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A Guide to Hot Sauces

Updated on August 30, 2013

hot sauces, hottest hot sauces, capsaicin

Hot sauce is a normal part of eating at our house, especially with BBQ cooking. Of course, we have our favorite hot sauces. They range from warm and tangy to inferno. Some people like hot sauce that’s incredibly hot – maybe even painful. I don’t usually care for these, unless they’re added sparingly to foods. I like some heat, but I don’t want the hot sauce to be so hot that all you taste is the fires of hell. I want it to enhance the flavor of the food I’m using it on, without overpowering and obliterating the actual taste of the dish. I know several folks, however, who think “the hotter, the better.” For some reason, the people I know who follow this philosophy are all male. I had a pal and fellow teacher from Canada a few years back who was like that. He and my husband got into kind of a contest to see which one could stomach the hottest hot sauces. They exchanged bottles of hot sauce and different hot sauces for months.

How is hot sauce made?


Hot sauces can be made from a variety of ingredients. The heat usually comes from chili peppers, including cayenne, Scotch bonnet, habanero, jalapeno, Tabasco, poblano, ancho, Serrano, Anaheim, and Thai peppers. All of these contain capsaicin, the chemical responsible for making peppers hot. The peppers might be ground or powdered and added to the pulp of vegetables or fruits to make hot sauce. Other popular ingredients in hot sauces are vinegar, beer, oil, and bourbon or other alcohols. Most hot sauces also contain water. To make hot sauces even hotter, sometimes pure capsaicin is added.

A variety of chili peppers are used to make hot sauces.
A variety of chili peppers are used to make hot sauces.

About capsaicin and health


In the past decade or so, researchers and scientists have begun to realize the possible healthy benefits of capsaicin. Because of the way the substance interacts with neurons that act as pain transmitters, capsaicin has the ability to block some types of pain.

You’ve probably experienced the head-clearing properties of capsaicin. The heat breaks up nasal congestion and can help with the symptoms of sinus-related allergies.

Studies in the U.S., England, China, and Japan all suggest that capsaicin might have the ability to cause cell death in certain types of cancers, including lung cancer, leukemia, and prostate cancer.

Capsaicin has long been the key ingredient in ointments and creams used on the skin, and now it’s also used in dermal patches and bandages to help relieve the pain of arthritis, muscle strain, fibromyalgia, sprains, and peripheral neuropathies like shingles. It’s also being tested as in injectable pain reliever.

Capsaicin also increases your metabolism, while decreasing triglyceride levels and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Since it might also help dissolve the fibrin that allows blood clots to form, capsaicin might be a key to decreasing the chance of stroke and heart attack.

Capsaicin is often used to relieve pain.
Capsaicin is often used to relieve pain.

Hot sauces around the world

In the United States, hot sauces are used in a variety of regional dishes. It’s a popular ingredient found in Cajun foods, Southwestern cuisine, and barbecue sauce. Here in the Deep South, many people add hot sauce to just about everything – pork rinds, rice, fried chicken, barbecue sauce, vegetables, etc.

On the islands of the Caribbean, hot sauces are usually made of vinegar, fruits, and vegetables, to which Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers are added. The resulting hot sauces are intensely hot – much hotter than tradition hot sauces found in the U.S.

Many people consider Mexican food to be very hot and spicy, but when compared to the cuisines of some other countries, Mexican hot sauces are only moderately hot. Milder sauces are also popular in Mexico, often made from chipotle peppers, which impart a smoky flavor.

In Puerto Rico, Spain, and the Philippines, adobo sauce is popular. Depending on the region, it might include vinegar, tomatoes, pork, olive oil, garlic, onion, lemon juice, orange juice, lime juice, oregano, and/or cumin, along with chipotles or other peppers.

In some African regions, hot sauces are used extensively. Most are made from the bird’s eye chili, which produces an interesting delayed reaction in consumers. Foods flavored with this sauce don’t taste hot until after the consumer eats it.

Some of the hottest hot sauces can be found in India, where the Naga Jolokia chili pepper is used. In the U.S., these peppers are often referred as "ghost peppers." According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this is the hottest pepper on the globe and is responsible for the hottest hot sauces. It’s more than 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce!

Hot sauces are popular in Asian cuisines, too. Our Japanese pals often used chili oil on fish and in soups. In China, hot sauces are often made from soybean paste and dried or pickled chili peppers. The people of Thailand traditionally eat chili peppers with just about everything, and they use pepper sauce in fish sauces and as dipping sauces.

Peaches and other fruits are often used in hot sauces.
Peaches and other fruits are often used in hot sauces.

The hottest hot sauces and the Scoville Scale


How do you know how hot a hot sauce is before you buy it? Well, some indicate their hotness on the label. If not, the name of the individual hot sauce might give you a clue. For example, I’ve seen one called “Hot Sauce from Hell,” and another called “Devil’s Revenge.” With a name like that, you should be tipped off as to the contents of the bottle.

Otherwise, look at the ingredients to see which chili peppers were used in the sauce. The hotness of chili peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units, according to how much capsaicin is present. The higher the number on the Scoville Scale, the hotter the pepper.

Here are a few examples, just to help you understand the scale and how it works:

Pure capsaicin – up to 16,000,000 heat units

Pepper spray used by police – 5,000,000 units

Naga Jolokia and Naga Viper peppers – about 1,000,000 units

Red Savina habanero pepper – around 450,000 units

Scotch bonnet pepper – about 250,000 units

Cayenne and Tabasco peppers – 40,000 units, on average

Jalapeno pepper – average around 5,000 units

Poblano and Anaheim peppers – range from 500 to over 2,000 units

Pimento pepper – around 300 units, on average


Spice up your food with hot sauces!


If you haven’t yet ventured into the world of chili peppers and hot sauces, give ‘em a try! If you’re not accustomed to eating hot, spicy foods, you’ll probably want to start out with a mild sauce and gradually work your way up. You’ll probably develop a taste preference for specific chili peppers and individual sauces. You might find yourself moving up the scale to the hottest hot sauces on the market! If you begin to emit flames from your tongue, don’t drink water to extinguish the fire. Instead, drink milk or eat a spoonful of sour cream. Below you’ll find a wide selection of bottled hot sauce, including some of the hottest hot sauces available.


Buy hot sauces and hottest hot sauces:


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