How to pick a hot sauce
HOW TO PICK HOT SAUCE
There is an ever expanding world of hot sauces out there. It seems that new producers are popping up all the time and us punters are spoilt for choice. We all have our favourite sauces but, from time to time, we like to venture out and try new products. When searching online, we are in the hands of the producer/retailer to give us a description that should help us make a decision however, not everyone is forthcoming with the information we want or need in order to pick a product that might suit our taste buds so, here are a few tips to help you determine the right product for you…
Heat is important when considering a hot sauce. Too hot and you’ll regret it. You’ll spend more time focusing on the heat than the food you are eating it with and any use there on in will be measured with a precision even NASA would be proud of! Too mild and you might be regretting your decision as you are lacking the comfortable chilli kick you are longing for. There is no shame in picking a sauce that isn’t in the upper heat ranges as you need to be comfortable with the heat. That said, if you have the option to try before you buy (at a festival for example), it’s worth bearing in mind that the heat of the product you are testing will seem less hot once you use it with food. Maybe you’ve found a great tasting sauce which is a little too hot for you? If so, it could still be worth a punt as the heat will dissipate to a degree once used in food.
Most producers will provide a heat level with their product. It’s all relative but useful none the less. Good producers will either state the heat level (i.e ‘Hot’) or mark the heat on a scale (i.e 6 out of 10). If a product just has a heat rating with no further reference (i.e ‘Heat level: 4’), you’ve less information to work with regarding the potential heat level so the gamble is a riskier one.
Always essential to read in our opinion. In the UK, ingredients must appear on a label in the order of weight used. The first ingredient being the one used the most and the last ingredient being used the least. If you don’t have the option to try before you buy, make sure you can have sight of the ingredient list to give you a clue about wheat you can expect. We would argue that the first 3-4 ingredients will indicate how the sauce will primarily taste however, bear in mind that some stronger ingredients will appear later in the ingredient list as a lesser amount will be needed. If sugar appears in the first 3-4 ingredients, you can almost bet on the sauce being sweet. If vinegar appears in the first few ingredients (& it often does), you can likely expect an acidic sauce with a low (ish) pH level. However, this acidity may still be balanced out with other ingredients such as sugar so don’t assume that a high vinegar content will mean a sharp sauce.
The following ingredients are from a hot sauce available worldwide:
Habanero Chillies, Water, Cane Vinegar, Salt, Jolokia Chillies, Spices
With these ingredients listed in order, you can expect a strong flavour of habanero, some acidic sharpness, a moderate salt level and a hot heat level. The mix of water and cane vinegar allows for the sauce to be blended to a pouring consistency without the final product being too acidic in taste. Most sauces on the market will be bottled with a pH of <4.5 for the purpose of shelf stability and to inhibit bacterial growth.
If a sauce is only a few ingredients such as Scorpion chillies, vinegar & salt, it’s fair to assume that you’ll receive an acidic sauce with a lot of heat and reasonable Scorpion flavour.
Our favourite ingredient! For us, there is a difference between a ‘hot sauce’ and a ‘chilli sauce’. A hot sauce can be a liquid which happens to contain chilli for heat whereas, a chilli sauce should taste of the chillies it has been made from.
In the UK, condiments must state what they are on the label. This can be within the title or subtitle of the product. For example, if a sauce was called ‘Dark Satin’, there is a requirement for a description underneath that describes the product: “A rich hickory smoked chipotle sauce”. Alternatively, if a product is called “Scotch Bonnet Sauce”, it’s arguable that the title is sufficient to indicate what the product is.
When looking for chillies within the ingredient list, you need to consider their respective heat levels (along with the other ingredients used) in order to determine the strength and flavour notes of the sauce. A milder chilli (such as jalapeno) with a high content (say 50%) would likely yield a hot chilli sauce. In contrast, a hot chilli such as a ghost pepper with a low content of <1% may only produce a medium heat sauce. Not all producers show the percentages of the compound ingredients but those who do are helping you make an informed decision regarding both heat & flavour. Here in the UK, many producers are subject to 'Quantitative Ingredient Declaration' (QID) which means they have to state the percentage of an ingredient used if it highlighted on the label or in a picture on a label. Therefore, a sauce titled 'Amarillo & Ginger sauce' would need to declare the percentage of both Amarillo and ginger used within the ingredient list.
If the chillies used within the product are fresh, some producers may state this or simply advise the chilli type (eg: ‘Serrano chillies’). Technically, dried/powdered chillies should be declared as such so not to mislead. Chilli mash/puree should also be declared as such and then broken down in to its construct ingredients. For example, if you see “Ghost pepper mash” within the ingredients, it should be followed by bracketed ingredients such as “(Ghost peppers, salt, acetic acid)”. It’s worth mentioning that mashes can carry anything from 7%-22% salt content. This level of sodium is difficult to disguise within a sauce unless a small amount of mash is used. We generally steer away from sauces made with mashes/purees as the flavour rarely compares to fresh and the ingredient is comparatively cheap. There are a few small batch, artisanal mashes being produced which carry low salt levels so check in with your producer to learn more about their ingredients they choose to use & why they use them.
