Food & Drink

Indie-Made Hot Sauces You’ll Want to Put on Everything

hot sauces
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

The world of hot sauce is vast, colorful, and reaches every level of spice you can imagine -- from mild tongue-tingling to tears-and-sweat-inducing. There are salsa verdes made with bright green serrano peppers, tomato-based hot sauces tart with splashes of vinegar, classics from Louisiana that pair well with seafood, and even chile oils steeped with anchovies and fried garlic flakes. Though mass-produced hot sauces like Tabasco, Huy Fong’s Sriracha, and Frank’s are, of course, pantry staples, independent producers are also making fiery waves in the hot sauce industry with locally-sourced ingredients and thoughtfully crafted small-batch sauces.

But what sets a small-batch hot sauce apart from the bigger players in the game, aside from scale and manufacturing? To Noah Chaimberg, the founder and owner of Heatonist -- a New York-based hot sauce store that carries indie labels and supplies the sauces for beloved Youtube interview series, Hot Ones -- it all boils down to a single word: passion. 

“These small brands are almost always started by one person as a hobby. Someone who works 9 to 5 and then comes home to tend a pepper patch, prep ingredients, cook sauce, and then spends weekends at farmer's markets sampling, talking to customers, and getting feedback,” he said. “For almost everyone, all this hard work results in a net expense -- these companies don't make any money for the first few years. To go through all that you need to really be passionate about your sauce and truly believe it's great and want to share it with the world.”

To find these crafty and passionate hot sauce makers that Chaimberg eventually carries in his stores, he scours social media and message boards, seeking out innovation, clever ingredients, and new techniques. For my own reporting, I reached out to trustworthy food editors and friends with a penchant for heat while simultaneously scouring through the best online sources on hot sauce. I tried spoonful after spoonful of hot sauces, splashed them into micheladas, and doused dinner plates with them. And I’m happy to say that these six indie hot sauces are definitely worth a spot in your kitchen pantry:

Tia Lupita

Price:$6.99 for an 8 oz. bottle
Tia Lupita is a line of non-GMO certified hot sauces named after owner Hector Saldívar’s own mother, thanks to her integral part in crafting all the recipes. “If we could use her wooden spoon to measure ingredients, we would!” Saldívar joked to Thrillist. 

The hot sauces are made in tiny batches in order to ensure the highest quality and the ingredients -- of which there are only seven -- are simple and recognizable. Though Saldívar faces some challenges creating hot sauce this way, like being unable to get discounts on larger orders of materials, his focus remains on quality. “[We] ensure that every bottle that comes out of the line has been made with the highest standards and best ingredients… For us, there is no other way. We are honoring and keeping true to my mom’s family recipe and process. And like everything that is made with love and care, it takes time. You can’t rush perfection.”

Tia Lupita’s has four hot sauces in total: salsa verde, chipotle sauce, habanero sauce, and their original hot sauce. The OG hot is a favorite of mine -- bright, spicy, and subtly sweet, too. It works great on breakfast tacos, used as a tortilla chip dip, and perfect in a tomato-forward michelada.

Boon Sauce

Price:$18 for an 8 oz. jar
One could argue that Boon Sauce isn’t really a hot sauce, and more of a chili oil, but partners in business and in life -- Wendi Ogata and Max Boonthanakit -- would disagree. “[It’s] definitely a hot sauce, but also a cooking condiment,” Boonthanakit, the head pastry chef of Bangkok-based Blue by Alain Ducasse and former chef de cuisine of Los Angeles’s Nightshade, relayed. “We like using it to sauté vegetables, a base for bolognese sauce, and a mayonnaise mix-in.”

The hot-sauce-slash-chile-oil consists of garlic, shallots, chilies, and -- get this -- savory and funky anchovies all bathing in a rich sunflower oil. Each batch is made in limited quantities and rests for a month before making their way to customers, just to ensure that all the ingredients have come together and the flavors work in tandem.

“The benefit of doing small batch is that it still feels personal. We know exactly what’s going on with each batch and they sometimes vary in heat levels, which is really fun to experience... Plus small batches allow us to have fun with different combinations and ingredients. We created an umami version and called it Boonmami where we used extra anchovies and fish sauce and people went crazy over that one.”

Fair warning: Boon is hot. It’s enough to make me break out in a sweat, and yet I can’t put it away. I drizzle the oil on fried rice, stir in the fried garlicky flakes into instant ramen, and top it on scrambled eggs. Put it anywhere that needs an extra kick of heat and make sure you have cold water on hand to extinguish your tongue with.

