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The Best Hot Sauces According to Cooks, Recipe Developers, and the Strategist Staff

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

There are, at least what feels like, an infinite number of hot sauces out there: hard-to-find regional varieties, specialty bottles that pride themselves on being almost too hot to eat, super-small-batch ones sold at your local farmers’ market. Given the sheer quantity of options, to make an all-encompassing list would be an impossible feat. Instead, consider this a well-rounded curation of some deeply beloved classics and more unusual varieties recommended by chefs, recipe developers, and the Strategist staff. (There are also a number of celebrity endorsements culled from our “What I Can’t Live Without” archive.)

All of these are great for drizzling on sandwiches, eggs, and tacos, but I also made sure to include recommendations for cooking applications. There’s an ultra tangy, vinegar-forward variety one recipe developer uses to cut through the fat in pan sauces; a thick, serrano-based variety laden with herbs that brings brightness to a dip; and many that work well whisked into sauces and marinades where heat is just one small part of making a dynamic mixture.

$20 for 2

We’ve been hearing about Zab’s — which makes an Original and St. Augustine sauce — for years. Both kinds are in this tasting set, and both are favorites of pro cooks and Strategist staffers alike for their well-balanced mix of heat and vinegar. White Bark Workwear owner Charlie Pennes says neither is too spicy, which lends to their versatility.

Recipe developer and food stylist Chloe Walsh uses the Original — which she says “almost tastes like it has a black pepper kick to it” — for topping dishes and for marinating meat and fish. Strategist writer Dominique Pariso, also partial to this variety, says she likes to add a dash to chili, soups, and stews to brighten them up. The St. Augustine is vinegar-based as well, but with a slightly sweeter heat. Strategist senior editor Winnie Yang puts this kind on everything from BECs to roast chicken to fried rice. Will Coleman (who loves both, but most often reaches for St. Augustine) says the “delicate and dynamic” sauce is perfect for burritos, sandwiches, chilis, and stews. As for a celebrity endorsement, Meghann Fahy is a big fan.

Todd Pulsinelli, executive chef at New Orleans’s the Chloe, admits that Tabasco is on the thinner, more watery side, but says that consistency makes it perfect for adding to other sauces or marinades like hollandaise, where the vinegar plays against the other acidic notes. He does say you have to make sure to add it gradually so it doesn’t overwhelm, but the bottle allows for control in that it only shakes out a small amount at a time. As for spice level, Strategist writer Ambar Pardilla doesn’t think it’s sweat-inducing, but she says “it’s pleasantly peppery, with a tingling-without-lingering heat.” She uses it as a topper for eggs, splashes some on a splooge of ketchup to give it some kick, and says she especially likes it for soup where the heat disperses and gives dimension.

Recipe developer and newsletter author Caroline Chambers calls Cholula her “pinch-hitter” because it’s always readily available at the grocery store and in her cabinet. “It’s not just purely acidic,” she says. “You can really taste the chili peppers in there.” Cholula makes six flavors beyond the Original, too. My favorite is the Chili Garlic, which is mild but gives a hit of umami on top of scrambled eggs, tacos, and in marinades. Both Chambers and I appreciate the opening at the top, which delivers a perfect amount at a time. Celebrity endorsers include Lele Sadoughi and Natalie Morales (who also loves the Chili Garlic most).

“This hot sauce is king in my family,” says Jocelyn Delk Adams, a cookbook author and the recipe developer behind Grandbaby Cakes. “It’s got a good amount of heat, but it’s really well-balanced because of the strong vinegar notes.” She drizzles it as a topper sometimes but most frequently uses it for cooking, like whisked into eggs before she scrambles them and stirred into buttermilk brine for fried chicken. It works well in these applications because it’s on the thinner side and adds a base layer of heat that makes dishes more complex and layered, she says.

Mama Teav’s is a garlic-chili crunch with a consistency similar to the classic and beloved chili crisp, Lao Gan Ma, but spicier and without fermented beans. “It’s actually really big crispy chunks of garlic and peppers,” Walsh says, “and the overall ratio of crisp to oil is perfect.” She says she appreciates that the sauce stays super crunchy and doesn’t stick to the bottom of the jar with most of the oil rising to the top (as she has found happens with other chili crisps). Cook Ethany Lee “puts it on actually everything,” she says, including pizza, pasta, and burrito bowls. “It’s strangely neutral enough to not overpower other flavors,” she says.

