I only recently started using hot sauce. For most of my life, I could barely even stand Tabasco. I’m not sure what flipped the switch, but I was suddenly on the hunt for whatever liquid spice I could get my hands on. I asked friends and family and got some good suggestions, but I was still hunting for more. Then I remembered the words of my best friend: “If there’s something you’re interested in, you’ll find a place on Reddit to talk about it.”
So I searched, and immediately found r/hotsauce. Now, everyone knows Reddit can be a toxic place outside of uplifting subreddits like r/wholesomememes and r/rarepuppers. Just the other day, I was called the c-word on the Parks And Recreation subreddit. I expected a lot of jerks on r/hotsauce, because subreddits are rife with gatekeeping and other kinds of snobbery. Food and drink-based communities can suffer from this even worse than others, both online and off. But r/hotsauce is an outlier.
“It’s hard to get toxic about something like hot sauce,” Ben Coppens, r/hotsauce moderator, tells me. “It’s not political; it’s not religious. It’s good food. People all over the world like spicy stuff.”
Reddit’s community dedicated to hot sauce isn’t perfect. There’s an ongoing debate about whether extract-based sauces are any good (more on this below, but for the record I don’t think they are). There are a handful of people who are only there to advertise their spammy-looking hot sauce sites. And some people seem to think that if you’re not using sauces with more than 300,000 Scoville units, then you’re not a real fan. But those people are rare.
The vast majority of r/hotsauce’s 20,000 subscribers are more than delighted that you, a newbie, are also getting into their favorite hobby. The boards are filled with posts asking, “I’m new to hot sauce. What should I try?” (The answer is usually Marie Sharp’s Habanero or Secret Aardvaark’s flagship sauce.)
There are dozens of people showing off their latest creations. The post looks similar every time: bottles filled with red liquid promising to sear the tastebuds off your tongue, if you’re into that sort of thing. In any other community, those kinds of posts are typically down-voted into oblivion or full of “read our wiki, idiot” comments. But unless your post is trying to sell something shady, hundreds of “Heat Seekers” are thrilled to help you out and hype you up.
“I haven’t had to intervene much,” says Coppens. “Usually people are nice to each other. They don’t pick fights.”
These are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the friendly, welcoming community:
Most users on r/hotsauce agree with this point. Some companies use capsaicin extract to ratchet up the spice level on their sauces. Sure, it kicks things up a notch, but it also adds nothing in the way of flavor. The only sauces that get some flak from users are the ones that are only hot because they’re full of capsaicin.
A lot of hot sauces have stupid names. There’s Professor Phardtpounders Colon Cleaner, Bunsters Shit The Bed, and far too many other sauces that talk about the digestive system. But one of the most beloved sauces in the community is Dirty Dick’s.
There’s a lot of gimmick when it comes to naming sauces, but if you see something you like in the ingredients, give it a try. Likewise, a lot of sauces in pretty bottles haven’t impressed me or others in the community.
A lot of why the subreddit thrives is due to the variety of sauces available. Sure, you can get Tabasco or Cholula anywhere, but there are thousands of regional sauces around the nation and the globe. Posts range from Caribbean sauces (a favorite of the community) to one of the sauces I posted, Hobo Jim’s Yellow Jacket Mustard. It was… fine. Just not very spicy.
For a long time, Reddit had a thriving beer exchange. Last March, the site shut it down. r/hotsauce has a bi-weekly advertising thread, but not a lot of trading goes on, unfortunately. Coppens said any attempts to set up trading in the past haven’t panned out. One member approached him with plans to set up a swap thread but never followed through.
“I haven’t discouraged anything,” Coppens says. “But I’m not going to put in any extra effort if people don’t want it.”
In the meantime, if you’re looking to get rid of a sauce you didn’t like, or excess peppers from your garden, your best bet is r/spicyswaps.
Social media is built on sharing what you care about. For most people on r/hotsauce, that means sharing the most recent or best sauce they’ve tried. For a handful of people, it means sharing their creations. You’d think people would be guarded about their recipes. All the chefs and grandmas I know have secret recipes they won’t share with anyone, but on r/hotsauce, you can post a photo of a bowl of peppers you just picked and reliably expect a few recipes. Everyone seems earnestly excited to give help and some will even follow up to see if the final product was any good. Some might even bug you for samples.
So what keeps r/hotsauce together? The best subreddits are kept together by mutual weirdness. Coppens says the size of the community plays a factor. With only 20,000 people, there are simply fewer jerks than in larger subreddits. But I think it’s something else.
Hot sauce is a condiment, sure. The best versions add flavor but don’t overwhelm your dish. But there’s an element of danger when it comes to hot sauce. It’s bottled pain. Coppens called it “a challenge.” Some, including me, would call it masochism. There’s some weird pleasure in subjecting yourself to pain and seeing what you can stand. Every time I buy a sauce that brags about its ability to strip varnish, I smile.
There’s something wrong with me, and I’d venture to say there’s something wrong with 20,000 of my friends on r/hotsauce.