The Food Lab's Top 30 Hot Sauces, in No Particular Order

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Naming a "best" hot sauce is an impossible task, akin to naming a best episode of MacGyver or a best style of dumpling. Different hot sauces fulfill different needs, and I wouldn't want anyone to live in a world in which each fridge held only one bottle. In that spirit, I won't even attempt to limit my hot sauce recommendations to a single best, or even to a top five or 10. Nope: These are 30 of my favorite hot sauces. I can tell you from experience that if you are planning on attempting this kind of taste test, give yourself a few weeks to space it out, stock plenty of milk and white rice, and keep your plumber's number on speed dial.

Figuring out where to even begin selecting candidates from the thousands of hot sauces bottled and sold in this country is no mean feat. I started by harnessing the power of social media and asked you all for your recommendations. Anything that got a mention, I researched; anything that got more than a couple of mentions, I bought and tasted. I also considered recommendations from renowned chili-heads like Bill Moore and Scott Roberts, and looked over lists from other major publications.

Over the course of my research, I also tried to go to Heat Hot Sauce Shop out in the East Bay, only to find that they were temporarily closed. Luckily, their online shop is still open (and perhaps the best place around for hot sauce shopping). The owners were even nice enough to pack me a box of some of their favorite unique sauces among the hundreds they stock in the shop. Many of those sauces ended up landing on my list as well.

To keep things slightly more manageable, I decided to limit myself to hot sauces that are intended to be used as table condiments, rather than ingredients. This meant things like harissa or Chinese-style fermented chili pastes weren't in the running. I also decided to exclude all chili oils (although if I had included them, I can almost guarantee that Chiu Chow Chili Oil and Spicy Chili Crisp would've taken top spots).

Though hot sauce preferences are personal, I'm pretty open to all styles. All except stunt sauces, that is—you know, sauces that are primarily designed to test your machismo.

Finally, I limited my selection to hot sauces that are distributed to stores nationwide or available for purchase online.

I'll start with some of my very favorite sauces, but the rest of the list is in no particular order.

A Childhood Favorite Returns: Todd's Inner Beauty

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Heat level: Hot

Flavor: Anyone who's lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the last several decades is familiar with Inner Beauty, the hot sauce made famous at Chris Schlesinger's East Coast Grill. His original recipe, which blends mustard with habanero peppers, molasses, Chardonnay wine, honey, and a whole slew of tropical fruit juices, is the kind of thing you'd come up with only in an expanded mental state. Throughout my childhood, my dad kept a bottle of Inner Beauty in our fridge door at all times, so I was saddened to hear that the sauce was being discontinued.

Thankfully, Todd's Salsa, out of Bangor, Maine, decided to revive the sauce a few years back. The first taste I had of that distinctly mustardy, tropical flavor was an immediate punch in the mouth that sent me back in time to those early, formative years of hot sauce tasting. It's exactly as I remember, and just as glorious. This stuff really shines on grilled seafood, but it's a great all-purpose sauce you'll want to keep in your fridge door, just like my dad did.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

Tastes Like Fancy Booze: BLiS Blast Hot Pepper Sauce

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Heat level: Mild

Flavor: BLiS (an acronym for "Because Life is Short") is a chef's hot sauce. The creators are probably most famous for their bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup, and that syrup plays a unique role in their hot sauce. No, the sauce doesn't contain any actual maple syrup, but the sauce base, made from cayenne, árbol, and chipotle chilies, is aged for a year in barrels that have previously aged bourbon, maple syrup, and Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. The result is a hot sauce with an insanely complex, layered flavor profile that you'll almost want to sip from a whiskey glass.

Available from Amazon »

Weirdly Delicious: Secret Aardvark

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Heat level: Moderate

Flavor: Strange is the first thing you'll think when you taste this Portland, Oregon, hot sauce, which describes itself as "Caribbean/Tex-Mex." It's strange enough that you'll want to taste it again just to verify what you just tasted. Then you'll try it again, and again, and again, and before you know it, you'll be addicted. With almost 20 ingredients, it's one of the most complex sauces in this lineup. It tastes like tomatoes. No, like mustard. No, like sweet chilies. No, like...I don't know. I can't describe it. It's just great stuff, and one of the most versatile sauces I've had.

