We do a lot of blind tastings around this website, and quite frankly, a lot of them aren’t super fun for me. I’m not even talking about trying to sample every variety of Cheesecake Factory cheesecake (which was just dumb enough that I appreciated it), but things like jarred marinara or alfredo sauce… those were strictly for the #content and foods that I’ll probably never eat again (God willing). Hot sauce, however, was a genuine source of curiosity.
When I was growing up, hot sauce preference was almost as fraught as your favorite sports teams or light beer (as a Bud Light man I secretly think all Coors Light people are scum and all Miller Light people are oafs). There were feuding camps and, for the most part, you were either Team Tapatio or Team Cholula. At the time, I was a staunch Tapatonian.
Growing up in a hotbed of Mexican food, obviously, the most popular choices were Mexican hot sauces. If you’re from the Southeast, I imagine a similar debate rages between vinegary, Louisiana-style sauces like Crystal and Tabasco (the latter of which, somewhat confusingly, shares a name with a region of Mexico). In the Northeast and Upper Midwest, it’s presumably a battle of Buffalo wing-style sauces, like Frank’s and Burman’s. And of course, you can’t talk hot sauce without talking Sriracha — a Thai-style sauce popularized by a Vietnamese immigrant to Southern California, yet a staple of any true hot sauce head’s pantry.
These kinds of unexamined loyalties make hot sauce a perfect subject for our latest blind taste test. Did I really like the taste of Tapatío the best or was I just swayed by its indisputably cool packaging? (“Es una salsa… muy salsa” is the GOAT of hot sauce slogans). And could we even rank Mexican hot sauces, Louisiana style, Buffalo style, and sriracha against each other? At the very least, it was worth a shot.
To assemble the competitors, I consulted a few lists of the most popular hot sauces — some of which had regional favorites I’d never even heard of (Burman’s? Texas Pete? La Costeña? Mostly unfamiliar to me), and threw in a couple from the big chain restaurants and stores (Del Taco, Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s). That left us with 20 sauces. If I didn’t include your favorite hot sauce here, just remember that 20 sauces is about the upper limit on how many sauces it’s possible to sample in a single sitting. My brother-in-law (the only friend I had brave enough to attempt this taste test with me) finished this blind tasting with a kitchen towel wrapped around his head to catch the sweat.
I prepped for this by eating a serving of yogurt mixed with chia seeds and a half shot of Pepto Bismol (which I would recommend, for those of you attempting this at home). It actually worked, in that I didn’t spend half the following morning on the toilet. Success!
We tasted these using a mixture of finger dipping (oh shut up, the spice kills the germs), spoon dabbing, and crackers (we tried Ritz at first, but they were too buttery and skewed the results, so we switched to white, wafery crackers that were more neutral). Tasting them plain like this probably isn’t a great recreation of real-world conditions, but honestly how else are you going to do it? One can only account for so many different foods, so tasting plain seemed the fairest.
2. Trader Joe’s Green Dragon
3. La Costeña Mexican Hot Sauce
4. Frank’s Red Hot (Original)
5. Trader Joe’s Organic Spicy Taco Sauce
6. Tabasco Sauce (Original)
7. Texas Pete (Original)
8. Louisiana Hot Sauce
9. Cholula Hot Sauce (Original)
10. Del Taco Del Inferno
11. Del Taco Del Scorcho (Medium)
12. Mexico Lindo Salsa Picante Negra
13. Valentina Salsa Picante
15. Taco Bell Diablo
16. Taco Bell Fire Sauce
17. Taco Bell Hot
18. Burman’s Hot Sauce
19. Sambal Oelek
20. Huy Fong Sriracha
A lot of these sauces are quite similar to each other, not to mention that I suspect a lot of the appeal is tied up with your sense memory. So when a hot sauce is instantly recognizable even in a blind, pitted against a bunch of other similar sauces, recognizability feels like a feat in and of itself. Here were the sauces that were easiest to identify, in no particular order:
Sriracha, Cholula, Sambal Oelek, and Taco Bell Hot Sauce.
20. Taco Bell Diablo Sauce (Sample 15)
Taco Bell introduced Diablo for Cinco De Mayo in 2015, saying at the time that it was made with Peruvian aji panca, chipotle, and chili peppers. It was meant to be a limited-time offering but was apparently popular enough that they had to bring it back permanently a year later.
This one is a darker red with black pepper flecks. It’s much stronger on the nose, though a little muddled. Cayenne and garlic… maybe some cumin… Tasting it — woof, this is an absolute cumin bomb. Oh hell no. This is genuinely off-putting.
