You can’t think about American hot sauces without acknowledging Louisiana’s iconic contributions. Not to brag, but we pretty much invented the damn stuff in this country. Louisiana brands have dominated the globe, and can be easily found on every continent (we guarantee that you’ll find at least one Tabasco bottle on any Antarctic science station), while others remain more local. But which one is truly the best?
To find out, we enlisted folks who undoubtedly have strong opinions on the nature of heat: members of the New Orleans Fire Department, Engine 18. We came armed with a table full of hot sauce and the accoutrements with which to test their mettle (in this case, two loaves of fresh French bread, and 10lbs of boiled shrimp from Bevi Seafood Co.), and set out to officially rank Louisiana hot sauces once and for all. Our panel consisted of Bill Ballard, operator, 26-year NOFD veteran; Ken Kinler, firefighter, a 5-year NOFD veteran; and Rick LaCava, captain, a 19-year NOFD veteran. These guys have proven time and again that they can withstand some serious heat, so we were excited to find out which Louisiana-made hot sauce would reign supreme on their tongues.
Lake Providence Going in, we were all intrigued by the concept of a clear hot sauce. Since the color could give away nothing -- not flavor, viscosity, or intensity -- it was a real mystery, and our hopes were high. Sadly, though, Panola’s quirky, colorless sauce turned out to be exactly what it looked like: a bottle of white vinegar with a pepper and a bulb of garlic in it. "I figured, being clear, this one would have to pack a punch to get past the oddness," Ken says. "But it just didn't… it almost feels like someone put too much water in the batch, which is unfortunate, because I like the novelty of the clearness."
Prairieville Louisiana company HongryHawg produces a number of fancifully named hot sauces, including "Bayou Love Potion" and "Bayou Passion." But we couldn’t help but choose the "Butt Burner" for this little experiment. Neither the author nor the NOFD would like to reveal if the sauce’s name packed an, ahem, more literal punch, but one thing was for sure: this sauce is hot. Really hot. In fact, it packed the most wallop of any sauce we tasted, which was ultimately its downfall. The flavor was buried by a spice level that can blow out your palate. "The heat doesn't hit you at first, but it really develops," Rick says. "It's a good flavor, but you can't use it too much, which is a shame, because it has a nice taste to it. And it's thick, too, like a barbecue sauce."
St. Martinville Like Crystal, Cajun Chef is a good "slather it on anything" sauce, due to its decent balance of flavor, without a ton of heat. As Ken noted, "There’s nice vinegar here -- it’s a good all-around classic-style Louisiana sauce." However, this sauce just didn’t do anything particularly notable to stand out positively from similar sauces, but also didn’t do anything to stand back. In the end, we decided that this one was tasty, decent, and also unremarkable.
Ville Platte Of course, the cheeky name for this hot sauce comes from the old Southern saying, "So good, it’ll make you slap ya mama!" Fortunately, nobody assaulted anyone’s mother during the tasting. (As Bill notes, "It's very good. I'm not slapping anyone, but it's good.") This sauce is a decent all-around effort, though slightly heavy on the salt, so if you like a salinity-forward Louisiana pepper sauce, this one is for you.
New Iberia (originally!) While Trappey’s may not be a household name outside of Louisiana, it’s one of the oldest hot sauce brands in the United States, going back to the 19th century, when a former Tabasco employee decided to forge his own spicy trail. The company may now be owned by B&G Foods, which is based in New Jersey (boo), but since it’s been producing the same Louisiana pepper sauces for over a century, we figured it warranted inclusion here. The two most notable Trappey’s offerings are Bull and Red Devil, both of which are familiar LA-style red pepper sauces. Our distinguished panel of judges all enjoyed the Bull, but it didn’t do anything particularly special to stand out from the pack, other than to be a thoroughly trustworthy hot sauce. Solid marks for flavor here, but few for originality. "Very traditional," Bill says.
Madisonville This one has a cute animal mascot: a frog stirring a pot of sauce. We don’t know where the bone comes in, but we’re pretty certain there’s no actual frog in the condiment. Frog Bone distinguishes itself in two ways here: first, it’s slightly darker than competing sauces, and you can easily see flecks of spices floating about. Second, this is not a purist sauce, as it contains both onion and garlic flavors, as well as the standard peppers, vinegar, and salt. Our panel judged this positively, with high marks all around. "There’s plenty of vinegar in this one." Ken says. "No sweetness, really, just vinegar and spice."
Lake Charles Ah, good ol' "Swamp Charlie." If you have a passing familiarity with Cajun culture, you’ll recognize the name "Thib" as a shortened version of the more popular Cajun surname and city of "Thibodaux." It might seem confusing that Thib’s mascot is an alligator in a sombrero, but that all owes to the fact that Thib’s makes a lot of Cajun-influenced salsas. As for the hot sauce, it’s a sturdy entry, with a more pronounced garlic flavor than some of the similar sauces on this list. "That’s a great combination," Ken says. "Garlic, vinegar, pepper, salt… you’re gonna have a good sauce."