Available from Amazon »

So Good, You'll Forget How Hot It Is: El Yucateco XXXtra Hot Salsa Kutbil-Ik

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Heat level: Very hot

Flavor: I love this stuff intensely. The main flavor is that of fruity habanero chilies that have been charred to give them a distinct smokiness. Multiple times a month, I bring it to the table and start adding it willy-nilly to my food, before realizing that, once again, I was so looking forward to its flavor that I completely forgot about its not-insignificant heat. My wife, Adri, finds this amusing. I don't know why I keep doing it over and over, but I don't care—that flavor is worth it.

Available from Amazon »

Yes, I Put This S%&t on Everything: Frank's

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Heat level: Mild

Flavor: This is the classic, original Buffalo sauce, and there's no substitute when it comes to saucing Buffalo wings. It's not particularly spicy, but it has great pepper flavor and a vinegary blast. I use it for cooking almost as much as I use it at the table—there's simply nothing better on a hard-boiled egg.

Available from Amazon »

Forget Tapatío and Cholula: Valentina Black Label

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Heat level: Mild to moderate

Flavor: In this world, you're either a Tapatío person or a Cholula person. I'll take either of those if it's available, but in my kitchen, you'll see Valentina instead. It's smoother and more flavorful than the other two, while still packing that classic Mexican hot sauce flavor. The ingredients are simple (nothing but chilies, vinegar, salt, and spices), but the flavor is complex. The Black Label stuff is labeled "extra hot," but it's still mild enough to use every day, at every meal.

Available from Amazon »

Ginger and Pineapple: Lucky Dog Year of the Dog Thai Chile Pineapple Hot Sauce

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Heat level: Hot

Flavor: Looking at the ingredient list before you taste this is gonna leave you baffled. How can pineapple, honey, toasted onion, mustard flour, ginger, and sesame seeds all taste good together? But it works out nicely, with a sort of Southeast Asian flair over a base flavor that's still firmly rooted in Western-style hot sauces.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

Great for Barbecue: Pain Is Good Louisiana-Style Hot Sauce

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Heat level: Moderate

Flavor: Sweet and spicy, with an umami backbone thanks to Worcestershire sauce. Despite its name, it's not really "Louisiana-style" in any sense that I can identify. It has some smokiness, and a thick texture that makes it more like a cross between Kansas City–style barbecue sauce and hot sauce. That's not a bad thing. I'd reach for this one to dip my ribs in.

Available from Amazon »

Better Than Rooster Sauce: Sōsu Barrel-Aged Sriracha

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Heat level: Mild to moderate

Flavor: This made-in-Oakland sriracha has only four ingredients—chilies, garlic, brown sugar, and salt—but achieves a remarkable smoky complexity thanks to good fermentation and a month spent aging in whiskey barrels. It's milder and less sweet than the sriracha you may be familiar with, but boasts a far richer flavor.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

For Your Hot Dog: Lottie's Barbados Hot Sauce

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Heat level: Moderate

Flavor: This sauce starts out tasting just like a high-quality yellow mustard, but a moderate amount of habanero chilies gives it some lingering heat and fruitiness, while West Indian spicing lends a hint of curry flavor. It's the perfect hot dog mustard for chili-heads, though don't limit its applications to between buns!

Available from Amazon »

Hot and Creamy: Formosa Chipotle Hot Sauce

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Heat level: Mild

Flavor: One of the most distinct hot sauces I tasted, this creamy sauce has the consistency and texture of a loose mayonnaise, thanks to a vegetable-oil emulsion. It's hot, but that creaminess provides nice balance. After water, tomatillos are the main ingredient, but the flavors of smoky chipotle and cumin come through strongest. This would be a great sauce for burgers and sandwiches.