VALUE FOR MONEY:
Imported sauces will often have a higher price tag on them (although not always) so, for the purpose of this section, we’re focusing on sauces made in your respective country.
We’ve witnessed producers being asked why their product is expensive compared to widely available products found in supermarkets. It’s a fair question but one with fair answers. If you are at a food or chilli festival, you will likely notice a differentiating range of prices and bottle sizes per producer. We’ve seen bottle sizes from 50ml up to 500ml and prices from £2 to £20+! If you have the opportunity, chat with the vendor you are considering purchasing from. Inspect their ingredient list, ask questions and, most importantly, taste the product if you can.
Most small producers will be paying a higher price on ingredients and materials so it’s always going to be difficult for them to compete with factory made, machine filled sauces. However, most producers will have access to top quality ingredients and will be able to hand select the best of the best, especially when dealing with chillies. In turn, they will likely be buying from small growers/farms who cannot offer low commercial rates. Bottle costs, labels and general packaging will all be higher for artisanal producers and many products will be handmade and even hand filled.
However, it’s worth comparing small producers with each other as you can still seek out value for your money. As mentioned earlier, chilli mash is usually less expensive than fresh chilli so it would not be unreasonable for you to expect a lower price tag for sauces containing this ingredient when comparing like for like against fresh. It’s tricky as very few producers make the same sauces as each other but, for example, if a 5oz bottle of sauce containing 10% ghost pepper mash is £4.00 and an identical size bottle of sauce contains 7%-10% fresh ghost pepper for the same price, we would definitely veer towards the latter.
Don’t be afraid to ask the producer if they use chilli mash and, if they do, ask about the salt content. You could even ask why they choose to use mash instead of fresh.
Heat, ingredients and taste are all important. What still surprises us is when customers try a product at a festival and then ask the producer how they would use it as, whilst they like the taste, they don’t know what to do with the sauce in everyday cooking. This isn’t the surprising bit, the surprise is when the producer doesn’t really know what to say!
Again, we urge you to challenge your producers and ask them about culinary use. Some of our favourite chilli sauce producers come from a culinary background and this gives them an advantage when it comes to serving suggestions and use. However, this is no excuse for other producers as we believe that they should be able to back up and support their own products as part of their service. We like to probe a little as we can sometimes be given a generic answer when we ask about uses for a product. “It’s great with chicken and fish.” is a poor answer if you ask us. Great, how? As a marinade? As a glaze? Chicken breast? Chicken thigh? White fish? Strong fish? Shell fish? Ask for more information.
Your taste buds will guide you and many people can immediately think of dishes they would like to use a product with and, should you be struggling, consider some of the product elements:
Acidity: If the product has a high acidity then the sauce may work as a good marinade, don’t be afraid to ask your producer about the product pH. However, if the product has a high sugar content too, be careful about the cooking method as a high heat for a long period could caramelise the sugars and cause them to burn. Sweeter sauces can make good glazes or stir-through condiments.
Dominant flavours: If the chilli is the dominant flavour (we’re not referring to heat at this point), then consider the flavour of the chilli for your food pairings. For example, habanero can be a little citrus in taste. Citrus works with white meats, fish and salads. If the chilli is a milder red variety such as jalapeno or cayenne, you will likely pick out sweet, light red fruit flavours which work well with tomato dishes (soups, Bolognese, Caprese etc).
If the dominant flavours are fruits such as mango, consider how that fruit is used in recipes from countries where the fruit is native. Caribbean and Indian cuisine both use mango well. Don’t be afraid to read a recipe book or search online for recipe inspiration before you make a purchase. Some producers will even have recipes available for you to try.
Heat: Ok, so we’ve covered this already but make sure the heat is suitable for those wanting to use the sauce. Just because you can handle something so hot you can see through time & space doesn’t mean the rest of your household can!
Longevity: Check the product ‘Best Before’ and also see how long it is expected to last once opened. Is it a sauce you can use in small amounts over a long period of time or is it a product that needs to be used liberally & quickly?
Is it continually available?: There’s nothing worse than discovering a great chilli product which has universal use for you only to then discover it’s a limited edition or being discontinued!
HOW NOT TO PICK A HOT SAUCE
Don't judge it by it's name alone: A funny or themed name may be appealing but can you really gauge a sauce by it's name?
Don't judge it by the artwork: It may be artistic brilliance but it's the contents that you really want!
Don't be swayed by charisma: The vendor may be funny, witty and talk a good game but don't let their sales tactics be the main influence on your buying decisions. Obey your taste buds instead!