Each March, the annual Charleston Wine + Food Festival draws some of the region’s top culinary stars to the Holy City for a long weekend of fantasy league–level dining and drinking. For food lovers, it’s a chance to sample seemingly endless epicurean delights. For visiting food-and-bev pros, it’s a way to catch up with friends and colleagues—or make new ones. For Garden & Gun, it’s an opportunity to pick the brains of some of the South’s most talented epicureans. Last year, we asked visiting chefs to taste-test mayonnaise and bourbon. This year, we brought the heat, inviting twenty chefs to rank their favorite grocery-store hot sauces, from Southern stalwarts like Crystal, Tabasco, and Texas Pete to international-aisle favorites like Huy Fong Sriracha, El Yucateco, and Valentina, and to talk shop about how they use them in their homes and restaurants. All of the sauces were available for taste-testing, but only a few chefs chose that option.
The Top Sauces Are…
As with many other foods, basic hot sauce preferences seem to be dialed in formative years—what you grow up with becomes the standard by which others are compared. Regional pride plays a role, too. Louisiana-made Tabasco proved to be the most-recommended sauce overall. Of twenty chefs, four chose it as their number-one pick and four as their second choice. Of the chefs who picked Tabasco in their top two, half hail from Louisiana.
“If I had to pick one, it’s Tabasco,” said Isaac Toups. “It’s been there since before I knew what Tabasco was. It’s high acid, and consistent, too—it’s always been the same. It’s a real-deal legitimate business, and they take pride in it. That’s something about Louisiana and the South, we really appreciate our culture and take it seriously.” “Tabasco’s just always been there for me,” added Katie Button. “It makes spicy things hotter, but also adds depth and nuance,” said Jean-Paul Bourgeois. “There’s a reason it’s a crowd-pleaser,” said Scott Crawford. “It has the right amount of balance between acidity, pepper flavor, aroma, and heat, and it’s a friendly heat.” World-wide distribution helps, too. “Where I come from in India, Tabasco was the only hot sauce,” said Maneet Chauhan, who chose it as her second favorite. “Every time I taste it, it takes me down a memory lane.”
Four North Carolina chefs—Sam Jones, Cheetie Kumar, Elliott Moss, and Matthew Register—also named Texas Pete their number-one pick. “Texas Pete is a North Carolina product, and we’re proud of that,” said Register, citing its “not overly melt-your-mouth” heat level. “It has roundness, a pleasant heat, and the right viscosity,” said Kumar. For Jones, Texas Pete is cooked into his signature product—chopped smoked pork. “We actually use it on our barbecue,” he says. “Once we chop it, which we do right in front of guests, the only thing we add to it is salt, black pepper, a little bit of Texas Pete, and little bit of apple cider vinegar—it ain’t no secret.”
A sauce with Southeast Asian roots placed a strong second in chefs’ choices: Huy Fong Sriracha. “I’m a big ketchup fan,” says Alon Shaya, “and sriracha is my spicy ketchup. It’s got the perfect amount of sweet and spice.” Rodney Scott praised the ephemeral quality of its heat: “It levels off real quick,” he said of the sauce, which he uses on tacos at home. “I just squirt it on the plate and drag them through it.” For Chauhan, sriracha’s versatility is a strong part of its appeal. “You can put it in any cuisine and it doesn’t give the dish a one-cuisine direction,” she said. “You can put it in Indian food, Japanese food, or on burgers and fries. It’s universal.”
Coming in third, with two top-pick votes each: Louisiana’s Crystal and two Mexican sauces, Cholula and Valentina. Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer both praised Guadalajara, Mexico-made Valentina—Hudman as his number-one pick, Ticer as his second, after Tapatío, a Californian entry. “There’s levels of flavor in Tapatío that I don’t feel other hot sauces have,” said Ticer. “That’s why I go to Valentina,” Hudman chimed in. “It’s really salty and has a good bit of vinegar. It goes great on everything.” (At 64 mg. per teaspoon, Valentina contains nearly twice as much sodium as Tabasco.) “When we do family meal at the restaurants, Valentina is always on the table,” Ticer added. Claudia Martinez cited Valentina’s texture—unlike thin vinegar-forward sauces such as Tabasco, the sauce has body. “It holds its shape so you can control it and not use too much but still get that kick,” she said. “And in the morning, it’s not too powerful if you’re putting it on eggs.”
