Finding the Perfect Hot Sauce Is an Art Form

A pepper for every palate

Photo by John Anderson

Choosing the right hot sauce is like choosing the right wine. Sure, any old vino will do in a pinch, but just as pairing a certain grape with a particular dish can change the palate's entire experience, the right combination of peppers, seasonings, and flavors in a hot sauce can really, ahem, spice up a dish.

But how can someone even begin to sift through the countless little glass bottles with brightly colored labels and outlandish monikers practically screaming for attention? Like wine, it will require a fair amount of trial and error, a bit of advice from the experts (you'd take the recommendation of a master sommelier, wouldn't you?), and a whole lot of taste testing at this year's Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival.

Because true hot sauce lovers – the ones with spicy additives three rows deep in their fridge or pantry – know that while those tried and true big brands (Tapatío, Cholula, Sriracha, Tabasco) will usually do the job, pairing the perfect sauce with every dish can make for next-level tacos (or stir fry or seafood or empanadas). But finding that sauce may be as much an art as a science.

The first hurdle is finding a sauce you enjoy. Check the ingredient labels of hot sauces you already like to help identify preferences, according to Kelsey Manning of local Yellowbird Foods, a company that took home several trophies during last year's festival. If your favorite bottles contain jalapeños or habaneros, seek out more sauces with those peppers, but don't be afraid to branch out. It's all about variety.

"Start with what you like, start with what you know, then try something different," said Mando Rayo, taco journalist and co-author of The Tacos of Texas, who, along with his taco partner Jarod Neece, will be a VIP judge for this year's festival. "Different peppers are going to bring out different flavors," Manning said.

If you like hot sauces made with green jalapeño, try one with red jalapeño. If vinegar-heavy sauces do it for you, give a few sweet sauces a try. Most brands will have what Manning calls a "hero" sauce that offers a depth of flavor that works on everything – at Yellowbird it's their flagship habanero sauce – and start there. If you like what you taste, give the other sauces in the line a try.

Then make note of which other ingredients are in a sauce candidate and imagine the foods that work with those ingredients. If you're making a dish that calls for vinegar, go with a sauce that has vinegar high on the ingredients list. Wings or garlicky pasta? Select a sauce with garlic in it. Planning to squeeze extra lime on those fish tacos? You guessed it: Reach for a sauce with citrus.

Rayo prefers a less scientific approach: Red sauces with red meat, and lighter green sauces on dishes with lighter flavors, like pork. He loves chile de árbol sauce on beef and creamy jalapeño sauce on veggies. "It's about balance. The salsa shouldn't overshadow the flavor or texture of your taco. It should complement it," Rayo said.

When you land a sauce that pairs perfectly with your dinner plans, resist the urge to splatter hot sauce on top. Incorporate it into the dish by adding it to the stock or pasta sauce. Or keep some on your bar cart for Bloody Marys. Manning likes to spice up Mos­cow Mules with the cucumber-based serrano Yellowbird sauce. Choosing the right hot sauce "is like cooking: It's not only an art form, it's trial and error," Rayo said. "Experi­ment with spice level, experiment with flavors."

The 28th annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival offers a great opportunity to find your perfect sauce. But remember: It's a marathon, not a sprint. A race to the finish line just ends with singed taste buds and a deep, slow burn that you'll still feel in the morning. As with wine, "The heart wants what the heart wants," said Manning. So does the palate.

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