If you ever need to get your bearings while travelling across the U.S., just check the hot sauce that’s on the table. A bottle of Frank’s Red Hot is a likely sign that you’re somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon line, while the sombrero-wearing visage staring from a Tapatio label means you’re out by the California coast. Or if you’re in Louisiana cajun country, keep an eye out for Crystal, Tabasco, or one of the many other fiery condiments that hail from the bayou. But don’t expect to find much Texas Pete in the Lone Star state—it actually comes from the inland hills of North Carolina.
Any of the sauces listed here can be found in grocery stores nationally, yet preferences and tastes for each are often divided down state lines. You could even say that in the same way that regional wines often pair best with regional foods, so do hot sauces.
So which sauce with which dish? Let’s find out.
1. Frank's Red Hot
Frank’s is a cayenne pepper sauce with origins in Cincinnati. But it really rose to fame a bit further to the east in Buffalo, where it became the signature ingredient in the city’s namesake wings. It has an unmistakable tanginess to it that is essential in any recipe calling for buffalo flavor. But that tang is kind of out of place elsewhere. Stick to chicken with this one. Get our Easy Buffalo Wings recipe.
Crystal is the hot sauce that makes Louisianans get nostalgic: even the sign that tops their former New Orleans location is something of a local landmark. Made with aged cayenne peppers, Crystal has a mild bite to it that pairs perfectly with Creole foods. Use it to spice up your jambalayas, gumbos, and dirty rice. Get our Wild Rice Jamabalaya recipe.
Tabasco is the second-best selling hot sauce in the U.S. (behind Frank’s), with a perch as the ubiquitous, all-purpose hot sauce that can be found on diner tables far and wide. It’s heavy on the vinegar, which can sometimes make it a bit overpowering on foods. But that acidity works perfectly in the places where it’s meant to shine, like in a brusque and bracing Bloody Mary. Get our Basic Bloody Mary Mix recipe.
4. Huy Fong Sriracha
Although sriracha has its roots in Thailand, it took a California company to make it an American icon. The sweet, mild, and thick stuff produced by Huy Fong can be found on the tables of virtually every pho and banh mi joint in the nation, although it also has ardent fans who will seemingly put it on anything and everything. Use it on fusion-y recipes that are full of SoCal attitude, like this veggie-heavy ceviche. Get our Spicy Sriracha Ceviche recipe.
5. Texas Pete
On the outside, Texas Pete has a bit of an identity crisis: it’s a Louisiana-style hot sauce with a Texan cowboy mascot made in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But behind all the fuss, it’s pure Southern, with origins as the house sauce at a Carolina barbecue restaurant. Texas Pete doesn’t have the complexity or character that would make you want to keep it at the ready to dab on your food. But it’s still a solid workhorse sauce that will always have a place on barbecued pulled pork. Give it a shot in this Carolina vinegar sauce recipe from The Meatwave. Get the recipe here.
Cholula is made in Jalisco, Mexico, but it has an especially strong following in Texas, where it was first introduced in the U.S.. Made from pequin and arbol peppers, it has a bright, direct heat to it that comes through clearly when used to top heavy Tex-Mex dishes. Drizzle it onto your nachos or pour it over some hard-shell beef tacos. Get our Crispy Ground Beef Tacos recipe.
Tapatio is the creation of Jose-Luis Saavedra, a Guadalajaran immigrant to Los Angeles—it’s still manufactured just outside the city. A bit sweeter and milder than Cholula, it has a gentle heat that works well across the board, but especially on morning egg dishes where you want just a hint spice to perk up your tastebuds. Try it on this chilaquiles-inspired loaded casserole. Get our Chilaquiles Breakfast Casserole recipe.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.