“In a society constantly driven to distraction by our phones, email, Instagram, etcetera, there’s 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 year, TruTV rolled out 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 expand.
Nicks sees all of this as a good thing, further evidence of America’s culinary 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) hot sauces that you decide to spend your money on a little tougher. What elements deem one particular hot sauce better than another? Is it just about heat? Is it the chilies used? Vinegar ratio? Hype?
Also, when does a hot sauce get played out? Did the world turn on Sriracha just because it went super mainstream or did better options just naturally usurp it? 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.”
This year’s hot sauce list — sourced from our writers and editors — leans heavy into the habenero. The whole world seems to have collectively agreed that its bright, fruity notes can be easily counterbalanced, opening the door to plenty of nuance without losing the fire. We also saw a fair number of classics getting love. Perhaps quarantine has made us all a little nostalgic for the hot sauces of our misspent youth? Or maybe the big brands continue to thrive because they’re that freaking good.
Check our 2021 “best hot sauce” picks below and add your favorites in the comments.
— Steve Bramucci, Editor, Uproxx Life
Poirier’s Louisiana Style Hot Sauce
Followers of the UFC can tell you that interim champ Dustin Poirier, aka “The Diamond,” knows two things well: how to punch people out and hot sauce. Hailing from Louisiana, Poirier grew up around cajun cooking and the southern sauces that come with it.
The profile harkens to those family dinners, with a winning mix of aged peppers, sea salts, celery, and garlic. Its heat is present, but dialed down on purpose, to allow for easy enjoyment.
“It’s got a kick for sure,” says Poirier. “But the burn doesn’t linger.”
The goal was to create a flavor that was so savory that it wasn’t relegated to the condiment shelf, becoming a key ingredient during the cooking process as well. And much like Poirier’s most recent bout, this sauce is a win. Heads up: Since the fighter took down Conor McGregor this stuff has been flying off the shelves even faster than before — so you might struggle to find it if you wait too long.
Heat level: Bit of a kick, but not a roundhouse.
Marie Sharp’s Fiery Hot Pepper Sauce
On my first trip to Belize, I came home with a suitcase full of the hot sauce found in every Belizean restaurant. One taste and it’s clear why this carrot and habanero concoction is so ubiquitous: it’s freakin’ amazing. Even Hillary Clinton, famously a hot sauce aficionado, gave Marie Sharp’s a shoutout in her memoir, calling it her favorite.
She wasn’t wrong. Fiery Hot packs heat, but the burn is tamped down by the potent blend of carrot and habanero mixed with the uniquely Central American-Caribbean tang of onions, garlic, and lime juice. The velvety texture makes it easy to limit how much hot sauce you pour out, but even with only a few drops are needed per dish I still go through so much of this stuff that I’ve genuinely considered ordering their gallon option (hey, it comes with a free pump!).
Heat Level: Hot but sweet, like the perfect lover.
Queen Majesty Scotch Bonnet And Ginger
Queen Majesty was reccomended to us by Sean Evans, star of Hot Ones, and… what can I say? Dude knows his sauces.
This Scotch Bonnet & Ginger expression is more like a fruit puree than a thin, traditional “sauce.” The flavor captures the sweet notes of the peppers but balances them with the bright tang of ginger (rather than a lot of vinegar). What you end up with is a sauce that fits well with a variety of dishes.
As a longtime proponent of Jamaican beef patties, I’ll go out of my way to note that this is a great play for that dish. Also, it does great in a range of curries.
Heat Level: It’s not going to scorch you, but it will make you sit up straight.
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 (maks on, not actually wandering, etc.) 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.
Heat Level: Mild and breezy, like the Big Easy.
Frank’s RedHot is simple — cayenne peppers, distilled vinegar, water, salt, garlic powder — cheap and readily available everywhere (your favorite fast food joint keeps it behind the counter, just ask) and yet when it comes to hot sauce it’s nearly unparalleled.
Rare and interesting peppers, a beautiful label, and a fancy bottle design?
Frank’s RedHot has none of them. But pass me a bottle and I hold in my hands the perfect accompaniment to wings, chicken sandwiches, French fries, eggs, stir-fries, and whatever the hell else you put hot sauce on.
Frank’s RedHot is made using aged cayenne peppers, giving it a nice spicy kick but unlike some of the other entries, you don’t spend too much time thinking about what makes Frank’s RedHot good. Instead, it’s a hot sauce that forces you to shut up and focus on your meal. That’s why it’s the GOAT.
Heat Level: Medium
Price: $4.72 (for 23 ounces)
6LACK’s 600 Degrees Hot Sauce
Six months go, amid a summer that was shorn from its most enjoyable aspects, Atlanta-born singer 6LACK announced he would return with a new project. The upcoming effort, which would eventually be his 6pc Hot EP, was his first release in almost two years. However, it wasn’t just music the singer delivered to his fans. With the extended play came his new hot sauce brand, 600 Degrees.
As a big fan of 6LACK, I took interest in the hot sauce. His Atlanta roots drove even more curiosity, since that city is responsible for some of the best wings I’ve ever had. So I made the purchase, and I have to say — good call on my part.
For all of you veteran hot sauce lovers, you can take pleasure in 6LACK’s 600 Degrees without a glass of water beside you. The sauce is a melodic blend of age red peppers, distilled vinegar, and salt — pretty standard. The latter elements coat the tongue with a sour lime-like presence similar before the red peppers step in to provide the flavor and spice.
