There's evidence that people in the Amazon basin were eating chili peppers as much as 6,100 years ago. Shortly thereafter, from what we can tell, native South Americans began domesticating the plant with the fiery hot fruit. They weren't content to simply forage for it. They needed it at all times.
Many thousands of years later, we can still relate. The first thing we do upon getting a bowl of gumbo, a basket of wings or a plate of tacos is reach for the hot sauce. We've come to expect--and crave--both the heat and the acidity in each bottle of vinegar-soaked pepper purée.
But as anyone who's ever been to a Bloody Mary bar can attest, there are a lot of sauces out there on the market. Tabasco is the oldest recognizable one, tracing its roots back to 1868. In areas of the country not so saturated with hot sauce, Tabasco and hot sauce are synonymous.
Here, though, where Mexican and Cajun food abound, we have much more than just Tabasco to choose from at most grocery stores and even most restaurants. How is one to decide which is the best?
Armed with crackers and a pint of milk, I set out to determine that for you.
Here are my tasting notes:
Tabasco - Smells citrusy and vinegary; not much flavor but a lot of heat; boring; heat lingers
Valentina - Thick and less transparent than others; more earthy chili taste (like cumin, but there's no cumin listed in the ingredients); flavorful; moderate heat
El Yucateco - Salty with good habanero taste; packs a lot of heat; thick; darker red than some of the others
Cholula - Not super spicy; lots of chili and vinegar flavor; thin; I want more of it
(At this point I noted that my nose had started running)
Frank's Red Hot- Tastes like vinegar and celery salt; good chili flavor; thin; heat doesn't linger
The Original Louisiana Hot Sauce - Says "one drop does it," but it's not that hot; thin; slightly more dynamic than tabasco; very vinegary
Texas Pete - Tastes most like pickled jalapeños; medium heat; thin
Cajun Chef - Not super spicy; more vinegar than chili flavor; thin
Crystal - Ideally spicy; vinegary; thin, but not watery
After downing all the milk and a whole sleeve of crackers, I've come to a conclusion: In general, the hot sauces are, well, too hot. I know, I know, you're thinking "Duh, that's the point." But I appreciate hot sauce that packs the heat and flavor. I want the taste of the chili pequins to come through a bit instead of tasting nothing because my tongue immediately gets scalded.
To that end, I discovered that Frank's would be best in a Bloody Mary, because it already tastes so much like garlic and celery salt.
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Texas Pete is what I'd slather all over my wings, because it has that great pickled jalapeño taste that makes me think of bar food.
I'd dump Crystal into my gumbo to heat it up because it's just the right balance of heat and cayenne flavor.
And my favorite?
I've gotta go with the Valentina as the all-around best hot sauce. It's thick enough that it won't run all over the place if you drizzle it on a taco. It tastes like roasted chilies rather than simply heat. It's spicy, but not too spicy. And it's cheap--a little more than $2 for 12.5 ounces.