Available from Amazon »

Vinegary, Hot, and Smoky: Pex Peppers To the Moon

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Heat level: Hot to extra hot

Flavor: Made with a mixture of red habanero and smoked ghost peppers, To the Moon is not quite blindingly hot, but hot enough to mildly impair your vision. I like it for its strong hit of acidity (thanks to a combination of vinegar and lime juice) and hint of smokiness.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

Like Biting Into a Fresh Pepper: Hot Winter Hot Sauce

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Heat level: Moderate

Flavor: Hot Winter has an interesting backstory. Jimmy Nardello peppers typically have a Scoville rating of a big fat zero, but they're packed with grassy, fruity flavor. Founder Shaun Winter took those Jimmy Nardellos and bred them into a variety that has all the original's flavor, along with a moderately hot punch. He blends the peppers with vinegar and sugar for a sauce that is uniquely fresh and peppery-tasting, like biting into a pepper straight from the plant.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

Great Flavor Without the Burn: Melinda's Original Habanero Pepper Sauce

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Heat level: Mild to moderate

Flavor: Melinda's Original may list "habanero" on its label and among its ingredients, but the sauce is one of the mildest on this list. The base is made with carrots, onions, and garlic and spiked with lime juice and vinegar, so it has a great vegetal flavor, with just a hint of heat to liven things up.

Available from Amazon »

Bloody Mary's Best Friend: The Pepper Plant Original California-Style Hot Pepper Sauce

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Heat level: Mild to moderate

Flavor: If you hit up the Mexican restaurants and diners around Carmel or Monterey, this is the stuff you'll be pouring on your eggs. It has a flavor dominated by dried herbs and dried garlic, which would typically get dings in my book. But somehow, it seems to work just fine in this context. It's by far the saltiest sauce I tried, but sometimes saltiness is what you crave. If I were nursing a Sunday-morning hangover, this is the one I'd reach for to spice up my Bloody Mary or michelada.

Available from Amazon »

Thick and Flavorful: Chiporro Sauce Co. Rocoto Hot

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Heat level: Moderate, building heat

Flavor: This hot sauce from Colorado is made with distinctively flavored Peruvian rocoto chilies. Creamy and thick, it has a good amount of tomato in the base, which comes through almost like a South American–themed arrabbiata sauce. This one's perfect for coating grilled chicken or vegetables.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

Citrus-Forward Heat: Nando's Peri-Peri Extra Hot

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Heat level: Mild to moderate

Flavor: This sauce is bottled by Nando's, a South African grilled-chicken restaurant chain popular in the UK but far less known in the US (there are locations in only four states at this time). The sauce is based on West African bird's eye chilies, but a whopping 5% concentration of lemon gives it its uniquely citrusy flavor. Even the "Extra Hot" bottles are mild enough to pour on thick, which is what you'll want to do with that grilled chicken anyway.

Available from Amazon »

For Black-Pepper Lovers: Volcanic Peppers Aleppo Pepper Sauce

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Heat level: Mild to moderate

Flavor: Vinegar and black pepper are the first flavors to hit your mouth in this moderately spicy sauce, but as they fade, you're left with the unique flavor of Turkish Aleppo peppers. All that vinegar, along with a little tomato, reminds me an awful lot of A.1. Sauce, if A.1. were hotter and, well, better. This is a good sauce for burgers or steaks.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

Bright and Fruity: Char Man Caribbean Hot Sauce

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Heat level: Moderate to hot

Flavor: Char Man is fruity and tropical, with mango and pineapple flavors mingling with a few curry-esque spices. It's made with a combination of three different chilies that pack a not-insane but moderately hot punch. I'd use this sauce on grilled chicken or fish, or mixed into beans and rice.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

For Habanero Lovers: Marie Sharp's Belizean Heat

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Heat level: Hot

Flavor: This stuff is the real deal, and you'll see it on virtually every tabletop in Belize. The ingredients include onions, garlic, tomatoes, and a number of other flavorings, but all you really taste is that sweet, fruity habanero. It has a relentless heat, in part because of added pure capsicum oil. It's one of my favorites.

Available from Amazon »

Well-Rounded Heat and Smoke: Chipotle Infinity Sauce

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Heat level: Mild to moderate

Flavor: Smoky chipotle chilies and molasses are the primary aromas on the nose, but once you taste it, you get some sweetness from peaches and a mustardy kick. It's not too hot, which is nice, as it allows you to appreciate the subtler flavors of the fruit. According to Heat Hot Sauce Shop, this is consistently one of their highest-ranking sauces. Thin and pourable.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

Extreme Heat and Extreme Flavor: Bigfat's 7o8 7 Pot Citrus

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Heat level: Really frickin' hot

Flavor: Hoo boy, this is some hot stuff. Over the course of my tasting, there were many nights when I re-sampled a few dozen hot sauces at a time. If I didn't forget to leave this one for the end, I'd have to wait half an hour for my mouth to recover before I could even taste anything else. It's seriously hot, but also has great orange and pineapple flavors. The real secret ingredient is sweet-tart pomegranate molasses.*

* I once made a bottle of hot sauce for my father-in-law featuring pomegranate molasses. I thought I was the only one!

