Much like barbeque sauce, grocery store hot sauce is a more divisive topic than meets the eye. Beyond beer, hot sauce may very well be the most argument-ready refrigerator decision a person makes… Cholula instead of Valentina — is this a joke?
We reached out to a load of pro chefs to help us make sense of this weirdly heated subject matter. And, as it turns out, they’re just as choosy as the rest of us. These are the best grocery store-available hot sauces, according to nine chefs (so don’t come at us when you realize Sriracha isn’t on the list).
Thanks to its habanero base, El Yucateco is easily the fieriest of your everyday hot sauces. It was the second most vote-getting sauces among the chefs we spoke with, and they put it on whatever is in front of them. “I’m hooked, I put it on everything — pizza, tacos, macaroni and cheese — everything,” says Milwaukee-based Chef Dan Jacobs of DanDan, EsterEv and Fauntleroy. “It is an essential all-purpose condiment in my household.” And though El Yucateco’s sauces are all pretty hot, Miles Thompson of Michael’s Santa Monica thinks another, less popular bottle is just as good as its more famous and relatives: “The red and green labels are classics and dependable, but I got a soft spot for the Caribbean sauce — it is one of the more mild ones, with a sweeter finish,” he says.
Crystal Hot Sauce
One of two lines of Louisiana hot sauce royalty (the second comes later) is made with just three ingredients — salt, vinegar and aged cayenne peppers — but its popularity doesn’t end with simpletons. “If I were on a desert island and could only have one hot sauce it would be Crystal. You can use it just on greens, mix it with mayonnaise, it’s good on cheeseburgers, great on seafood. It’s just universal,” Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins of Holeman & Finch, Restaurant Eugene C. Ellets and others said. “I love Tabasco on oysters. And for something like tacos, I love Cholula. But Crystal is the most universal.”
Chef Matt Hyland of Emily and Emmy Squared harped on Crystal’s versatility and universality as well: “It has the right amount of heat, acid and salt that is flavorful but not overpowering. It is great to use in wing sauce or make a bacon, egg and cheese come to life. I also like to mix Crystal with Sriracha for hot wing sauce.”
Chefs really, really like Valentina. It was the most-picked hot sauce from our survey. Like any hot sauce nerd, chefs use it on everything (apparently, one even puts it and a squeeze of lemon on Flaming Hot Cheetos). But what sets it apart, according to its disciples, is the inclusion of flavors not often present in a cheap bottle of hot sauce.
“I can personally really taste the chile de arbol notes — this is a hot sauce that actually has good flavor,” says Chef Claudette Zepeda.
“There’s the right amount of acid, and a little fruitiness. The consistency is also a highlight, there are a lot of hot sauces that are too watery, and Valentina is just right,” says Manhattan’s Michael Matteo, the executive chef at A Summer Day Café.
“It’s a beautiful balance of smoky, acidic and heat. It goes great on fried chicken, popcorn and grilled fish. It’s also a great addition when flavoring mayonnaise,” says PJ Calapa of Scampi NYC.
The consistency of this Mexican staple lies somewhere between your typical watery sauce and Sriracha, and it comes in hot or extra-hot.
The name is Mexican, the sauce isn’t. Tabasco is made with tabasco peppers grown on Avery Island, which is technically a salt dome. It’s probably the most popular hot sauce in the U.S. — it’s included in MREs and offered to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The culinary director at Hill Country, Ash Fulk, puts it on everything, though he believes grits are the ideal companion. “It’s a sharp, vinegar snap and slightly fermented zippy sauce give a great platform for any dish without overpowering it,” he says.
Jason Pfeifer, the chef at Manhatta, said it was the only luxury item he brought with him on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. “I didn’t even carry a tent — just a tarp to keep dry. But I would never have a meal without a little hot sauce,” he says.