Hot sauce is the sexiest of all condiments, straddling the line between pleasure and pain. But of all the hot sauces out there, which one is the best? To find out, we asked three guys who really know their stuff to judge 18 popular sauces from big names to indie favorites.
Our tasting panel included chef, restaurateur, and Top Chef alum Dale Talde, as well as James Beard Award nominee Joseph "JJ" Johnson, executive chef at Minton's in New York. We also recruited Sean Evans, host of First We Feast’s YouTube series Hot Ones, who eats hot sauce like it's his job (because it is).
Each sauce was tasted blind on a spoon and judged on balance of flavor, integration of heat, mouthfeel, and downright tastiness. And each was scored out of 10 by the judges -- the scores added up to a possible total of 30 -- before it was revealed to them which one they tasted. There were a few big surprises. Read on to find out which ones made their top 10, as well as the three hottest bottles that had them cursing our first-born children.
10. TABASCO Original
The OG of Louisiana hot sauce, Tabasco was founded in 1868 on Avery Island and is still produced there today -- in a "moldy, old-as-fuck" factory, according to Talde who has visited it. Our tasters agreed that TABASCO is the hot sauce to reach for with oysters or seafood, but in most other applications it overwhelms rather than enhances the dish. It's by far the most ubiquitous sauce at diners and restaurants, but does anyone actually like it? "I feel like Tabasco might have done some sort of back-room deal with the curtains drawn in a smoke-filled room," said Evans. "It just somehow appears everywhere, it's like the Illuminati of hot sauce."
9. Huy Fong Sriracha
This California-based company is a true American success story: It was founded in 1980 by David Tran, who fled the Vietnam war and immigrated to America aboard a ship called the Huy Fong. A few years ago, his Sriracha was the hottest sauce in the game, inspiring a movie, a cookbook, and widespread cult fandom, but our tasters asserted that it's now been hyped beyond its worth. The condiment is so omnipresent that Johnson calls it the new TABASCO, and Talde thinks it's "mad basic, like every dude who says Jay Z is the best rapper alive."
The tasters also complained that rooster sauce dominates whatever it touches, is barely spicy enough to qualify as hot sauce, and contains questionable ingredients like potassium sorbate and sodium bisulfate. When Evans wondered aloud why Huy Fong became such a pop-culture phenomenon, Talde offered that it's probably because "there's a cock on the bottle."
"Tabasco just somehow appears everywhere, it's like the Illuminati of hot sauce."
Of all the taco truck standbys, our tasters came in with the preconceived notion that they liked Cholula, which is made in Jalisco, Mexico, best. But in the blind tasting the wooden-capped Cholula didn't crack the top 10, which just goes to show that you can't trust anyone, not even your damn self. (This revelation sent Talde into a mini-existential crisis about whether his formerly great palate might be wavering in his old age.)
Tapatío, which was created in Southern California in 1971 by Jose-Luis Saavedra, scored higher than almost all the Mexican-style sauces in the tasting. But the reception was lukewarm at best, with Talde and Johnson describing it as mid-grade, kind of flat, and lacking craveability. Evans was a little more forgiving: "You have to respect the cover art. I love the sombrero guy!" (Fun fact: Sombrero guy was originally a sombrero crow. When it launched, Tapatío was called Cuervo which means "crow" in Spanish, but had to change its name when the tequila company threatened a lawsuit.)
Crystal has been produced in Louisiana since 1923, although during WWII the company was best known for its preserves, which were packed into US military rations. Saudi Arabians reportedly dig Crystal as did our tasters; they liked its moderate heat and versatility, and decided it's most definitely a fried chicken play.
"If you look at where different hot sauces come from, they developed because that region produces something that goes along with that hot sauce," said Johnson. "You go to Popeyes and throw some Crystal on top? You're good." It was at that point in the tasting that Talde got pissed at us for having nothing but saltines to put the sauce on. "You get an Asian dude and a black dude in a room and make them eat hot sauce, and you don't have any fucking fried chicken?! Instant fail."
6. Louisiana Hot Sauce Original
Hot sauce rivalries run deep in the Pelican State, especially between Louisiana Original and Crystal. Both were founded in the 1920s and are made of the same ingredients: aged cayenne peppers, vinegar, and salt. In our rankings, Louisiana edged ahead of Crystal by half a point, but let the record state that it was a very close call. The judges shouted out its peppery flavor, good acidity, and mild heat that's suitable for seasoning and cooking.
"Chili-heads might be disappointed 'cause it doesn't have the burn they're probably looking for,” said Evans. "But it's one of those mass appeal, buy-it-by-the-jug-at-Walmart hot sauces that can go on anything. When Beyoncé talks about 'hot sauce in my bag,' I think this is the kind of all-purpose sauce she's talking about."
5. Dirty Dick's Hot Sauce
Richard "Dirty Dick" Westhaver -- a Massachusetts horticulturist and former competitive BBQ cook -- says he was just messing around when he developed this sauce 15 years ago at his family home on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. His "hot pepper sauce with a tropical twist" gets its jungle swag from mangoes, pineapple, and banana. For all that fruitiness, it was spicier than any of our tasters expected.