Yellowbird Sauce

Price:$8.00 for a 9 oz. bottle
Yellowbird began in a backyard garden, scored a silver medal at a Texas-based hot sauce competition, graduated to a farmer’s market, and now ships nationwide. It all began in 2012 with their habanero sauce: a blend of carrots, heat-packed habaneros, and juicy citrus.
 
“Our mission from the beginning was to focus on ingredients -- the fresher the ingredients, the better the final product,” Yellowbird creator, George Milton, shared. “We know our entire network on a first name basis and get to work with super dedicated people who care immensely about their contribution to our food system and want to be part of a community that shares their passion for all things spicy.” Some of the challenges that come with making small batch hot sauce, to Milton, includes sourcing unfamiliar and exciting peppers while getting the flavor exactly right for new sauces. 

Despite this, Yellowbird now has a portfolio of sauces to choose from, including a smoky ghost pepper sauce, the brand’s version of a sriracha made with red jalapenos and tangerine juice, and a green serrano pepper sauce. Additionally, more are slated for release -- so keep your taste buds ready.

Poor Devil Pepper Co.

Price:$7-$9 for a 5 oz. bottle
If you’re like me, you’re obsessed with fermented goods. Give me all the kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, and even hot sauce. Poor Devil Pepper Co. specializes in fermented hot sauces of all kinds; there’s a tangy curry flavored hot sauce, a spice-forward salsa verde that’s absolutely killer in a margarita, and a gentle honey nut squash sauce whipped up with savory miso that paired nicely with my breakfast tacos. You won’t find a sauce drowning in vinegar here -- but you will find this sauce in the refrigerated aisle with all the other fermented foods.

“Hot sauce to us is all about the flavor and the sourcing of ingredients with thoughtfulness from like-minded, regional farmers,” Laura Webster, one of the co-owners of Poor Devil Pepper Co., shared. To make the sauces, Webster and partner Jared Schwartz have to predict demand, work with farmers to gather ingredients, and ensure they have enough sauce made to last throughout the year because the fermentation process takes so much time (a minimum of eight weeks to be precise). Though it’s a challenge, the sauce comes out tart, sharp, and full of flavor that can only be captured through care and devotion.

“The biggest perk is that you get all of the benefits of eating fermented foods,” Webster added. “Fermented foods are rich in probiotics which have been proven to aid in a healthy gut, a strong immune system and improving mood and brain function.” Score.

Fiji Fire

Price:$12 for a 5 oz. bottle 
Have you ever had a bongo chile? No? The boisterous and juicy red bongo chile is native to Fiji and boasts an intensely fruity flavor. It’s also one of the main ingredients found in Fiji Fire, a hot sauce made in Fiji using ingredients -- including turmeric -- sourced only from the island.

“The delicious Fijian bongo chili begged me to make it into a sauce with its sister, turmeric,” Tui Totoka, Fiji Fire’s chief purveyor, told me via email. Fiji Fire is inspired by legendary fire walkers from Beqa Island and the ingredients that make up the mild sauce are grown in nutrient-dense soils and have been, as Totoka says, “caressed by tropical ocean breezes.”

In addition to paying tribute to their roots by working only with local Fijian farmers and ingredients, the purchase of Fiji Fire also supports the Coral Reef Alliance, an NGO devoted to protecting the ocean’s coral reefs (including the ecosystems found off Fiji’s coast).

Red Clay

Price:$10 for a 5 oz. bottle
Red Clay hot sauces are born in the South and crafted from a chef, which means you can expect big, bold flavors that are nuanced and balanced, not overpowering. In addition to being thoughtfully dreamt up with ingredients sourced locally, what sets Red Clay apart from other sauces is the way it’s processed.

“We cold-press our sauces instead of boiling them like other hot sauce companies do. We also age our peppers in bourbon barrels for six to eight weeks to create a complex balance of acidity, saltiness and heat -- no sugar at all,” explained chef and creator, Geoff Rhyne.

The line of sauces includes an original hot sauce that’s like an elevated version of the vinegar-forward southern hot sauces you’re used to, a tantalizing verde sauce, a mouth-puckering habanero sauce, and a sauce that pays homage to South Carolina by using brain-melting carolina reapers (though the sauce itself is a medium heat).

And if you want an extra dose of sweetness in your life, Red Clay also makes hot honey, which I have generously drizzled on every slice of delivery pizza I’ve ordered since acquiring my own bottle.

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.