600 Degrees finds a happy medium between nonexistent spice and an intolerable heat, bringing just enough to wake the taste buds from their slumber. This hot sauce is defnitely worthy of a spot at a future cookout, but for now, keep it handy for your socially distanced dinners.
Heat Level: Very managable.
For me, there’s hot 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 peppery 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 fried rice. That’s versatility.
Heat Level: Medium to warm, depending on the brand.
Tabasco Habanero Sauce
I already like regular Tabasco. You really can’t make an old-school Bloody Mary without one. But, I get that’s it mild and very vinegar forward. This version, on the other hand, is not mild, still hits on those Tabasco notes, and packs some serious flavor.
The habanero really comes through with a clear earthiness and heat. That combines with the almost fruity vinegar for a really solid hot sauce worth using on multiple applications. I put this in my chicken soup, dose it on tacos, I’ve even put it on steak.
But, the best use remains a Bloody Mary. Nothing will both sober you up and prep you for another day of partying faster.
Heat Level: Medium, full
The Last Dab XXX
This is created by the team at Complex’s The Hot Ones and my god is it 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.
Heat Level: Meal-dominating type heat.
Some items in the fridge or the cabinet just feel right. Whether they’re from childhood or simply regional standards (shouts to White Lily Flower, Duke’s Mayo, and Bertman’s Ballpark Mustard), there’s something to be said for sticking to the classics. For me, a hot sauce I’ll never do without is Texas Pete.
Sure, part of it is knowing its origins are every bit as intertwined with Winston-Salem as the college I went to, Wake Forest. But it’s also been on hand for some really important moments — from fish frys to backroads barbecue pilgrimages to dinners with friends — that helped crystalize my love for food and travel.
Pete’s is complex enough to stand on its own, beats the pants off most of the other major brands, and brings out the flavor of the food you’re eating rather than just masking or burying it. It’s just as adaptable in fried foods (a must on hush puppies) as it is in chilis or soups, and is killer with a BLT or a pimento cheese sandwich.
When I found it at Smart & Final in Long Beach, I audibly gasped. You never know when or where home will find you.
Heat Level: Baseline burn
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.
Heat Level: The exact level that makes a person say, “Oh, this is spicy.”
When Sol Food hit the scene in Marin County, the Puerto Rican restaurant brought some much-needed flavor and color to the region. This was, in part, thanks to painting their building a vibrant lime green, sticking out in a sea of beige. But mostly it was the delicious flavors of Puerto Rico, exemplified by their in-house hot sauce, Pique.
My husband always orders their choripan sandwich – chorizo, ham, and Swiss cheese baked between French bread — and it’s incomplete without a side of the bright orange hot sauce to dunk the whole mean into. This medium-spicy, vinegar-based hot sauce was so beloved by diners that Sol Food had no choice but to sell it online. It’s packed full of a variety of peppers — from spicy, fresh jalapeños and serranos to nutty, dried chile de arbols. The branding makes no effort to elevate itself, but trust me, you’ll want this on hand next time anything even remotely tropical lands on your plate.
Heat Level: Overt tang, covert heat.
Mago Ghost Pepper
Mago, made in Laguna Beach, has been on my radar for awhile now, but this isn’t an expression I’d tried until recently. I had a pretty horrible experience with ghost peppers a few years back and the name was scaring me off. I’m glad I circled back for this one.
Don’t get me wrong, Mago Ghost Pepper is spicy, but it’s also fragrant with carrots and bell peppers and features a nice note of smoke (not chipotle pepper intensity). The sweetness of the carrots has the same effect here that it has in some of the habanero-based sauces on this list: calming your mouth and activating a different part of your palate.
Since Mago isn’t very vinegar forward, I use it in a wider variety of dishes — from fried rice to garlic shrimp to stewed mushrooms. Even with big-flavor foods like those, this isn’t a sauce that lets you forget it’s there.
Heat Level: “Are those beads of sweat on your forehead?”
“Yes. Yes, they are.”
Put simply, Secret Aardvark is a spicy, liquid version of your taco seasoning packet. If you like that sort of thing, as I do, you’ll love it. The peppers here are fire-roasted and you taste that smoke. There’s also a nice texture that comes from finely blended but not fully liquid tomatoes. Most of all, it’s the sweet/spicy balance and the nice fruitiness that makes this Portland-based sauce liven up dishes so well.
This one has been popular for a good long while, but it lives up to the enduring hype. 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.
Heat Level: “Whew, it’s spicy for sure. Whew.”
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 fruity and the heat comes in late, like a slow-rolling wave. It’s a joy and pairs really well with ketchup. Trust me, your hot dog will never be the same.
Heat Level: A nice bright kick, not a long, deep burn.
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.
This sauce is 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 El Yucateco is fantastic.
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. (I’m not in love with the label or name, though.)
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.
Heat Level: Warm but not overpowering.
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.
Heat Level: Classic “hot sauce” level and not a bit more.
Truff — White Truffle Infused Hot Sauce
Look, I don’t know what to say. This stuff is hyped as hell (what hot sauce has 125K 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 post-pandemic 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.
Heat Level: Very Manageable
THE FINAL ENTRY — 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