Wild they had to bring this sauce back because boy does it suck. There’s a time and a place for almost all of these sauces, but this one was the only one that made me think “absolutely not” right off the bat. Supposedly the hottest of the Taco Bell sauces, it didn’t seem notably hot to me. Just bad flavor.
19. Del Taco Del Scorcho (Medium) (Sample 11)
Del Taco has been around since 1964, and I’ve always thought of it as a slightly nicer version of Taco Bell, because you could get fresh red jalapeños with your nachos. Del Scorcho is their medium-heat sauce, and it has jalapeños, tomato paste, vinegar, and a lot of other stuff. I always thought it was named after the single from the best Weezer album (“El Scorcho” from Pinkerton) but apparently, the sauce came first. Ay cabrero!
This looks and smells like hot sauce from a taco joint packet. It smells and tastes like dry spices, nothing particularly noteworthy about it.
I always appreciated Del Taco for the fresh jalapeños, which sort of made the sauce packets irrelevant.
18. Taco Bell Hot (Sample 17)
Taco Bell’s hot sauce is older than Fire or Diablo and not as hot, though with a similar ingredients list as Fire — tomato paste, jalapeños, vinegar.
This one is orangy and gelatinous looking, and that texture is sort of a dead giveaway that this came from a packet. This one smells… well it smells like Taco Bell, there’s really no other way to describe it. I’ve had enough Taco Bell in my life that this is a redolent sense memory. That being said… it isn’t very good. This feels like the level of heat that was considered just at the top end of the tolerable scale for white people in the eighties. It’s not very hot and the flavor is kind of canned tomato-y. It’s much better at evoking memories than delivering flavor.
17. Taco Bell Fire (Sample 16)
Supposedly introduced in the early 2000s (I could’ve sworn it was earlier but I can’t find a source for that) Fire comes in at 500 Scoville units, which makes it about a fifth as hot as Tabasco. It has similar ingredients to Taco Bell’s Hot sauce, and all the real heads know that it’s the best of the Taco Bell sauces.
This one is sweeter and Mexicany, but tastes cheap and processed somehow. Like there’s stabilizers in there or something.
Not a whole lot to say about this one. It’s better than Taco Bell’s other not-great sauces. I don’t expect much from a sauce that could sit in the glove compartment of an abandoned car for 10 years and taste roughly the same as when it went in, but as long as that’s your baseline, Fire sauce is pretty solid.
16. Del Taco Del Inferno (Sample 10)
Del Taco introduced Del Inferno in 2008, claiming at the time that it was “three times hotter than any sauces served at rival chains.” The ingredients list looks pretty similar to most of the other packet sauces — tomato, corn syrup, jalapeño — though it does also have ancho peppers.
A chunky-ish dark red in appearance. I don’t get much on the nose but perhaps my senses are just blown out. On the palate, this one tastes sweet and ketchupy after all the vinegary hot sauces. It comes on really hot, but not right away. This one sort of creeps up on you.
I liked this one slightly better than the Taco Bell sauces but not by much. It still tastes like it came from a packet… because it did.
15. Mexico Lindo Salsa Picante Negra (Sample 12)
I saw this one at the store and picked it up on a whim (black hot sauce? that sounds fun!). I didn’t realize at the time that it had arguably the most insane ingredients list of any of these sauces, which included: “…citric acid (as acidulant), fructose, modified starch, class IV caramel color, phosphoric acid (as an acidity regulator), xantham gum (as a thickener), acetic acid (as flavor enhacement) [sic], sodium metabisulfite (as antioxidant), potassium sorbate and sodium bonzoate (as preservatives), FD&C Yellow No. 6 and FD&C Red No. 40.”
This looks like soy sauce. Smells like it too! I don’t know if it’s just the look of the sauce playing tricks on me or if it really does taste salty and soy saucy. That’s all I really get from this one.
I really like black mole and the dark chipotle sauces at Rubio’s and Baja Fresh so this one seemed like a worthwhile shot, but it really didn’t have much going for it beyond the novelty value. Everyone else who tasted it concurred.
14. Texas Pete (Sample 7)
According to its own legend, “Texas Pete” was invented in 1929 in North Carolina, and got its name through this simultaneously convoluted and banal story: “…when Sam Garner and his three sons, Thad, Ralph and Harold, were trying to come up with a brand name for this spicy new sauce they had created, a marketing advisor suggested the name “Mexican Joe” to connote the piquant flavor reminiscent of the favorite foods of our neighbors to the south. “Nope!” said the patriarch of the Garner family. “It’s got to have an American name!” Sam suggested they move across the border to Texas, which also had a reputation for spicy cuisine. Then he glanced at son Harold, whose nickname was ‘Pete’ and the Texas Pete cowboy was born.”