8. Bulliard’s "The Original" Premium Cayenne Pepper Sauce
St. Martinville Peppers Unlimited of Louisiana makes a thumbs-up variety of traditional pepper products, including pepper vinegar (which is essential to your braised greens). Its premium brand of hot sauce, Bulliard’s, incorporates more pepper solids than the more commonly found "Louisiana Supreme" hot sauce, and has a more nuanced depth of flavor. Rick says, "It’s a little different from what I'm used to -- it had a heat that hung around a bit, but it was nice."
Abbeville This one was on no one's radar going in, and we all consider that a serious shame. As a hot sauce flavor, garlic seems to be the new hotness (see what we did there?), with many major brands incorporating "The Pope" into their recipes. Among all of them, this one was a clear winner, praised by all in a surprisingly powerful entry to this pantheon. We weren’t able to put our finger on what made this one so special -- Rick suggested it has a "tomatoey taste," Ken’s going with "maybe paprika?" but as Bill says, "It's got something else there... I can't tell what it is, but I like it."
New Iberia If you’re going to name your Louisiana hot sauce after Louisiana, you’d best come correct with your game. Fortunately, Louisiana Brand does just that, making a finely balanced sauce that wasn’t just one of the first commercially available Cajun products on the market, but is proudly "certified Cajun." That distinctive red dot on the label is what you should be looking for when you’re shucking oysters, or looking to spice up your jambalaya. "It’s a good mixture of all the classic elements," Rick says. There you have it: the brand named after the best hot sauce state in the nation is never a let-down. Tried and true, through and through.
Baton Rouge This was a real dark horse in the hot sauce race to the top, seeing as nobody really knew anything about it. While Southern Art is based in Georgia, further investigation had the company swearing up and down that its hot sauce is produced in Louisiana, as it has a Baton Rouge outfit. But how did it stack up? Quite simply, the firefighters loved it. More so, even, than the more familiar brands of Louisiana pepper sauces. The panel delighted in Southern Art’s unique spice blend and distinctive character. That gambit pays off. This sauce may not be in every grocery store near you, but it’s surely worth seeking out. "This one might have the best amount of flavor for heat of all the sauces we tried," Ken says. "There’s lots of different colors and layers in there, and it’s got a good heat -- if you had too much, you'd definitely be lit up, but that first bite doesn't blow you out... I'm definitely picking up something that reminds me of Asian flavors. Maybe Chinese red peppers, and fresh herbs, too. I'm a big fan."
New Orleans While tigers may not be indigenous to our state (well, unless you count the LSU campus, where Mike resides as the mascot), any Louisiana product named after apex feline predators needs to bear its namesake’s ferocity. To that end, Tiger Sauce did not disappoint: the firefighters were particularly impressed by this offering. Unsurprisingly, they asked to keep this one at the firehouse when the tasting rounds had run their course. "It's got some sweetness," Bill says. "That really gets me." Ken agrees. "I like the sweet -- it takes the edge off the heat a bit, almost like a hot barbecue sauce. It’s less of a hot sauce and more of a dipping sauce... I’d put this on just about anything."
3. D.a.T. Sauce ("A little bit of HOT with a whole lot of flavor!")
Morgan City As y’all know, "dat" is central in the lingo of NOLA natives, ie. "believe dat!" and, most importantly, "WHO DAT!" What it has to do with pepper sauce is anyone’s guess; what we do know is that D.a.T. Sauce brought some serious game to the table with its thick, dark-red sauce flecked with chili seeds. The firefighters adored this one, a great combination of heat and genuine flavor. "The name's a bit boastful," Ken says. "But it lives up to it. Seems like it would taste good on just about anything."
Avery Island Such is Tabasco's reach that you can find it almost everywhere in world. But despite its vaunted history and global span, how does Tabasco stand up to other Louisiana hot sauces? Well, it’s hot, first of all, with a sharper kick than similar vinegar-based pepper sauces, causing one to use it more sparingly. But that tang of vinegar and distinctive red pepper flavor is both unmistakable and tasty. "It's a Louisiana staple, but I feel it brings too much heat to the table for the amount of flavor it comes with," Ken says. "Of course, it's still a good go-to for seasoning red beans or other dishes."
1. Crystal (aka "Louisiana’s Pure Crystal Hot Sauce")
New Orleans If you’re looking for the sine qua non of classic Louisiana hot sauces, Crystal is ultimately the one to beat. Granted, the author of this list -- and the firemen who aided in this rigorous testing -- are all clearly biased towards their hometown pepper sauce. But that’s one thing, among many others, that makes Crystal such a gem: it’s a pepper sauce first (whereas Tabasco’s first listed ingredient is vinegar), and while it definitely presents a noticeable spice level, it’s never overwhelming, leading you to just slather it on everything from eggs to pizza to po-boys and all things in between. Crystal’s "extra hot" version, on the other hand, offers that distinctive Crystal flavor profile, while rivaling Tabasco’s peppery punch. "I like regular Crystal," Bill says. "It's always been a favorite. The extra hot version is too hot for me, though... the beads of sweat start coming out." So take heed, y’all -- remember that’s coming from a career firefighter. So there you have it: classic Crystal is the one, and probably always will be.
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Scott Gold is a writer in New Orleans who thinks fire trucks and firefighters are as cool today as he did when he was three. He also now has a worryingly large collection of hot sauces. Follow him on Twitter @scottgold.