Hot Sauces

Note: America's Test Kitchen continuously updates our equipment reviews and taste tests. The written content below is the most up-to-date information available and may not match what appears in the video segment.

From America's Test Kitchen Season 13: Perfecting Summer Classics

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Overview:

The hot-sauce industry has never been, well, hotter. A stroll down the condiment aisle reveals a dizzying array of bottles, and that’s before you consider online sources and specialty stores. Altogether, the category includes literally thousands of brands that generate well over $240 million in annual sales, not to mention countless websites, blogs, and competitions, where hot-sauce diehards fanatically debate which brand is best. That said, hot sauce isn’t just for chile heads: Even cooks who don’t crave spicy food are likely to keep a bottle handy to give recipes a little kick. On any given day in the test kitchen, you’ll find us adding a few drops to everything from eggs and pasta to soups, sandwiches, and sauces. And of course we keep plenty on hand for the most famous application of all: Buffalo sauce.

To find the best all-purpose hot sauce, we decided to hold a competition of our own and looked to sales figures to help narrow the field. We compiled a list of eight top sellers in the traditional Cajun or Mexican styles, as… read more

The hot-sauce industry has never been, well, hotter. A stroll down the condiment aisle reveals a dizzying array of bottles, and that’s before you consider online sources and specialty stores. Altogether, the category includes literally thousands of brands that generate well over $240 million in annual sales, not to mention countless websites, blogs, and competitions, where hot-sauce diehards fanatically debate which brand is best. That said, hot sauce isn’t just for chile heads: Even cooks who don’t crave spicy food are likely to keep a bottle handy to give recipes a little kick. On any given day in the test kitchen, you’ll find us adding a few drops to everything from eggs and pasta to soups, sandwiches, and sauces. And of course we keep plenty on hand for the most famous application of all: Buffalo sauce.

To find the best all-purpose hot sauce, we decided to hold a competition of our own and looked to sales figures to help narrow the field. We compiled a list of eight top sellers in the traditional Cajun or Mexican styles, as well as an outlier in a distinctly different vein: a brand of Sriracha. This thick, bright-red condiment not only boasts a cult following in the test kitchen but has been flying off store shelves at the rate of 14 million bottles a year. We then rallied our boldest panel of tasters and presented them with the hot sauces in two applications: straight up over steamed white rice and in a Buffalo sauce that we used to coat fried chicken tenders. Then, to satisfy the daredevils among us, we held a separate, smaller tasting of sauces that are reportedly the hottest on the market (see “The Hottest of the Hot" in a related taste test). The ideal specimen in both cases would have to pack more than just a fiery punch; as with any condiment, we wanted something that evened out the flavor of each dish—in this case, with heat, bright tanginess, and all-around good chile flavor.

Tastemakers

With the exception of the more viscous Sriracha, the consistency of most sauces was similar: fluid but not runny, with enough body to amply coat the rice and chicken. Heat levels ranged from “mouth-melting” to more “pleasingly” moderate. There were also surprisingly big differences when it came to overall flavor. Whereas a few samples delivered only sharp, vinegary shots of heat, others revealed more complex, nuanced flavors with hints of sweetness and smokiness that enhanced the overall taste of the chicken tenders.

Salt was a major factor when it came to a sauce’s flavor-boosting potential. Each of the top five samples contained at least 100 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon (two boasted more than double that amount), while most of the sauces that placed in the lower half of the rankings had significantly less salt. Vinegar was also a good thing, as long as it didn’t dominate: Our least favorite sauce listed vinegar as its first ingredient, racking up a slew of complaints for a “mouth-puckering” punch. Many of our top-ranking brands included garlic, and while in some cases the spices added to the Mexican brands contributed flavors reminiscent of barbecue sauce or even ketchup, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The Pepper(s) to Pick

And what about the chiles themselves? Among the nine brands of hot sauce, there were at least seven different varietals. The fieriest brand used searing-hot habaneros for a sauce that only true chile heads appreciated. Most agreed with the taster who complained, “This one’s too hot—I can’t take it!” Meanwhile, cayenne showed up as the lone varietal in two of our three favorite sauces, which may not be a coincidence. A chile’s ability to enhance rather than overwhelm flavor is directly related to how much capsaicin it contains. Capsaicin, of course, is the compound in chiles that gives them their heat. In the chile realm, cayenne boasts only a moderate amount (or about a quarter of the capsaicin found in habanero peppers), allowing other flavors to shine through—including its own. Tasters appreciated the fruitiness this chile brought to both our co-winner and third-ranked Original Louisiana.

How the chiles were processed also influenced our choice of favorites. Cajun-style sauces ferment the fruit for months, concentrating flavor and adding complexity. Some Mexican-style sauces, on the other hand, incorporated both fresh and dried chiles, the latter contributing a “dusty” flavor that some tasters found distracting.