According to this Instacart poll, it’s the most popular hot sauce in the Carolinas. It has vinegar and aged peppers.
Looks: candy apple red with pepper flecks. On the nose, I don’t get much out of this one. On the palate… kind of the same? I don’t know if it’s because I’m blown out after six other sauces but this is weirdly not flavorful?
Big shrug from this one.
13. Tapatío (Sample 14)
Originally produced in Southern California in 1971, the name “Tapatío” is of course Spanish for “small appetizer uncle.” Just kidding, it’s apparently a slang term for someone from Guadalajara. Its main flavors are red peppers and garlic, and it’s one of the top 10 hot sauces in America, according to Instacart.
This one is darker red in color. Lots of vinegar on the nose. Tastes like… hmm, I can’t isolate it. There’s something weird and soy saucy in there, like dry spices and too much vinegar.
Uh oh, is this where I find out that my entire life been a lie? I thought I was a Tapatío man but it turns out I maybe just liked the Tapatío Man. It’s still una salsa muy salsa, but it’s not my favorite.
12. Trader Joe’s Green Dragon (Sample 2)
According to Trader Joe’s, their Green Dragon hot sauce is made with jalapeños, tomatillos, cilantro, garlic, and habanero pepper powder, with a dash of vinegar and a splash of lime juice. Based on name and bottle shape, it seems to be their attempt at creating a green equivalent of sriracha.
Green and salsa verde looking, with small black pepper flecks and leaves. Smells more tart and tomatillo-like. On the palate, it’s… really sweet. Not necessarily in a bad way, but sweeter than I expected. Much less vinegary than most of these sauces.
My brother-in-law and wife (she only tried a few) both liked this one a lot. I thought it was fine, just sweeter than I’d like. I’d call it an interesting change of pace, but it wouldn’t be my go-to.
11. Tabasco Sauce (Sample 6)
Tabasco sauce, which has been around for more than 150 years, was invented by a Maryland transplant to Louisiana, Edmund McIlhanny. It’s named for the Tabasco peppers from which it’s made (which are in turn named after the Mexican state of Tabasco), which are aged and mixed with vinegar.
This one seems to have started separating. It’s orange-y in color. Mostly I get vinegar on the nose. On the tongue, it’s VERY spicy and not much else. I think I like it but mostly I just get heat. Habanero? Kind of at a loss for how to rate this one.
Here’s where it gets funny (kinda): my brother-in-law is a Tabasco superfan. Asks for it by name at restaurants, keeps multiple bottles of it at home, work, in the car — the whole nine. His notes for it, when tasting blind, were “HOT. Vinegar. Not a daily driver.”
This for a sauce that’s literally his daily driver. You never know what you’re going to get in a blind taste test, folks.
One thing I learned in the course of this test is that whereas I had thought that all the Louisiana-style sauces were cayenne-based, and essentially trying to recreate Tabasco Sauce, Tabasco is actually the outlier, being made from Tabasco peppers. That’s probably why it looks so much lighter in color on the plate. As for why we both thought this one was so spicy (when it’s clearly not the world’s spiciest hot sauce) I have a theory: Tabasco is so vinegar-heavy, to the point that you can actually see it separating on the plate, that I think some of the vinegar evaporated off of it by the time we tasted, so what was left actually concentrated the spice.
Anyway, it seems to add more heat than flavor, which is what you want sometimes but makes it tough to stand out in a blind taste test.
10. Burman’s Hot Sauce (Sample 18)
Burman’s is an Aldi product that is the favorite hot sauce of Iowa, Missouri, and/or Pennsylvania, depending which Instacart study one sites. Almost every mention of it also points out that it tastes a lot like Frank’s Red Hot. It’s made with cayenne peppers and garlic powder.
This is a bright, vibrant orange. It’s very appealing — looks-wise this might be my favorite. On the nose, it smells like vinegar and cayenne. On the tongue… this tastes like buffalo wings. Like, exactly like buffalo wings. I guess it’s good at being this exact thing? This is Frank’s I assume.
My brother-in-law was also convinced that this was Frank’s. I rate this one a solid “it is what it is.”
9. Louisiana Hot Sauce (Sample 8)
Louisiana Hot Sauce, aka Original Louisiana Hot Sauce, has been released since 1928, according to the company. People naturally tend to compare it to Tabasco, with whom it shares the basic recipe of aged peppers and vinegar. But whereas Tabasco uses Tabasco peppers aged for three years, Louisiana uses cayenne peppers aged for one year.