"It caught me off guard, I thought it was a sweet chili sauce," said Johnson. "The sweetness was right in my face, I could smell it before I put it in my mouth." With its big flavors and full bouquet, the judges enjoyed the tropical fever but concluded that it's a boutique condiment rather than an everyday table sauce. "This one has a profound taste so it's going to be something that you either really, really love or you just can't be around," said Evans.
"When Beyoncé talks about 'hot sauce in my bag,' I think this is the kind of all-purpose sauce she's talking about."
4. Pain Is Good Jamaican Style Hot Sauce
Habaneros, jerk spice, and lots of smokiness combined to make this one of the top scorers. It comes from one of the more artisanal brands, the Kansas-based Pain Is Good. "This is good shit. You could kill with this. If I was making hot sauce in my restaurant, this is what I would make," said Johnson, even though the hot sauce he actually makes at his restaurant contains bird's eye chili, pineapple, and ginger.
The Caribbean flavors had Talde itching to baste some chicken with it, while Evans was all about the nifty hip-flask-shaped bottle emblazoned with a howling face. "Every single Pain Is Good bottle has somebody screaming on the front, so shout-out to these guys for the best labels in the hot sauce game."
3. Frank's RedHot
An American classic, for many this is the benchmark for what hot sauce should taste like. Frank's was the principal ingredient in the first Buffalo wing sauce, which was created in 1964 at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. And when Talde was manning the burners at Buddakan, he'd sauce the Buffalo wings with a 50/50 mixture of Frank's and Huy Fong Sriracha ("I never said I wasn't a basic bitch," he responded when we called him out on the rooster sauce).
"Frank's has figured out how to be a universal hot sauce that's good with everything, and I think it's because of the mouthfeel," Johnson theorized. "It coats the dish, it coats your mouth, it coats your tongue. It's really put together well." Both he and Talde admitted to keeping a bottle at home. "I have that shit at the crib all the time," said Talde. "Frank's is OG, man. It's the flavor I grew up with."
2. Yellowbird Habanero Condiment
This "all-natural" sauce out of Austin launched in 2013 but has already garnered a serious following. Habaneros are the third ingredient, preceded by the carrots and onions which no doubt give Yellowbird its tangerine color (the tangerine juice concentrate might help too). For Talde, the bird had the best flavor of all the sauces, although he thought the heat could come down a few notches.
"Just taste how well seasoned it is, how balanced it is. It's fantastic," Talde waxed. Evans agreed that the spice level is probably higher than most people want, but if you're looking to "flirt with pain a little bit," then this should be your go-to. "Half of the super-hot sauces out there are just novelty, they're for frat guys to haze each other,” he said. "But this is real, this could be in a restaurant."
1. El Yucateco Green Habanero Hot Sauce
This Mexican salsa picante beat the bird by half a point, and seriously smoked its more well-known compadres like Tapatío, Cholula, and Valentina. It's not sexy and has no cult following, but it's the quiet achiever, the straight-A student who goes on to found a Fortune 500 company.
"El Yucateco really knows what they're doing and don't make such a big deal out of it. They're just a good, solid, consistent hot sauce maker,” said Evans. Talde described the sauce as "fucking hot" and "dope" while Evans called it "a full-body hot sauce where you feel like you actually ate the pepper." Johnson liked it so much he went back for seconds, which he instantly regretted due to the habaneros.
BONUS: HALL OF FLAME
We get it, sometimes you've got to dip your toe into death just to feel alive. If you want to go full Jackass, here are the three hottest sauces we tasted. Ingest at your own risk.
CaJohns Sling Blade Carolina Reaper
"If you consider your tolerance a part of your identity and you want to really prove that you're a man, then fuck with this sauce," said Evans. It's made with Carolina Reapers (currently the Guinness world record holder for hottest chili pepper) and bhut jolokia (aka ghost pepper, which held that same title back in 2007) that are mixed with some other ingredients that you're not going to taste, because you won't be able to taste anything after this. "I feel like somebody has a lighter and they're holding it next to my tongue right now and burning a hole through it," said Johnson. "My tongue is like, what are you doing? You need to taste food later!"
"I feel like somebody has a lighter and they're holding it next to my tongue right now and burning a hole through it."
Dave's Gourmet Insanity Sauce
Insanity is an OG of the novelty hot sauce genre and was actually banned from the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show in 1993. Although the label suggests that it can be added "one drop at a time" to stews, burgers, and burritos, our tasters suggested otherwise. "You could not put this on food," said Evans. "It's so crazy-hot, at some point you kind of just mace yourself with hot sauce." Talde said it made him feel like he was rolling on ecstasy. "People who fuck with this must have iron sphincters. I gotta wipe my ass with a popsicle after this," he said.
Mad Dog 357 Silver Collector's Edition
This brand is another ultra-hot sauce pioneer and it's not messing around. The website has a disclaimer that states, among other things, that the purchaser should not be inebriated and that anyone gifting this product is required to make the recipient aware of the dangers. The bottle also comes with a bullet, in case you didn't get the message. Evans thought the sauce had a fuller flavor profile than Dave's Gourmet ("it's novelty but at least they kind of tried a little bit") and Talde felt that it was singeing a hole through his tongue. Johnson was succinct in his assessment: "Fuck you. Fuck Thrillist. Fuck the hot sauces. Fuck everything. Can I have some milk? I can't feel my mouth right now."
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