Why flavorful Southern hot sauces don't pack much heat

June 11, 2012 at 11:47 AM ET

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Now that barbecue season is well underway, it’s important to stock the right condiments. And one of those must-haves is hot sauce. While many believe hot sauce to be synonymous with the South, it turns out some of the Southern sauces chefs love best don’t actually pack much heat.

“If you grab 10 of the most common Southern hot sauces you will find they aren’t that spicy,” said Sean Brock, the chef at Husk Restaurant and McCrady’s in South Carolina. “I could drink Crystal.”

That doesn’t mean they aren’t indispensable in Southern cooking. Brock explained that a sauce like Louisiana-made Crystal offers the perfect seasoning for collard greens, because the subtle spice allows the natural flavors to shine through.

The hot sauce he makes at Husk has a mellow heat but packs in a stunning amount of flavor. Brock ages the sauce for a year in old bourbon barrels obtained from Old Rip Van Winkle’s distillery in Kentucky, giving it a smooth, satisfying smokiness. Like many other Southern hot sauces, this condiment gets an acidic bite from the addition of vinegar.

Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South in Atlanta also makes hot sauce in this fashion. Chef Ryan Smith said that when he started working there in October 2010, the first thing he did was get as many fresh cayenne peppers as he could, about 300 pounds, and process them much in the way Husk does. They use barrels from Heaven Hill Bourbon distillery, giving the sauce a wonderful depth of flavor.

It has a solid kick that hits the side of your tongue and moves down your esophagus like a warm mitten. It’s not as smoky as Brock’s, but has more sweetness, which makes it the perfect companion to spruce up dark leafy greens, eggs and pork.

Possibly one of the most famous Southern chefs known for bringing heat is John Besh, who runs the award-winning restaurant August in New Orleans.

“We do have some food stuffs, especially in South Louisiana, that have pronounced spicy factors,” said Besh. “Our crab, shrimp and crawfish boils, some sauces and our vinegar-based hot sauces boil down to the cayenne pepper being our main source of capsicum.”

Besh, who is a master at giving his dishes a profound heat without masking the taste, said the trick to doing this is to “look for balance among sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, salty and umami,”  adding, “If you're going to use a hot sauce, you need these other flavors to balance with it.”

We asked the chefs for some of their favorite Southern hot sauces. Or, if you’re feeling up to the challenge, Besh shares his homemade recipe.

Tabasco: “Any self-respecting Louisianan would refer first and foremost to Tabasco pepper sauce as 'the king of hot sauces,’” said Besh. Of course, it’s not just in this state where this hot sauce reigns; all across the country you can find it in diners and supermarkets just waiting to spice up your hash browns and eggs.

Crystal: Both Besh and Brock said this is the epitome of a Southern hot sauce. Besh added, “Crystal is affectionately known as 'the po-boy hot sauce' due to a lower heat factor and less vinegar than its Cajun neighbor.”

Louisiana: It’s touted as “The perfect hot sauce” on the label. While its claim to be the original cayenne pepper sauce in Louisiana doesn’t hold much weight, the flavor gets Brock's recommendation.

Chef Paul Prudhumme’s Magic Pepper Sauce: This famous French Quarter chef knows how to make a delicious sauce, with a heat that melts away without an aftertaste.

Panola All Natural Clearly Hot Sauce: That’s right, this sauce is completely see-through, yet packs all the pepper, onion, and garlic flavor you crave. We aren’t sure how they did it, but we like it.

Tell us in the comments below: What's your favorite hot sauce?

John Besh’s Sport Pepper Sauce

From "My New Orleans: The Cookbook" by John Besh

What my granddaddy and a lot of Southerners call sport peppers are little green and red and sometimes yellow hot peppers, Capiscum annuum, similar in taste to Tabasco and the Thai chilies found in many Asian markets. I store my pepper sauce in the refrigerator, not in the pantry, which means I hardly need to cook the peppers first. The sauce doesn’t last as long, but the flavor is brighter. Use on slow-cooked greens when you want a jolt of flavor.

  • 1 quart white vinegar
  • 2 cups mixed sport or Thai chili peppers
  • 2 tsp salt

Put the vinegar, chilies, and salt into a medium pot and boil over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Working quickly and using a slotted spoon or tongs, divide the chilies evenly between several hot, sterilized jars and bottles

Using a sterilized funnel, fill the jars and bottles with the hot vinegar. Seal the jars and bottles with their sterilized lids and let them rest at room temperature until cool. Store the bottles and jars in the refrigerator for at least one week to let the flavors develop before using. The sauce will last for 6 months in the refrigerator.

Linnea Covington is a freelance writer and eater who will try any drink, dish, or sweet at least once, especially if it involves chili or bourbon. 

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