This one has the same sort of watery red look that like six of these have. Smells strongly of cayenne and vinegar. Okay, this has to be Tabasco. This is a nice mix of vinegar and spice. Spicier than the last one I thought was Tabasco.
As you may have noticed, there were a bunch of these I thought were Tabasco. One of the ones I didn’t was the actual Tabasco. This was one of the better-tasting ones (higher than Tabasco but not as high as Crystal), though it doesn’t pack as much heat as Tabasco.
8. Cholula (Sample 9)
Originally produced by the Harrison family of Chapala, Mexico, it was licensed by Jose Cuervo and introduced to the US in 1989. Cholula uses arbol chiles and pequín peppers, the only chili peppers native to North America.
This one is a bright vibrant orange, very uniform looking. Tasting it… I’m 95% sure this is Cholula. It’s like instantly recognizable as that, so much so that it’s actually hard to describe otherwise. Garlicky?
Like the Taco Bell Hot sauce but a lot better, Cholula kind of only tastes/smells like Cholula. It’s the only one of these sauces to use pequín peppers (aka chiltepín), which could account for the singular flavor. Anyway, I always thought I was a Tapatío man, but I was wrong. I officially like Cholula better (and it’s still not my number one Mexican-style hot sauce — read on for that).
7. Crystal Hot Sauce (Sample 1)
Produced by Baumer Foods since 1923, Crystal, out of New Orleans, is the other of the Big Three Louisiana sauces. Like Original Louisiana, it uses aged cayenne peppers and vinegar.
This one is vinegar/cayenne, but with some black peppery notes. I think this might be one of the Mexican ones? It’s very good though.
It’s extremely splitting hairs on account of how similar they are, but Crystal was my slight favorite of the Louisiana sauces. It has a little more body to it (less watery) than Original Louisiana and I slightly prefer the cayenne taste to the Tabasco peppers in Tabasco. My brother in law’s notes said “vinegar — not flavorful, not exciting” for whatever that’s worth.
6. Frank’s Red Hot (Sample 4)
While it’s popular in the Northeast (probably due to its association with Buffalo wings, supposedly invented in 1964), Frank’s was actually first bottled in Cincinnati in 1920, using cayenne peppers grown in Louisiana. Like the Louisiana sauces, it uses aged cayenne peppers and plenty of vinegar.
This is watery looking, like Taco Bell sauce. Heavy vinegar on the nose with plenty of… cayenne, I’m pretty sure. This one tastes like Tabasco, with a nice balance of vinegar and spice.
Well, nice to know I can correctly identify cayenne peppers and vinegar. It tastes pretty similar to the Louisiana sauces.
5. Trader Joe’s Organic Spicy Taco Sauce
Say what you will about Trader Joe’s, they actually describe the product on the website: “We start with a base of distilled vinegar and tomato paste; add some heat thanks to chili pepper powder, red jalapeño pepper purée, and cayenne peppers; and round out the flavor with spices like garlic powder, pepper, and oregano.”
This one looks darker brown and peppery. I get heavy notes of garlic and cumin on the nose. If I had to guess this is Tapatío. It’s a very different experience than the Tabasco-style sauces but I like it.
Yep, I thought this one was the Tapatío. A shockingly high finish for a Trader Joe’s condiment.
4. La Costeña Mexican Hot Sauce (Sample 3)
La Costeña was a new one to me, but according to Instacart was the seventh most popular hot sauce in America. Operating out of Ecatepec, near Mexico City, the second ingredient (behind water) is actually carrots.
This one is a more uniform red color, and not as watery. This one is very… hot peppery? Am I allowed to say that? Like more towards a fruity habanero flavor. It’s nicely balanced.
Call me an idiot for thinking this had habanero, but lots of habanero sauces use carrots as a base to maintain that habanero-orange color (if you use enough habaneros to actually make a sauce habanero orange it will be basically inedibly spicy). And it does use red jalapeños, which are a little fruitier than the more familiar green ones. Anyway, this one came out of left field and beat both Cholula and Tapatío according to me. And it’s still not my favorite of the Mexican-style hot sauces (are you feeling properly teased yet?).
3. Valentina Salsa Picante (Sample 13)
Manufactured by the Tamazula Group in Guadalajara, Valentina has been around since the 1960s and reportedly gets its heat from puya peppers, which are similar to guajillo chilis.
