Ruby Goss

Senior Food Editor at Kitchen Stories

instagram.com/ruby.goss/

Flavor—it’s what takes eating from something we must do, to something we want to do. This article is part of “The Flavor Issue” our month dedicated to dialing up every dish and making every day taste better. To follow along, you can check back here for an overview of all our latest stories and recipes from the issue. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for behind the scenes, extra community content, and more! We hope to see you around Flavortown!

Hot sauces are often rated on heat alone—from how many Scoville units they rack up to how much pain they induce—but this, in my opinion, that defeats the magic of what makes a *great* hot sauce: You guessed it, it’s our word of the month—FLAVOR.

Heat can make a dish sing and a good hot dish keeps you going back for more because of just how that spice layers with the base. It makes eating an experience: The best hot dish I’ve ever eaten, and possibly one of the best dishes I’ve eaten full stop, was a fiery platter of sambal crab in the Portuguese Square in Malacca, Malaysia. You know a dish is good when your lips have puffed up (if you’re considering lip fillers, try sambal), you’ve broken out into a sweat and keep running fruitlessly to the tap—but you keep going back in for another round, and another.

The same goes, in my opinion, for all hot sauces: just think of all the flavors that make world-favorite Sriracha what it is. Heat and heat alone becomes boring—there’s got to be something that keeps you going back for more. There are so many hot sauces on the market (even, as we’ve recently discovered, a hot sauce for coffee), but we’ve narrowed down our list to 11 of our favorites. Some, like harissa or gochujang are more like pastes but all can be used as excellent dippers and others, like your classic Tabasco, are drippy sauces made for your table.

Here are our favorite hot sauces (plus how to use them) rated on their flavor and ordered from, hotter, hottest—to completely off the scale.

HOT

Sriracha

Synonymous with hot sauce, Sriracha really took the world by a storm to become a cherished pantry staple. Chances are you have the original Huy Fong food version or the Flying Goose Brand. The former I find tangier and spicier, while the latter is sweeter, like ketchup, and milder. Both are garlicky, delicious sauces that compliment everything from banhi mi to mayo to scrambled eggs. 

Flavor: Sweet, tangy, garlicky and sharp
Heat: A crowd-pleaser that offers buildable, fiery heat 

Recipes with Sriracha:
Cabbage fritters with Sriracha mayo
Spicy peanut soba noodles
Sriracha and lime glazed salmon

Valentina

One of the most popular Mexican hot sauces, Valentina used to often go missing from the test kitchen come lunch time: It’s got bright acidity and a really smoky, base flavour that’s reminiscent of a good quality smoked paprika. It’s an excellent finishing sauce for Mexican dishes like tacos, but also great with scrambled eggs or as a dipping sauce for grilled cheese—thanks for the suggestion Artur. 

Flavour: If you like smoky and sour notes, this is for you!
Heat: Hot, but not too hot. A great hot sauce gateway and the kind you can pour all over a dish to build up flavor. 

Use Valentina for dishes like:
Fish tacos 
Grilled cheese sandwich

HOTTER

Sambal (Oelek)

You’ll find rich, delicious sambal in all different guises used in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking. You can find fresher, tangier sambal made with fresh chilies (like sambal oelek) or enjoy oilier, home-cooked fried versions, which often use dried chilis. Common flavorings include dried shrimp paste (belacan) which gives, it a savory, pungent depth, palm sugar for sweetness, lime or tamarind for acidity, onions and/or garlic for jamminess, candlenut  for body.

For our tasting, I used a Sambal made by ‘Ma-Makan’—purveyor of Malaysian and Singaporean hawker-style food in Berlin—I can highly recommend getting a jar (available for various locations in Berlin, including a vegan version. You get in touch via the website for Germany-wide shipping). It’s a ‘cooked’ sambal that’s taste catapults me back to childhood and that I use on rice, noodles, fried eggs, or tossed through a tofu and veg stir-fry.

Flavor: Long time resident of flavor town with all the representatives of salt, fat, acid, ad heat (and a little sweet too)
Heat: Fiery, but depends on the chilies used—jarred varieties are sometimes milder
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Recipes with sambal:
Sambal goreng udang (Indonesian sambal shrimp)
Grilled chicken banh mi
Easy glass noodle soup

Tabasco

Here’s my unpopular opinion, for what it’s worth (possibly nothing): I’ve never been a huge Tabasco fan, although I can get behind the chipotle version. To me, it’s just a little too sharply acidic—it doesn’t keep me going back for more like other hot sauces. But while it’s not my table hot sauce of choice, it’s an essential for my pantry: Some ingredient combos need a sting of acid and heat that won’t overpower and Tabasco is a prime choice. 

Flavor: Spicy, sour, and a little smoky! 
Heat: A few drops give a good kick and it’s the kind of heat you can build up to your liking!

Recipes with Tabasco: 
Brunch Caesar salad
Spicy mezcal margaritas
Onion rings with spicy ranch dressing

Gochujang

Gochujang can be used as a cooking paste and as a dipping sauce—it’s made with miso and Korean chilli peppers: the first adds sweetness and umami, the second adds a caramel-like, slightly smoky heat. It’s one of my favourite hot sauces because it has so much personality and packs a punch.

