Goin' for the burn
Old-timer Tabasco vs. hip sriracha in hot sauce smackdown
Hot sauce smackdown: They are two of the biggest players in a chili-fired challenge playing out in homes and restaurants across America. Meet our contenders. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
In one corner, a dapper, classically labeled slim glass bottle filled with tangy McIlhenny Co.'s Tabasco Pepper Sauce. In the other, a brawny plastic bottle sporting several languages, a strutting rooster and Huy Fong Foods Inc.'s Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce.
In the vast world of chili-pepper-pungent condiments, these two very different characters demand attention. Sure, there are dozens (hundreds?) of such sauces out there, from vinegar-dominant ones such as Tabasco (Frank's Red Hot fans, we hear you) as well as more than a dozen sriracha-style sauces judging by the bottles of the stuff honoring tigers, dragonflies and more on Amazon.com.
But if you're going to hold a smackdown, you go with the guys making the most noise, and judging by the condiment selections at restaurants, Huy Fong's pulpy sriracha, at 32 years old, is an up-and-comer in a world long dominated by McIlhenny's 144-year-old Tabasco sauce.
"Tabasco sets the gold standard as the king of Louisiana/Cajun-style hot sauces. If Tabasco is the Coca-Cola of hot sauces, sriracha might be the Red Bull," says Packaged Facts' David Sprinkle.
Tabasco sells about $100 million at retail annually, and somewhat more than that through restaurants and food service, emailed Sprinkle, publisher of the Rockville, Md., consumer market researcher. Huy Fong's sriracha sales are less clear, but it does not have the "high-volume chain restaurant penetration." Still, Huy Fong's cranks out some 20 million bottles a year, according to news reports.
Sriracha's hip cred has been fueled by high-profile chefs who use it and mainstream eateries setting it out on tables.
"Credit America's increasingly foodie bent, which includes relish of global hot and spicy flavors," says Sprinkle. "The foodie sensibility — adventurous, multicultural, urban and egalitarian — has displaced 'gourmet' in defining the kinds of eating experiences that the trendiest food consumers most want."
But how do these two work in the kitchen? Does the vinegary tang and chili burn of Tabasco play well with the same foods as the ketchup-thick, sweet and garlicky sriracha?
The garlic, with its own tongue-tingling effects, in sriracha, is at least as important as the chilies, suggests Sprinkle, giving sriracha a more rounded flavor that has a broad appeal.
"All these help sriracha serve as almost as a sauce or dressing, rather than a single-note condiment, perfect for those who want to add instant kick and flair to quickly prepared foods."
Here's what our tasters found when we compared the two. The winner? You decide.
What's in a name: Variety of Capsicum frutescens. A state in Mexico across the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana where such peppers grow.
Made: In the USA (Avery Island, La.)
Label lore: "So much more than hot."
Ingredients: Distilled vinegar, red pepper, salt
Cost: $2.09 per ounce
Firepower: Uses Tabasco peppers
On its own: Clean, bright and tart with pleasing vinegar bite, although some found that acidic punch too much when tasted straight.
On rice: "Fruity, lively." "Overwhelmed the rice." "A few drops perks up plain rice." "So vinegary hot."
On chicken: "Cuts through the fat, nice contrast." "Masks chicken taste too much." "Nice with richness of chicken."
With tomato juice: "Nice foil to sweet juice." "Yummy." "Move over, the other sauce may be the new mixer in town."
Also try with: Gazpacho, guacamole, fries, onion rings, fried fish, shrimp, sausages, gumbo.
Huy Fong's sriracha
What's in a name: A Thai beach/seaport named Si Racha where a similar sauce is served with seafood. Made: In the USA (Rosemead, Calif.)
Label lore: "Natural color"
Ingredients: Chili, sugar, salt, garlic, distilled vinegar, potassium sorbate, sodium bisulfite as preservatives, and xanthan gum.
Cost: 39 cents per ounce
Firepower: Uses red jalapeno peppers
On its own: Pastelike sauce, with an off-the-vine red pepper scent and fruity, garlicky, chili pepper taste with a trace of sweetness. Moderate heat that lingers.
On rice: "Rounds out the rice; rice tames the heat." "Just right amount of heat." "Too sweet with rice."
On chicken: "Chicken tames the heat." "Plain chicken doesn't hold up; garlic rubbed or strong seasonings would complement." "Great bright flavor." "Good for those who like spicy barbecue sauce."
With tomato juice: "Adds a subtle sweetness to the already semi-sweet juice." "Complements the juice's acidity." "Better for those who want heat but no change in sweetness."
Also try with: Crab cakes, black bean soup, fried fish sticks, salty Asian dishes, pho and dishes with citrus notes such as kumquat, tangerine or lemon grass.