A bright red purée, very uniform-looking. On the nose… I can’t detect much of anything. Could be my nose is just nuked from smelling 12 other hot sauces. On the palate… I really like this flavor — garlic, black peppery, light on the vinegar. It tastes like…. cayenne pepper without the vinegar?
This is it: my favorite Mexican hot sauce and probably the biggest surprise of the competition. I was vaguely aware of Valentina before this, but it really stood out and put all my imagined heavy hitters to shame. My brother-in-law also had it starred as one of his favorites. For the record, they also sell a black-label version that’s even spicier.
2. Sambal Oelek (Huy Fong)
“Sambal Oelek” is the generic name for a variation of Indonesian chili paste, Sambal. One of the most popular versions (which we sampled here) is made by Huy Fong, which was founded in the early 1980s by a Vietnamese immigrant named David Tran. It’s commonly made with fresh ground cayenne and bird’s eye chilis, though Huy Fong doesn’t reveal their secrets, saying only “a full-bodied sauce with the pure taste of chilis. No other flavors have been added for those who prefer a simpler taste.”
Well, this is pretty obviously the Sambal, based on the color (bright red) texture (like a slightly chunky chili paste), and visible seeds. I thought my senses were blown out before, but when I put this one up to my nose I realize that they aren’t. It’s a bracing blast of fresh chilis and garlic. On the tongue, it’s pretty much the same — just a big punch of ripe red chilis.
This one tastes so much fresher than anything else. It’s pretty hard to beat.
Okay, so according to the ingredients I was wrong about the garlic (though Huy Fong does make a chili-garlic paste for exactly that). This one was actually sitting in my fridge, about one-third full. I probably bought it… at least four months ago. And it still tasted so fresh compared to other sauces that I only opened for this competition. I suppose you could quibble about whether this truly counts as a “hot sauce” given that it’s more of a paste and you have to use a spoon, but it’s really damned good.
1. Sriracha (Huy Fong)
Sriracha is named after the town of Si Racha in Thailand. Huy Fong’s version, with the iconic rooster logo (originally hand-painted by founder David Tran himself, according to lore) just happens to be the most popular one. According to Instacart, it’s the most popular hot sauce in America. You might not have known it based on the bright red color, but it’s actually made from jalapeños — the ripe, red ones — plus garlic, vinegar, sugar, and salt.
I’m 95% sure this is sriracha. The most obvious giveaways are the uniform texture, which is like a more vibrant, slightly more watery ketchup, and the smell. On the nose, it’s fresh and bracing and pungent like the sambal — very redolent of fresh chilis — though there’s also garlic and some kind of fermenty funk in there. On the tongue the most obvious thing about it is how much sweeter it is. The notes up front are sugar and fresh red chili, whereas most others are much more vinegar-forward. I mean this is just a really good hot sauce. There’s a reason this is a classic.
Like the sambal, this was an open bottle I’ve had in my fridge for who knows how long, and it still comes off that much fresher than everything else. It’s also maybe a little unfair since this one is so recognizable. And when I used to work in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in college, I’d douse every family meal (I still dream about some of that off-menu, freshly-made, family-style Chinese food) in Sriracha (to the point that I think grandpa Lao once got a little offended). This is to say that Sriracha is an evocative sense memory and that’s kind of hard for anything to compete with. It’s so sweet that I wouldn’t use it on everything, and sometimes you really want something more vinegary (on clam chowder, say, or in Buffalo wings), but in this blind, it was like an old friend.
For the record, my brother-in-law’s favorites were Valentina, Trader Joe’s Green Dragon, and Cholula.
A lot of this hot sauce preference, even stripping away the packaging and our perceived notions of ourselves (like me thinking I was a Tapatío guy, and my brother in law thinking he was a Tabasco guy), is all tangled up with sense memory, what you’re putting your hot sauce on, and frankly what mood you happen to be in that day. That Sriracha is a great hot sauce comes as no great revelation. For me, the biggest surprise was probably Valentina, which I’d seen before but didn’t realize was so good.
Mexican Hot Sauces: My final rankings were Valentina, La Costeña, Trader Joe’s Spicy Taco Sauce, Cholula, and Tapatío, followed by the Del Taco and Taco Bell sauces. I’m a little embarrassed to have Trader Joe’s so high, if I’m being honest, but it is what it is. I’ll be buying more Valentina from now on, but Cholula also gets a little bump for being so singular.
Louisiana Hot Sauces: Crystal, Frank’s (I think it counts), Original Louisiana, Tabasco — though these were a lot harder to distinguish between than the Mexican hot sauces and all are pretty good. Tabasco actually gets a bump for being more unique than its competitors.