Flavor: Deep, toasted chili flavor that’s almost caramel-like, balance with sweetness and umami
Heat: Buildable heat that starts of strong

Recipes with gochujang:
Kimchi shirataki noodles
Fried chicken (my favorite dipping sauce is mixing 1 part gochujang to 2 parts mayo)
Spicy mushroom ragu

Harissa

Spiced and spicy, Tunisian harissa is chili paste that can be cooked with or loosened into a sauce. It tends to be made with dried chilis and is often flavored with lemon juice and spices like cumin, coriander, caraway, and deliciously, sometimes even rose. The flavor profiles will differ according to the brand, for the most heat and flavor it’s most reliable to look for the Tunisian brands, which have the added bonus packaging so beautiful you’ll never want to store them away. 

Flavor: Notes of cumin, coriander and citrus
Heat: Depends on the brand, but errs on the h-o-t side

Recipes with Harrisa paste:
Harissa and eggplant pasta bake
5-ingredient harissa-roasted cauliflower with couscous
Sheet pan meatballs with chickpeas and vegetables

Frank’s Red Hot

This, I learned from Eric and Sebastian, is ‘the’ hot sauce for buffalo wings, which, I’ll be honest, doesn’t say much to me—my only contact insofar with buffalo wings has been via the osmosis-effect of American pop-culture, not my taste buds per se (you can try a twist on buffalo wings here!). Operations Assistant Steven recommended it as his fridge staple and describes it as a straightforwardly peppery and sour hot sauce without any ‘spiced’ notes.

Flavor: Frank’s hot sauce is peppery and sour, brininess that suggests pickled peppers, an all-rounder for adding space.
Heat: Hotter than Valentina, but not quite as hot as the piri-piri or El Yucateco hot sauces.

HOTTEST

El Yucateco

The only green hot sauce in our mix, El Yucateco is a deliciously bright, citrusy, and smoky hot sauce to add to your pantry. Our group reaction after trying it was a very Paris Hilton: “That’s hot!” It’s hotter than my other favorite Mexican hot sauce, Valentina, and to me is the perfect example of a complex and satisfying hot sauce that keeps you going in for more. I had to top up my teaspoon when we were tasting. 

Flavor: Limey, fresh, and smoky!
Heat: A sharp heat with lingering power

Try El Yucateco on Huevos Rancheros with salsa verde

Macatico piri-piri

When I asked our Test Kitchen whiz, Porto-born Bruna, what her favorite bottled piri-piri sauce was—she said she didn’t have one: “My grandfather makes a homemade one.” Jealousy ensued. Until I could get a taste of this myself, I looked to the internet for a recommendation. 

Flavor: Rich, warm, slightly smoky notes. A briny, almost olive-like taste and sharply vinegary. The kind of sauce you can, somewhat obviously, imagine pairing well with roasted or bbq chicken.
Heat: Hot with a real peppery hit to it

Want more piri-piri? Try this recipe for piri-piri chicken!

Crazy Bastard Trinidad Scorpion and Clementine

Crazy Bastard is an award-winning local hot sauce company in Berlin (don’t worry, they ship all over the place) who offer an amazing selection of hot sauces at different heat points with fun flavor profiles: think chipotle and pineapple to ghost pepper and blueberry. Bruna suggested the trinidad scorpion and clementine—and it’s well worth trying, on first hit you get a pop of clementine citrus, followed by raw heat. It was the only hot sauce from the tasting that immediately gave me hiccups. 


Flavor: Fragrantly citrusy, decently acidic, and sharply hot with raw chili flavor
Heat: About on par with El Yucateco, not a sauce for the faint hearted

OFF THE SCALE HOT

Samyang Hot Chicken sauce

When I was crowd-sourcing hot sauce recommendations, Video Editor Artur supplied this one: “I’m not really sure if it’s a traditional hot sauce, but it sure is hot.” If you’re familiar with instant ramen and/or the Scoville scale—you’ve likely heard of Samyang hot chicken ramen 2x spicy, start of the Youtube ‘Fire Noodle Challenge’. According to Wikipedia, it has a Scoville of 8,80: For comparison, that’s like eating a single jalapeño. Essentially, it’s hot. 

Naturally I invited Artur to the challenge, but unfortunately, I accidentally ordered the hottest Samyang sauce on the market—and it was an experience. The first flavor that comes through is a savory, caramel-y, almost peanutty note, which quickly EXPLODES into a heat that takes you on a red hot trip for 10 minutes. We were pacing around the room, huffing and puffing, and I grabbed the closest cold drink on hand (we were in a shoot kitchen, so this happened, somehow to be pure grenadine syrup—not sure I’d recommend). The spice does calm down after about 10 minutes, but those 10 minutes sure are intense. 

Flavor: Savory and nutty, but pretty rapidly dulled by heat
Heat: EXPLOSIVELY HOT

What’s your favorite hot sauce? Let us know in the comments!

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