Those chefs who chose Crystal—Colleen Quarls and Steven Satterfield—focused on the specific (and only) pepper used in the formula—cayenne. “It’s got a really bright flavor,” said Quarls. The chefs who preferred Cholula—Sara Bradley and Whitney Otawka—cited its balanced quality. “It’s an easy, everyday sauce,” Bradley said. “It’s not crazy acidic and doesn’t overpower anything.”
Hot Sauce Is a Condiment—and an Ingredient
Nearly every chef we interviewed suggested different uses for different sauces. “There are sauces I cook with and sauce I eat with,” Otawka said. “I cook with higher-acid sauces like Tabasco, Louisiana, and Crystal.” Toups agreed: “Cook with Crystal. It’s sweeter, and it’s a little calmer.” Modulating the heat level of a dish is one of the ways chefs use hot sauce when cooking, especially in place of powdered spices like cayenne. “Instead of throwing in cayenne, I’ll use hot sauce because it’s already bloomed,” said Ming Pu, who chose Louisiana and Crystal as his favorites. “When I was younger, one time we made potato soup, and I used cayenne to finish seasoning it,” he explained. “It tasted balanced, but by the time it sat for a day in the fridge, it had become extremely spicy, and I learned that chiles in powered form bloom, so it’s better to rehydrate them or to put powdered chiles in a liquid first. Or just use hot sauce instead.”
What Else Did We Learn?
Pepper vinegar counts as hot sauce, though only one chef actually chose it among his top two overall sauces. “I crush collards with this,” Hudman said. “My grandmother used to make her own.”
Another sauce worth a spot in the pantry: “It’s delicious super sauce from Jamaica,” Toups said of Pickapeppa, the barrel-aged blend of peppers, cane vinegar, spices, onions, tomato paste, raisins, and mango. “Ritz crackers or Saltines with cream cheese—just open up the brick, don’t even take off the foil—then just douse it with Pickapeppa. It’s a go-to for any party.”
Kids can take some heat, too: “We go through an awful lot of sriracha at my house,” said Crawford, who named it as his second choice. “It’s a heat that you can enjoy, and it dissipates just at the right time. You feel some endorphins, and you enjoy that aftertaste and how it leaves your palate. I have two kids—my daughter is nine, and my son is twelve. Both of them love food, and my daughter has expressed an interest in cooking. She gets up and looks forward to cooking eggs for breakfast, and hot sauce is a part of that.”
How to spice up a few drive-thru orders: “My first job was at Chik-fil-A,” said Elliott Moss. “We would douse the nuggets in Texas Pete, then dip them in ranch.” “You can’t actually have a Bojangles’ chicken biscuit without Texas Pete,” Kumar added.
Kevin Gillespie has a cast-iron palate: “I like that it isn’t ultra-hot, so you can use it more aggressively,” Gillespie said of Frank’s Red Hot, his number-one pick. “I could drink this.” And that’s exactly what he proceeded to do.
Cheers til next year’s gathering, though we might not drink to that, exactly.
The Final Tally
When asked which was their favorite, here’s how chefs stacked up the sauces.
Texas Pete: 4
Frank’s Red Hot: 1
Texas Pete: 1
Trappey’s Hot Peppers in Vinegar: 1
Thank you to all of the chefs who participated:
Jean-Paul Bourgeois |Freelance Chef | New York, New York
Sara Bradley | Freight House | Paducah, Kentucky
Kevin Gillespie | Cold Beer, Gunshow, Ole Reliable, Revival | Atlanta, Georgia
Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer | Bishop, Catherine & Mary’s, The Gray Canary, Hog & Hominy, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen| Memphis, Tennessee
Josephine Estelle | New Orleans
Claudia Martinez | Tiny Lou’s | Atlanta, Georgia
Elliott Moss | Buxton Hall Barbecue | Asheville, North Carolina
Whitney Otawka | Greyfield Inn | Cumberland Island, Georgia
Ming Pu | 502 Bar & Bistro | Prospect, Kentucky
Colleen Quarls | Molly’s Rise and Shine | New Orleans, Louisiana
Matthew Register | Southern Smoke BBQ | Garland, North Carolina
Steven Satterfield | Miller Union | Atlanta, Georgia
Rodney Scott | Rodney Scott’s BBQ | Charleston, South Carolina and Birmingham, Alabama
Isaac Toups | Toups’ Meatery | New Orleans, Louisiana