Which all-around sauce strikes the best balance between fire and flavor?
How We Tested
Hot sauce sales are on the rise, and while they haven't caught up to those of mayonnaise or ketchup, the top-selling condiments in America, they reached over $538 million in 2017—an increase of more than 30 percent since 2012. These sauces are traditionally made of peppers, vinegar, and salt, and we use them to liven up dishes ranging from eggs to wings and add a splash of color to boot.
We previously tasted hot sauces and declared Huy Fong Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce our favorite. But since then, we've come to think of Sriracha as a separate category. It typically includes sugar and is more garlic-forward, with less of a vinegary tang. Plus, hot sauce and Sriracha often produce noticeably different results when used in large amounts. So we set out to find a new traditional hot sauce winner, with plans to conduct a separate taste test for Sriracha soon.
We selected the seven top-selling nationally available North American hot sauces based on sales data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Prices ranged from $1.29 to $4.59 per bottle. To find the best all-purpose sauce, we sampled each plain (with plenty of palate-soothing whole milk at the ready), drizzled over Creamy Cheese Grits, and in Buffalo Wing Sauce on Oven-Fried Chicken Wings.
A Closer Look at Heat
Peppers' spiciness comes from chemical compounds called capsaicinoids, with capsaicin being the hottest of these. Curious to learn just how hot our sauces really were, we sent them to an independent lab, which analyzed each product's total capsaicinoid amount, including capsaicin. The lab then provided us with each sauce's Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) rating, which essentially quantifies how hot something is. For example, a sweet bell pepper is 0 SHU; a poblano ranges from 1,000 to 2,000; and a jalapeño can be anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 SHU. Our lineup varied from 450 to 3,000 SHU—a huge spread.
Overall, our panel of tasters didn't have a clear preference regarding spice level: Our winning hot sauce registered a pleasant, “spicy but not too spicy” 690 SHU, whereas our runner-up was considerably spicier; our tasters deemed its 1,700 SHU a “bold heat” with a good amount of burn. We also liked the potent 3,000-SHU sauce, while the two mildest sauces—clocking in at 450 and 490 SHU—were underwhelming and ranked lower than most of the others, though they still garnered mostly favorable reviews.
In addition to varying heat levels, our lineup featured an array of textures, from thin and watery to viscous and gritty. But as with our response to heat levels, we didn't have a clear texture preference; tasters found even the “gritty” product perfectly acceptable in all applications. Our favorite hot sauce was on the thicker side, with mellow heat, while the runner-up was thin, with a potent, spicy kick.
What mattered most was hot sauce that wasn't just heat. Tasters preferred complex flavor; our favorite sauces were tangy and sweet, with discernible heat. Our lowest-ranked sauce, by contrast, was deemed hot but flavorless—or, as one taster put it, “all pain, no gain.”
The top two products were the only ones in our lineup to list peppers as their first ingredient, meaning they had a higher ratio of peppers to other ingredients. Additionally, both products' labels specified that the peppers had been aged, our winner using cayenne peppers and our runner-up an undisclosed “special blend.” Our science editor explained that this process, which can help develop more nuanced flavor, typically involves adding salt to the pepper mash and then placing the mixture in white oak barrels or plastic vats to age.
We also noticed that the higher the sodium level, the higher the hot sauce ranked. Our top two sauces had the highest amounts, at 190 milligrams and 200 milligrams per teaspoon, respectively. This may be from added salt, which both sauces have on their ingredient lists, or it could be because of the aforementioned aged peppers, which, according to our science editor, may absorb a lot of sodium if they're aged in brine. Our next-favorite sauces all had between 90 and 110 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon, and our bottom two had a mere 64 milligrams and 35 milligrams per teaspoon, respectively. We found sauces with higher sodium levels to be more flavorful and balanced.
Our Favorite Hot Sauce
Perhaps paradoxically, our favorite hot sauce, Frank's RedHot Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce ($3.49 per 12-ounce bottle), wasn't all that hot. But we rated it highly for its vibrant flavor, which was tangy, a bit sweet, and spicy without being overpowering. Its viscous texture gave it great cling on chicken wings, and tasters raved about its “perfect” Buffalo flavor—not all that surprising since it was reportedly used to create the original Buffalo wings in 1964. This full-flavored sauce wasn't just tasty on wings, though; tasters loved it on grits, too, naming it a great all-around hot sauce. If you prefer bolder heat, our runner-up, Original Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce ($1.29 per 6-ounce bottle), is an excellent option.
Twenty-one America's Test Kitchen staffers sampled seven nationally available hot sauces, tasting each one plain, atop Creamy Cheese Grits, and in our recipe for Buffalo Wing Sauce on Oven-Fried Chicken Wings. We purchased the sauces in Boston-area supermarkets and calculated cost per ounce; nutritional information and ingredients were taken from product labels and are based on a 1-teaspoon serving size. Information on pepper varieties was taken from product labels, where applicable, or obtained from manufacturers. An independent lab calculated Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) ratings. We averaged the scores from all tastings, and products appear in order of preference.