Hot sauce in some form dates back millennia. Likely just a mixture of Mesoamerica’s wild chiles and water, it has evolved greatly and migrated around the globe.
One of the biggest milestones occurred with the domestication of the chile, which took place approximately 2,000 years ago, as people “selectively bred it for larger, more substantial pods,” per food website First We Feast.
When it comes to hot sauce, the world is your oyster. Though there are condiments that get their heat from mustard, horseradish and wasabi, we’re focusing on the almighty chile pepper.
Anywhere chiles grow, you are almost guaranteed to find a spicy condiment made from the peppers to adorn that region’s cuisine. Here’s a guide to some of the types of hot sauces and their uses.
Cajun pepper hot sauce: If I just ask for “hot sauce,” I’m thinking of this thin sauce consisting mostly of chiles, vinegar and salt. The market leader in the category is Tabasco, as it was the first to sell its sauce commercially to hotels and restaurants in the 19th century, but other popular brands include Crystal, Louisiana and Frank’s RedHot.
These sauces are vinegar forward, giving them a great zip that can cut through fatty food, particularly fried chicken and seafood. You can also use it to replace the acid in marinades or as a table sauce to sprinkle on whatever is placed in front of you in need of extra pizazz. But because of the high proportion of vinegar, don’t add this sauce to something that is already acidic.
Mexican hot sauce: It’s difficult to lump together all of the hot sauces that hail from Mexico, but generally speaking, they are less acidic than the Cajun pepper sauces mentioned above. As such, you tend to get more flavor from the chiles with a little less tang. Familiar brands in this category include Cholula, Tapatio and Valentina. They are generally thicker than Cajun pepper sauces, but you can use them fairly interchangeably.
Green pepper sauce: These sauces get their categorizing color from green chiles, which are less mature than yellow, orange and red peppers. Green peppers tend to have less heat, resulting in a milder sauce with a more vegetal flavor and less sweetness. Some of the brands listed above, including Cholula and Tabasco, make versions of this type of sauce.
Sriracha: This bright red sauce originated in Thailand in the seaside town of Si Racha, and its ingredients include garlic and sugar in addition to the three main hot sauce ingredients (chiles, salt and vinegar). It has a thick consistency that reminds me of ketchup and carries an earthy tang from fermentation.
Saowanit Trikityanukul, whose grandmother is credited as the first to make and sell the sauce, told NPR: “A proper Sriracha sauce needs to be what Thais call ‘klom klom’ – the hotness, the sour, the sweet and the garlic all blending together seamlessly, none overpowering the other.”
The green-capped bottle many of us know today as the standard bearer (aka rooster sauce) was invented in the 1980s by Vietnamese immigrant David Tran, founder of Huy Fong.
“It’s tart and hot, with an edge of fermented garlic,” according to cookbook author Andrea Nguyen. “The rooster sauce is more assertive than other brands of sriracha.”
Sriracha is quite popular these days, and many use it as an all-purpose hot sauce. It’s great for squiggling on a slice of pizza or on top of a bowl of fried rice, and its flavor can be found carried into all types of food products.
Sambal oelek: Hailing from Indonesia, sambal oelek is a chunky blend of fresh chiles with salt and maybe a little vinegar. You can certainly dollop a spoonful onto a dish to add fresh heat as you’re eating, but it’s also great as an ingredient when cooking to use in place of fresh chiles if you don’t have any around. “One tablespoon is roughly the equivalent of a chopped, small jalapeño,” according to Bon Appétit.
Chili garlic sauce: For all of the garlic lovers of the world, this is the sauce for you. It’s very similar to sambal oelek in that it’s a chunky sauce mostly consisting of crushed chiles, but with the addition of (you guessed it) garlic. With a lower proportion of chiles, it’s less hot spoonful-for-spoonful compared to sambal oelek.
The label on the bottle for Huy Fong’s version translates to “Vietnamese chile garlic sauce,” according to Nguyen, recommending its use for Vietnamese cuisine. But, of course, it can be used however you wish such as in marinades for meat or to provide heat and flavor to a spicy peanut sauce to dress noodles.
Gochujang: This fermented, thick Korean pepper paste also includes rice, sugar and sometimes soybeans. It is a deep, brick red color but does not pack much heat. It’s much more savory with a hint of sweetness to balance it out. While I love all hot sauces for what they can add to a dish, this happens to be one of my personal favorites. Use it in a sauce for crispy chicken wings or tofu, or let it flavor the broth for soondubu jjigae, a soft tofu stew.
Harissa: If you’re at all familiar with the cuisines from North Africa, particularly that from Tunisia, you’re likely well aware of this beloved condiment. Though the exact ingredients vary, per Serious Eats, it is a “thick and smooth but slightly grainy chili paste, made with ground red chilies, spices like cumin and coriander, and a bit of olive oil.”
It’s the spices and fat that set apart harissa from many of the other hot sauces included in this guide, and the (often) roasted chiles give a hint of smoke. Use it whisked in salad dressing, as spread in pita sandwiches or in a rub for roasted meat.
This list is by no means exhaustive and is meant to be just a sampling of what you can find. If you want to dive deeper, look for an artisan hot sauce shop near you.
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