For nearly as long as humans have been preparing meals, we’ve been looking for ways to give our food a little extra kick. Today, hot sauce is one of the world’s most beloved condiments and, as one of America’s fastest-growing industries, it shows no signs of slowing down. But with thousands of commercially available sauces, finding the right one for your tastebuds can be daunting. Here are 13 hot sauces to satisfy every tongue, from the cautious novice to the champion “chilihead.”
A note on heat: The Scoville scale, devised in 1912 by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, is the standard measure of relative heat level in chili peppers and sauces. While taste is subjective, the scale measures approximately how many dilutions a specific sauce needs until the spice is no longer noticeable. For reference, standard Tabasco sauce—generally considered mild among hot sauce fans—has a Scoville rating of between 2500-5000, meaning that one teaspoon of Tabasco would require 2500-5000 teaspoons of water (roughly between three and seven gallons) to completely dilute the heat.
1. FOR THE WARY WING-LOVER
If you love the savory flavor of buffalo wings but only want a little burn, consider a bottle of Ott’s Original Wing Sauce. Spicy food expert Scott Roberts calls it his favorite mild buffalo sauce, specifically praising its “creamy, robust flavor.” Cayenne peppers give Ott’s a kick, but its low 725 Scoville rating shouldn’t scare anyone off.
2. FOR THE CAUTIOUS BUT CURIOUS
Before getting international distribution, Cholula Salsa Picante Hot Sauce was made by one family in Chapala, Mexico for three generations. It might just be the perfect middle ground for someone who wants a little more heat than Tabasco, but isn’t ready to totally torch their taste buds yet. Made with pequin peppers, it rates a moderate 3600 on the Scoville scale and is versatile enough to pair with any type of food. Pick up a bottle in your local grocery, or on Amazon for just $6.
3. FOR BACON LOVERS
Look at any food blog and it becomes quickly apparent there’s an appetite for adding bacon to every dish imaginable. It’s no surprise, then, to see the breakfast staple popping up in modern hot sauces. If pork and pepper sound like the perfect pairing, check out Porcum Inférnum from Voodoo Chile Sauces. Pequin chilis and Trinidad Scorpion pepper combine to reach a toasty 5000 Scoville units. As for that delicious bacon flavor, it actually comes from a special spice blend, so even vegans can enjoy some bacon burn. Pick up some directly from Voodoo Chile Sauces.
4. FOR SHRIMP COCKTAIL—OR A SPICY COCKTAIL
El Yucateco Red Habanero is a thicker sauce made from tomatoes, habanero peppers, and spices. At 5800 Scoville units, it’s just slightly hotter than eating an average jalapeño pepper, and Chiliworld.com’s review notes that the sauce’s thicker texture makes it an ideal choice for seafood dishes or spicy cocktails like a Bloody Mary or a Michelada.
5. FOR THE REASONABLE LUNATIC
Around the 10,000 mark on the Scoville scale, the market shifts from standard hot sauces into speciality products directly aimed at “chiliheads” (and generally begin bearing terrifying names). Crazy Jerry’s Brain Damage straddles both worlds: It’ll light up your mouth, but compared to all available hot sauces, it’s still on the milder end of the spectrum. Mangoes and mandarin oranges give this sauce a fruitier flavor in addition to the heat.
6. FOR A CARIBBEAN HEAT WAVE
Based on a classic West Indies recipe, Lottie’s Traditional Barbados Yellow has a “nice, slow burn that adds a delicious touch of heat,” according to Roberts’s review. The surprising addition of mustard gives this sauce its distinctive color and flavor, while habaneros and other spices provide a blistering dose of heat—about 30,000 on the Scoville.
7. FOR THE “CHOCOLATE” LOVERS
Despite its name, the chocolate habanero is hardly dessert fare—the name refers to the deep brown color of the pepper, the hottest variant of the habanero family. Volcanic Peppers’ Lava Chocolate Lightning Hot Sauce blends a base of these smoky scorchers with a dash of even hotter peppers, including the fearsome Bhut Jolokia chile, to deliver what Roberts calls “a nice smoky flavor and an enjoyable garlicky touch.” Perfect for a fiery mole sauce, you can grab a bottle direct from Volcanic Peppers for just $8.
8. FOR THE INSANE …
Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce was one of the first ultra-hot specialty products to hit the market, and has the (dubious?) distinction of actually being banned from the National Fiery Foods Show (where, true to brand, creator Dave Hirschkop was advertising his product in a straitjacket). Primarily deriving its heat from red habaneros, Insanity Sauce clocks in at an intimidating 180,000 Scoville units—36 times as spicy as eating a normal jalapeño.
9. … AND FOR THE EVEN MORE INSANE
Still too tame? Hirschkop later topped himself with Dave’s Ultimate Insanity Sauce, which ramps up the heat 40 percent (or around 250,000 units), is intended to be used one drop at a time, and “is not recommended for people with heart or respiratory problems.”
10. FOR THE HOTTEST NON-EXTRACT OPTION
Once you near the 1 million Scoville line, most available products are technically considered “food additives,” made largely from pepper extract, and are intended to be used very sparingly. For the hottest “all natural” sauce—one using only real peppers and no extract—check out CaJohn’s Lethal Ingestion, which hits 234,500 on the Scoville. Made with Red Savina, Fatilli, and Bhut Jolokia chiles, Lethal Ingestion proves extract isn’t necessary to deliver a molten mouthfeel.
11. FOR THE FIRE-BREATHING DRAGONS
UK company Chilli Pepper Pete has been crafting a wide range of hot sauces for 15 years, but their flagship flavor is Dragon’s Blood Chilli Sauce. Dragon’s Blood immolates tongues with a ridiculously spicy pepper extract, augmented with Naga Ghost Peppers and pineapples, and clocks in at around 800,000 Scovilles. Daenerys Targaryen, take note.
12. FOR THE ABSOLUTE HOTTEST OF THE HOT
The title of “Hottest Sauce Ever Created” is currently held by Blair Lazar, owner of Blair’s Sauces & Snacks. He creates and sells a number of variations, but none are spicier thanBlair’s 16 Million Reserve, so named for its 16-million rating on the Scoville scale. That works out to 8000 times stronger than regular Tabasco! Lazar even requires customers to sign a waiver promising to wear protective gloves and eyewear. Good luck finding a bottle though—only 999 were ever produced.
13. FOR A REASONABLE APPROXIMATION OF ELECTROCUTION
If you can’t track down the 16 Million Reserve, consider The Source, another food additive that’s pure heat—it briefly held the title of “World’s Hottest” in 2002. It’s “only” 7 million on the Scoville scale, but that didn’t stop one Amazon reviewer from memorably likening a single taste to “sucking on a downed power line.” All you need is a single drop to inflame a pot of chili or stew, so The Source should last for years—which is good, since a single bottle will set you back $99.