang.
Korean (and Japanese) flavors can be obliterated by our American “hit you over the head” sauces. This stuff is subtle: meant to draw out flavors rather than dominate them.
— Steve Bramucci
The first thing you should know about Salsa Valentina is that you can put both of your hands around the jar. This is no dainty, bottleneck hot sauce bottle. It doesn’t have an artisanal wooden cap like Cholula. Hell no. It’s a chubby, thick barrel-shaped glass container with a wide mouth plastic spout that lets you throw down thick streams of hot sauce all over your hash browns.
If I see it in someone’s cupboard, my respect for them goes up tenfold. If I had a one night stand and was offered this with eggs the next morning, I’d probably try to marry the guy. Valentina’s two distribution companies are in California and Texas, so expect to see it primarily in the Southwest. In New York, I found it in the regional food aisles of grocery stores, and very good diners, but it was scarce elsewhere — a shame because this is a well balanced, flavor-forward sauce that’s as cheap as they come.
— Caitlin White
Zatarain’s Cajun Hot Sauce
This is a new love of mine. Zatarain’s is a big Louisiana brand that makes everything from rice to gumbo mix. Recently, I was wandering around the grocery store looking for hot sauces and came across this one. The label promised aged chili and garlic in one bottle. I was intrigued. I brought it home and placed the sauce on my shelf next to my Valentina’s Extra Hot and made some chicken breasts in the ol’ sous vide. I doused the sauce onto the chicken and it was a revelation.
Zatarain’s Cajun isn’t overly hot but packs a nice little punch. The garlic is 100 percent present. There’s a light vinegar tang going on that’s sweeter than tart and way less egregious than standard Tabasco tang. Overall, this is a great sauce to have on hand when you want a subtle spicy bump with a garlic base.
— Zach Johnston
BONUS HOT SAUCE: Two-Shack “Como El Otro” Hot Sauce
This hot sauce was included in the book Cooking With Spices by Mark Stevens (who writes for Uproxx). In the ultimate small world moment, it comes courtesy of John “Two-Shack” Nicks, father of Denver Nicks, interviewed above. As Two-Shack notes, there’s a lot going on. You can make it hot as you want by adding additional cayenne.
From the man himself:
“Many hot sauces are comprised of a mixture of vinegar, pepper of one or more varieties and salt. I like to make a more complex hot sauce. I liked the ‘Two Dick Billy Goat’ sauce at the Thunderbird Restaurant in Marfa, Texas. I tried to duplicate it and came up with this. It will not be too hot for most people.”
- 1 cups apple cider vinegar
- ½ small can tomato paste
- 1 small tomatillo or green tomato, chopped
- 4 dried cayenne peppers, chopped
- 3 Pasilla Bajio chilies, seeded (or keep seeds if you want more heat)
- 2 Anaheim Peppers, pith removed (or mild Hatch Peppers, if available)
- 1 ½ tsp sea salt
- 1 small carrot, shredded
- 1 small red onion, chopped
- 1 ½ tsp of date molasses or blackstrap molasses as a substitute
Mix all ingredients together. Refrigerate
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