Like beer, denim, and Legos, the world of hot sauces has evolved well beyond that tired bottle of Frank’s RedHot that’s been in your fridge for three years. From hybrid pepper strains to surprising ingredient additions and an emphasis on small-batch and craft creations, the best hot sauces elevate traditional foods (think: Mexican dishes) while pairing well with a large number of other foods. Granted, some options may seem like an arms race as they strive toward alpine heights of Scoville heat units. But even these heat-heavy sauces rarely forget that there’s got to be a flavor basecamp somewhere underneath. Here, in ascending hotness, are all of our favorite hot sauces right now. So if you’re ready to up your epicurean game, it’s time to add a dash or three and start packing heat.
Heartbeat Hot Sauce Co. Call it a starting point — or a starter’s pistol — but if you’re hot-sauce-curious, then the Dill Pickle Serrano is the foundation of the furnace. Blending garlic and a sour touchpoint of vinegar, it adds a surprisingly pleasing note of dill. The depth is there, and it can accompany a wide range of dishes. Also, it’s jalapeño-based, so you don’t need to fret about your insides harboring a nuclear-grade pepper.
This Italian-crafted condiment displays serious mastery of what many think of as a New World creation. Concocted in Parma, Italy, it combines Calabrian chilis, roasted red peppers, balsamic vinegar, sea salt, and porcini mushrooms for a nuanced sauce that, unsurprisingly, pairs well with pizza, pasta, and many other nontraditional hot-sauce-accompanying foods. It’s a sleeper that makes a worthy addition to any collection.
The first multi-pepper blend on our list, Lola’s is a great all-around, all-purpose hot sauce. Red jalapeños provide the platform while habanero peppers add additional heat. Garlic and lime round out the profile, while a smoky undertone permeates its stew. Vinegar-y, tangy, and spicy, it’s as welcome as a Jack Daniels on the rocks or an ice-cold Miller Lite after a long day.
From the green hills of Vermont comes Hippy Dippy, rolling across your palate like the Mad River itself. The verde-style sauce offsets traditional fire-roasted jalapeño and serrano peppers and punchy tomatillos, finishing with kiwi fruit and avocado for a tongue-refresher. Not too hot but certainly not mild, pair it with Mexican fusion, seafood, or even toss it with a chopped salad as a spicy dressing alternative.
You can feel this heat in your belly, in your throat, tingling on your tongue. Branded by the hot sauce interview show, it combines serrano and applewood-smoked habanero chiles with mouth-puckering tomatillos and the sweet funk of apple cider vinegar and lemon juice. It’s got enough heat to know you’re not playing around, but not so much that you can’t taste anything for the rest of the evening.
Torchbearer’s distillate isn't the hottest on this list (those are still to come), but it’s the first to carry a pepper that most know is not screwing around. The Carolina reaper pepper is numero uno in ingredients, but it’s closely followed by garlic, giving its firecracker burn a long, savory goodbye. Sure, it will cut through the fat of your favorite burritos, but it’s versatile enough to bring the moderate pain on just about any dish. A word of caution: Start small, and go from there.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter the pain cave of the Chocolate Plague. Smoke billows from your mouth as the chocolate bhutlah pepper (a freak hybrid born from the unholy marriage of ghost and chocolate douglah peppers) stalks just out of frame. Vinegar, its only other ingredient, won’t save you. It will bring more than a few tears to your eyes, but there’s pleasure in the pain.
There’s hot sauce, and then there’s Da Bomb. So potent it’s only available in a four-ounce bottle, a little dash’ll do ya. Distilling pure, unadulterated habaneros, it adds chipotle peppers for dimension (and to ensure it can still legally be classified as a food). While it’s still well south of a million Scoville units, its heat shouldn’t be underestimated. Not for the faint of heart.
We could try to describe this one, but we might burn out your iPhone’s screen. Pepper X is just as its name conjures: a mutant-level creation not found in nature and most at home fighting crime in tights. It is fire in a bottle that’s offset a bit by apple cider vinegar, garlic, and turmeric. Good luck and godspeed.