But cayenne wasn’t the only chile we liked in hot sauce. Our winner was the only brand in the lineup made with red jalapeño, a milder, even fruitier-tasting chile than cayenne. It was also the only hot sauce we sampled that contains sugar, giving it a noticeably sweeter quality that tasters enjoyed. It even scored a surprising runner-up vote in the Buffalo chicken test, in which tasters didn’t mind that it was a departure from the thinner consistency and tangier kick of a more classic Buffalo-sauce base. Instead, they embraced our top-ranking brand's thick texture and bright flavor, both of which come from the fact that this condiment is made with freshly ground peppers that go into the sauce unstrained.

Despite their differences, what really put the distance between our two winning sauces and the rest of the pack was flavor balance. With just the right combination of punchy heat, saltiness, sweetness, and garlic, both of our highly recommended co-winning hot sauces have earned a place in our pantry.

Methodology:

Twenty-one Cook’s Illustrated staff members tasted nine hot sauces selected from a list of top-selling national brands compiled by the Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group. We sampled the sauces over white rice and on Buffalo chicken tenders, rating them on heat level, flavor, and texture. Results were averaged and hot sauces appear below in order of preference. Information about chile type was taken from the label or gathered from the manufacturer (two companies refused to disclose their chile varietals). All were purchased at Boston-area supermarkets.

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Hot Sauces

Of course a good hot sauce should pack some heat. But a great hot sauce should also enhance the flavor of your food.

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  • Product Tested

    Price*

  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Highly Recommended - Winner

    Huy Fong Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce

    Despite its unconventionally thick consistency and sweeter profile, this squeeze-bottle condiment (which we threw into the mix as a ringer) impressed tasters with its “full,” “rich,” “bright” heat. We even enjoyed its heavier body in Buffalo sauce; several tasters remarked that it coated the chicken “perfectly.”

    $4.29 for 17 oz (25 cents per oz)

  • Highly Recommended

    Frank’s RedHot Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce

    “Hello, Frank!” said one taster, who recognized this ­familiar-tasting condiment as the base for the original Buffalo sauce ­recipe. In both applications, it struck a perfect balance between ­tanginess and “tomatoey sweetness,” with heat that “wasn’t too hot” and “added to the food rather than overpowering it.”

    $2.29 for 12 oz (19 cents per oz)

  • Recommended

    Original Louisiana Hot Sauce

    Even with just three ingredients, this sauce had a “­complex,” “balanced” profile and “mild punch.” A few tasters even picked up on “smoky,” “roasted” notes with “a pleasant fruitiness.” Its sodium content was at least double or even triple the amount found in most other brands.

    $0.99 for 6 oz (17 cents per oz)

  • Recommended

    Tapatío Salsa Picante

    Several tasters noted that this Mexican condiment ­delivered a “smoky” sweetness that reminded them of barbecue sauce or even Worcestershire sauce. Most of us agreed that the warm spice ­flavor is unusual for Buffalo sauce but not necessarily unwelcome.

    $1.95 for 10 oz (20 cents per oz)

  • Recommended

    Texas Pete Hot Sauce

    When eating it straight up over rice, tasters found this bright red sauce “pleasingly hot and spicy,” with a burn that “builds and lingers.” A few tasters felt that the heat petered out a little once the condiment was mixed into Buffalo sauce, turning this hot sauce into a “milder,” more “ketchup-y” version of Frank’s.

    $1.55 for 12 oz (13 cents per oz)

  • Recommended

    Valentina Salsa Picante

    For a low-salt sauce, this Mexican sample boasted surprising “complexity.” That’s probably due to the use of dried chiles and spices that gave it a “smoky,” “sweet,” “tomatoey” taste. However, lots of character meant that it lacked the “universal ­applicability” that some tasters preferred, and a few found it “dusty.”

    $1.39 for 12.5 oz (11 cents per oz)

  • Recommended

    El Yucateco Salsa Picante Roja de Chile Habanero

    This habanero-based sauce was “mouth-meltingly” hot but also “sweet,” thanks to the addition of a little tomato. Those who liked it praised its “earthy, almost fruity” flavor, but others felt that it was out of place on Buffalo chicken.

    $2.69 for 4 oz (67 cents per oz)

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Cholula Hot Sauce, Original

    Some tasters appreciated this Mexican sauce’s “sweet” flavor and “mild smokiness,” but others were unimpressed. Criticisms revolved around its low salt content, which a few tasters felt rendered the sauce “washed out.” “I’m bored,” said one taster.

    $3.69 for 5 oz (74 cents per oz)

  • Not Recommended

    Tabasco Pepper Sauce

    Thanks to its high amount of vinegar and skimpy ­measure of salt, this top-selling hot sauce sank to the bottom of the chart. Tasters described it as “flavorless,” “vinegary,” “out of balance”—even “vile.” Its consistency was off, too, saturating rather than saucing the chicken. (Tabasco also sells Buffalo Style Hot Sauce; we didn’t test it since we were looking for an all-purpose product.)

    $3.49 for 5 oz (70 cents per oz)

*PRICES SUBJECT TO CHANGE
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