Most restaurants offer some sort of hot sauce or other spicy condiment at their tables. If you’re really lucky, the restaurant makes its own concoction. In the absence of that, most places tend to keep the classics: Tabasco, Cholula, Frank’s, and, of course, Sriracha.
I have nothing against those sauces. (Except maybe Sriracha. It’s… fine) In fact, my love for heat started with them, and I keep a few bottles in my house. But I think our restaurants and our own kitchens could be improved by adding a few new sauces to the mix.
The sauces on this list are the start of a new set of classics. None of them was made for every table or every dish, but they all can enhance and augment flavor in addition to lighting up your senses. Here they are in order from hot to hottest.
Peri-peri sauce is a Portuguese recipe; the name comes from the Mozambican word for “pepper.” The recipe has been popularized by the chicken chain Nando’s, which makes the sauce in the Netherlands and distributes it worldwide. All those influences have a place in this lemony, oniony sauce.
Most peri-peri restaurants are chicken-based affairs, and for good reason. The smoky flavor of grilled chicken pairs well with the bold flavors of peri-peri. Cauliflower would be another great friend of this sauce. Don’t like that much heat? Can’t get enough? The Nando’s version is sold in multiple heat levels.
This more widely available variety of sauce gives cayenne peppers top billing, but it’s more salty, sweet, and sour than it is spicy. There are a bunch of different companies that make their own versions; I once found it at a roadside stand in Michigan. But the basic flavors are always the same: cayenne peppers followed by sugar.
It’s a similar profile to the sweet and sour sauce you’ll find at your local Chinese buffet, but the slight heat of Tiger Sauce makes it a fantastic marinade for chicken and pork especially. Is it going to blow your socks off? Maybe not. But it will certainly earn its place at your table.
My most beloved find from my foray into East Asian hot sauces, Gochujang sauce has burrowed its way into my heart and stomach in the last few months. It’s an absolute umami bomb. It’s great on chicken and vegetables, but it really makes a difference in ramen, pho, and other broth dishes.
I love this sauce. It’s far from the hottest on this list (serrano peppers typically range between 10,000 and 23,000 Scoville units), so it’s a great entry-level sauce. It’s made with only a few ingredients, so the green, somewhat earthy flavor of the serranos really shines. Having mostly eaten it with Latin foods, I was amazed at how good it is on pizza, chicken wings, and nearly any other dish I tried.
Small Axe Peppers started in the Bronx but has since grown to include produce from community gardens around the United States, including Chicago, Baltimore, and Oakland. It’s that plucky attitude and just-damn-goodness that makes this sauce an absolute must-buy.
I adore Valentina and I think Cholula is great, but no Mexican sauce beats El Yucateco’s wide range of flavors. You really can’t go wrong with anything that company makes. In my house, we keep a steady supply of its Black Label Reserve, Verde, and Caribbean sauces. As you might expect, it’s great on Latin foods like tacos, pupusas, and beans and rice.
Black Label Reserve—my favorite of the bunch—is salty, sweet, and just a touch shy of being too smoky, which makes sense since it’s made with charred habaneros. I suggest seeking out this sauce in particular, but for the price ($2.50 for a 4-oz. bottle in my local bodega), you can’t afford to miss trying each of their sauces.
Pickapeppa is an absolutely killer jerk sauce. The heat of the West Indian red peppers is there, sure, but so is the oaky flavor from barrel aging, plus ginger, sugar, mango, and just a touch of orange peel. In my opinion, it’s best on chicken or stir-fried vegetables, but it would be a welcome addition to most soups and seafood dishes.
The next dish I plan to make is the “Big Easy,” which essentially consists of a block of cream cheese with Pickapeppa poured over it, to be eaten with Triscuits or other crackers. Yes, please!
After I wrote my first Takeout article about hot sauce last year, a large contingent of commenters suggested I try Minneapolis’ Cry Baby Craig’s. Made with pickled habaneros, it took some getting used to. It’s got a bright, briny flavor, complemented by a strong punch of garlic.
It’s about mid-level heat, which is what you’d expect from habaneros. It’s not going to make you sweat, but it’s going to give you a little buzz. This sauce is proof that sometimes (at least at The Takeout) it does pay to read the comments.
Ask most pepper-heads and they’ll snidely say something to the effect of, “Secret Aardvark is the Pumpkin Spice Latte of hot sauce.” But here’s the thing: Once in a while, Pumpkin Spice Lattes are delicious. This sauce is no different. Sure, it’s loaded with spices and can smother the flavor of other foods. But find a flavorful enough food and Secret Aardvark will work in tandem to light up your entire palate.
This is my go-to pizza sauce. The tomato that leads the ingredient list mixes perfectly with the salty, fatty cheese and dough of whichever pie you pick up from the nearest pizza joint. It’s a great introduction to slightly hotter sauces as well.
The only sauce on this list with protein listed on the nutrition facts, Dirty Dick’s is chock-full of fruity flavors. That makes sense: Its ingredients include mangoes, pineapples, bananas, and sultanas, a variety of grape mostly grown in Turkey.
This sauce is spicier than some of the other habanero-based sauces on this list, likely due to the acidic pineapple. It’s not quite a jerk sauce—it’s sweeter than that. But it has a lovely tropical flavor that would complement most meat or stir fry dishes.
I could drink this stuff. It’s on the lower scale of heat (9,000 Scoville units) compared with other Scotch bonnet sauces, but the fruity essence of the peppers is a perfect match for the ginger that nearly overpowers your palate. Just buy this sauce. You’ll thank me.
If you’re a hot sauce-obsessive like me, you’ve probably seen dozens of episodes of the YouTube series Hot Ones. After Da Bomb, the most hyped sauce of the show is The Last Dab. There have been multiple iterations of the hottest sauce on host Sean Evans’ illustrious black table, each featuring a pepper mash from hot sauce mad scientist Smokin’ Ed Currie.
There is an insane amount of hype around the show’s most recent, mustard-based sauce, The Last Dab XXX. I’m here to tell you that the gospel of Smokin’ Ed is true. This stuff is vicious; it’s advertised at 2 million Scoville units. It’s also tasty. I was expecting to take a bite and immediately fall back in my chair from the heat. I was so happy to actually taste some sweetness from the three Pepper X varieties that make up its name. The heat came soon after, but it was less painful than I worried it might be. The buzz lasts a while, though.
It’s well worth the try, if not worth $20 from Heatonist. If you’re a heat devotee, it deserves a spot in your cabinet. But please remember, all you need is a dab. Anything more is overkill.
I had almost finished this article when I received a care package from High River Sauces, a New York company I’d heard of but whose products I had never tried. For a long time, Melinda’s Bhut Jolokia Ghost Pepper Sauce had been the hottest sauce I’d ever tasted. It was originally on this list, but once I tried Thunder Juice, I knew it had to make the cut.
Don’t be fooled: Thunder Juice is a heat bomb. It’s made with four different super-hot pepper mashes and habanero-infused tequila. It’s the first sauce in years to briefly make me lose hearing, which is only fun in small doses. I had to take a walk after my first bite. But peach and blueberry flavors make a welcome appearance, too. I have a feeling this sauce will last a while in your fridge or cabinet, but if you’re looking to push your limits, this is the sauce to do it. Good luck.