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

Award-Winning Smoky Heat: Lucky Dog Ridiculously Tasty Mustard Chipotle

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Heat level: Moderate

Flavor: Lucky Dog is a Bay Area–based hot sauce company that makes a huge array of hot sauce flavors, most of them in the mild-to-moderate-heat range. This is one of my two favorites. The base of pears and vinegar has a nice fruity background, but it gets some smoke and heat from chipotles and Scotch bonnets. It has a smooth consistency like that of loose ketchup, perfect for dipping fries or spicing up leftover pizza.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

A Lime Lover's Hot Sauce: Sinclair's Fatalii Hot Sauce

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Heat level: Hot

Flavor: Sinclair's Fatalii has a strong lime flavor that pairs nicely with citrusy Fatalii peppers. If you're a fan of lime-flavored tortilla chips, its aroma is quite similar; if you're not, you might want to pass on this bottle. With apple cider vinegar as its first ingredient, it also starts and finishes with a mouth-puckering vinegariness. I'd pair it with creamy or rich foods, like quesadillas, pizza, and macaroni and cheese.

Available from Heat Hot Sauce Shop »

Curry and Spice: Iguana Gold Island Pepper Sauce

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Heat level: Hot

Flavor: This sauce gets its bright gold color from cayenne peppers, mustard, and turmeric—it's definitely the most curry-forward of all the Caribbean-style hot sauces in this lineup. Uniquely, it contains cucumbers (along with onions, carrots, garlic, and habaneros), which have a welcome cooling effect in the face of all that heat. It hits you fast, but doesn't linger long. Try it on fried eggs.

Available from Amazon »

If Frank's and Tabasco Had a Baby: D. L. Jardine's Texas Champagne

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Heat level: Moderately hot

Flavor: When I tasted this sauce, I thought, "That's Tabasco." Then, a moment later, I thought, "No, wait, that's Frank's!" It has the texture and vinegariness of the latter, but the heat and barrel-aged funk of the former. If you're like me and often bring both to the table with breakfast, this is like one-stop shopping for your mouth. Perfect for soups, eggs, gumbo, or potatoes.

Available from Amazon »

For Real Jerks: Pickapeppa Sauce

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Heat level: Mild

Flavor: No, not that kind of jerk, this kind of jerk. This classic sauce from Jamaica is packed with warm spice flavors from cloves, ginger, black pepper, thyme, and a stint in oak barrels. It's not very hot at all, but the heat does tend to build up over time. Raisins are used in the base, and once you know they're there, you'll taste them every time. It's a great complement to grilled meats, soups, and stews. This sauce has been produced for nearly 100 years for a reason.

Available from Amazon »

For Just Plain Jerks: Busha Browne's Spicy Jerk Sauce

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Heat level: Mild

Flavor: If Pickapeppa is too wild for you, this jerk sauce is like a more mild-mannered cousin. With fewer ingredients, it also has fewer competing flavors, which can make for a nice change of pace. Its sweet-and-savory flavor reminds me a lot of Worcestershire.

Available from Amazon »

Dance Party!: Matouk's Calypso Sauce

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Heat level: Moderate to hot

Flavor: Tasting this ketchup-thick hot sauce for the first time, you'd swear that there was tropical fruit in it. But nope, that's just the fruity pickled Scotch bonnet peppers you're tasting. There's garlic, mustard, and celery seed in the bottle, too, but there must be some kind of magic going on to make the flavors of mangoes and pineapples appear where they aren't. In any case, it's darned delicious on eggs and sandwiches.

Available from Amazon »

Beans' Best Friend: Rancho Gordo Felicidad Chipotle Salsa

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Heat level: Moderate

Flavor: Toasted pumpkin seeds are the real kicker in this vinegary and smoky chipotle-based sauce. They give it a richness and creaminess without muting any of its brighter flavors. This is a great sauce to season a bowl of beans with, or try it on huevos rancheros or just plain old scrambled eggs.

Available from Rancho Gordo »