If you want a more complex chili oil, Strategist senior editor Chelsea Peng recommends Boon. The condiment is made with anchovies, which she calls “really special” because they add an extra layer of umami, different from many other commercially available varieties where alliums are the chief flavor. “My dream chili oil has some funk to it, instead of just straight spice and savoriness, so this is it, basically,” she says. She also notes the high ratio of sediment to oil, which means she’s never left with a ton of liquid at the end of the “hefty jar,” she says.

We’re big fans of Acid League’s vinegars, so it comes as no surprise that Walsh recommends their super-vinegar-forward seafood hot sauce. She doesn’t use it on as wide a variety of foods as some of her other go-tos because of the intense tanginess, but says that profile makes it perfect for fish and seafood. “You know when you get oysters and it has the hot sauce, mignonette, lemon, horseradish?” she says. “This sort of combines those all into one sauce.” It works in the same way a bit of wine would to deglaze a skillet when making pan sauces, too, she says, because the sharpness cuts beautifully through fat. (Both model Erin Wasson and Peng are fans of Acid League’s Saffron Gold, which, while not technically a hot sauce, has fermented habanero and escabeche peppers, perfect for noodle salads and on breakfast burritos.)

$14 for 2

Recipe developer and private chef Jane Morgan grew up using Crystal Hot Sauce and to this day still “drenches things in it,” she says, including eggs, sandwiches, rice bowls, roasted vegetables, and to finish off a big pot of beans. “There’s a tanginess so that it doesn’t just feel immediately hot on your tongue,” she says. “And it’s a really buildable heat, so if you add a few drops, it’ll bring other flavors out, but if you add more, you get a more intense spice.” She also likes the consistency, which she says is “somewhere between Tabasco and Cholula” and is “very well-blended, so you never get drops that are too watery or too viscous.” Novelist Jami Attenberg uses Crystal all the time, too.

Red Clay is most well-known for its vinegary Original, but Chambers’s favorite from its line is Verde, a serrano-pepper-based sauce that includes cilantro (“you can see the green flecks in it,” she says), fennel, and onion. She describes it as not too hot, with a bright, herbal, and vegetal taste. She says she likes the texture, too, which “is substantial enough to really use it like a sauce instead of just a topping.” Chambers whisks it into sour cream to make a slightly spicy crema, and often serves it alongside chicken, potatoes, and vegetables.

Coleman says Truff, which incorporates truffles into their sauces, “adds a luxurious flavoring to simple dishes.” His favorite is the white variety because it’s the most robust of the bunch and as such, a little goes a long way as a straight-up topper (it has a thicker consistency, he says) or whisked into dips or sauces (he loves it in tomato and vodka pasta sauce especially). While truffle-flavored ingredients can sometimes lean artificial-tasting, Coleman assures that this one is clean with no aftertaste. “You get the truffle right on the tip of your tastebuds,” he says, “but then the spice from the peppers is still there and garlic really rounds it out.” LeVar Burton is a fan of the original Truff, calling it “the most elegant hot sauce I’ve ever eaten.”

“Valentina has a deep, smokey flavor to it that I love,” says Strategist writer Lauren Ro. “It’s still vinegary, but not as sharp as Cholula, for instance — just really rich and spicy.” She also points out that the thicker consistency is great for dipping (she and her college roommate used to pair Korean roasted seaweed with Valentina for a salty, spicy midnight snack). Now, she puts it on breakfast burritos. Pulsinelli and Strategist deals editor Sam Daly both say they love the texture, too. “It’s almost like thinned-out ketchup, with little granules that help it stick to snacks,” says Daly, who puts it on popcorn, fruit, and on the rims of glasses for micheladas. Pulsinelli, meanwhile, likes to use it to coat ingredients (his favorite application is on grilled chicken). As for a celebrity endorsement, Abby Elliot says she puts it on eggs, cottage cheese, and fish.

More hot sauces we’ve written about

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The Best Hot Sauces According to Cooks