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Feeling the Heat: Hot Sauce

Which kind of hot sauce is right for you? Read on for all you need to know about America’s most divisive condiment.

Hot sauce is kind of like the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. Sometimes the heat is too much, sometimes it’s not enough, and once in a while, the dish comes out just right. Whether you’re Sriracha-obsessed or a Frank’s fanatic, one thing is for certain. Hot sauce is both loved and hated for a variety of reasons.

So, what kind of hot sauce is the hottest, and which ingredients give it that fiery kick? Are there any milder varieties I might try? And what kind of cuisine is right for each type of sauce? We’re going to explore today’s most popular hot sauce styles, breaking down each lip-tingling level of spicy, peppery goodness.

Ready to feel the heat? Let’s get started!

The Ultimate Guide to Hot Sauce

Whenever hot sauce hits your tongue, you experience a slight burning sensation, but it’s different depending on your individual taste. While one person might be able to tolerate the spiciest ghost peppers on the planet, others can hardly handle a dash of cayenne. In order to make sense of hot sauce’s extreme subjectivity, experts came up with a ranking system.

Understanding the Scoville Scale

First, it’s important to realize that what makes hot sauce ‘hot sauce’ is one common ingredient: chili peppers. However, different kinds of chili peppers possess unique flavor profiles and varying levels of heat, making them difficult to compare.

The Scoville Scale demystifies these disparities so it’s easier to assess which kind of pepper is hotter than the next. Each one is assigned a number to indicate its heat level, which is measured by how many times the spicy ingredient has to be diluted in water before its burning effect completely disappears.

For example, a bell pepper ranks zero on the Scoville Scale, while the ghost pepper (Naga Jolokia) measures in excess of 1,000,000 units. While we’re on the topic—why does hot sauce make your lips burn, anyway?

Cooking with Capsaicin

Like other foods, certain chemical compounds impact hot sauce’s level of piquancy. The key active ingredient in chili peppers is capsaicin, which causes an immediate neurological reaction when coming into contact with sensitive areas of the body like the lips or eyes. But don’t worry, it doesn’t do any real damage.

In fact, many hot sauce manufacturers add pure capsaicin extract (ranked 16,000,000+ on the Scoville Scale) to take things up a notch. Just a couple of drops, and an entire stockpot of broth, soup or chili transforms from meek and mild to emergency 911.

Now that you understand how hot sauce affects the palate, its time to put our teachings into practice. Here’s a rundown of today’s most popular hot sauces and how to use them.

3 Hot Sauces That Bring the Heat

3. Sriracha

Scoville rating: 1,000-2,500 SHU

Popular cuisine: Asian

In recent years, global trends have infiltrated America, introducing more and more people to Sriracha or ‘rooster sauce,’ as many call it. This hot sauce variety integrates classic Asian flavors in addition to its fiery chili pepper base.

Sriracha is great for adding a touch of heat to your homemade pad thai or ramen dishes. Or, try making these awesome thai peanut chicken quesadillas for a sweat-inducing take on your typical Tex-Mex meal. Remember: a couple drops goes a long way!

Sriracha sauce

Photo: Charles Deluvio

2. Frank’s Red Hot Sauce

Scoville rating: 450 SHU

Popular cuisine: American

Comprised of aged cayenne peppers and a bunch of other mild ingredients, Frank’s Red Hot sauce is the most kid-friendly on the list. It definitely packs a punch when drizzled on eggs or coated on your beloved buffalo wings. But you can also douse food in Frank’s without shedding a tear.

Looking to entertain a crowd at your next dinner party or get-together? Keep things relatively mild with a delicious buffalo chicken dip made with Frank’s Red Hot Original.

Franks Red Hot

Photo: Franks Red Hot

1. Tabasco Habanero

Scoville rating: 8,000 SHU

Popular cuisine: Louisiana Style, Mexican

Although they make many varieties of hot sauce, the Tabasco company’s ‘Habanero’ balances its over-the-top kick with slightly sweet Caribbean flavors of mango, banana, and papaya. And since the Tabasco pepper comes exclusively from Louisiana, it’s easy to see why so many Southern dishes use this staple.

While you may use classic Tabasco Pepper Sauce to jazz up your bloody marys or cocktail sauce, give the Habanero formula a whirl. Enjoy a deliciously spicy kick at your next cookout with this fantastic barbecue loin back ribs recipe.


Photo: Charles Deluvio

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