Hot Sauce: Feel-Good Flavor or Just a Punch in the Face?

Americans now eat 150 percent more hot sauce today than they did in 2000. WNYC host Amy Eddings thinks that’s because our palates are bored and jaded.

“We call ourselves foodies by just sprinkling some hot sauce over pancakes and saying, ‘I invented something new,’” she said. “What we’re doing is just blazing a hole through our tongue, and we’re not really settling in and increasing our knowledge about the complexity of taste.”

That’s likely not a popular opinion to espouse two days before the Super Bowl, an event famous for hot sauce-garnished foods like buffalo wings and nachos. The Sporkful podcast host Dan Pashman countered Eddings’ point by saying we should use hot sauce more often, but less of it when we do.

Pashman’s favorite hot sauce is sriracha, the California-made, Asian-inspired chili sauce. He explained that, rather than just being spicy, it has flavors of garlic, salt, and sugar.

“I think that food is supposed to be about pleasure and not feats of strength,” said Pashman, who's also the host of the new Cooking Channel web series "You're Eating It Wrong." Nonetheless, he did recently sample “death wings” for a recent episode of The Sporkful. He was with Matt Reynolds, the director of the new documentary comedy The Great Chicken Wing Hunt.

Reynolds explained why he’s against pain-inducing hot sauce. “You’re not getting the flavors of the peppers, all you’re getting is the heat,” he said. “And you know you create these wings where, you know, you have to sign a waver to eat them, and you have a contest and if you eat six they’re free. And I mean, I think all that is pretty silly. You know, it’s like, why not just have a contest where you let someone punch you in the face.”

(Photo: Dan Pashman)

Eating super spicy hot sauce and getting punched in the face do have one thing in common: Both cause pain that then triggers the body to release endorphins. That’s why hot sauce sometimes produces a feeling of being high.

“Hillary Clinton attributes her high levels of energy to the fact that she eats hot peppers,” said Pashman. If you’re looking to get amped for the Super Bowl, he suggested strategically dosing snacks with hot sauce.

To achieve maximum heat plus flavor, Pashman recommends taking a lesson from buffalo wings, the hugely successful bar food that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“Everyone puts so much focus on the heat and the spice and the hot sauce of buffalo wings,” he said, “but I think it’s important to recognize that the genius of the buffalo wing recipe is that it combines the hot sauce with a dairy, a base ingredient that cuts the heat and complements the flavor.”

To that end, Pashman recommended splashing a bit of hot sauce into your mayonnaise-based dips. “Just a little squirt of hot sauce in there — just a little kick — will make a huge difference in your dips,” he said.

Give that tip a try this weekend, or find your own heat-butter balance with Reynolds’ award-winning buffalo wings recipe. That’s below.

In the meantime, tell us what you think. What's the best hot sauce on the market? What's the most unexpected food that you've improved with the addition of hot sauce? Is Dan Pashman insane for claiming hot sauce is not good on eggs? 

Director’s Recipe
as seen in The Great Chicken Wing Hunt
by Matt Reynolds

  • 23 oz bottle of Frank’s Red Hot (don’t use generics)
  • 1-2 sticks butter
  • 1/2 bell pepper
  • 4-8 hot peppers (habaneros, serrano, jalapeno, etc. — grab an assortment of what’s available at your local supermarket)
  • 1/2-2 tablespoon honey-mustard
  • 10-20 cloves of fresh garlic, pressed or chopped
  • Celery salt
  • Assorted hot sauces (Tabasco, Cholula, etc)

SAUTE garlic in one stick of butter for 1-2 minutes on low/medium heat, being careful not to burn it. Add HALF of the peppers, both bell and hot, finely chopped. Saute mixture 1-2 minutes. Pour in Frank’s.

Simmer and stir for 5-10 minutes, adding mustard and dashes of celery salt and assorted hot sauces to taste. If sauce tastes bitter (caused by some peppers) add honey-mustard (or just plain honey) until bitterness disappears.

Keep simmering. For a milder sauce, add more butter; for hotter sauce, add more peppers.

Let simmer for another 5-15 min, until sauce thickens and reduces by 5-10 pct; Adjust ingredients to taste.

FRYING is a world unto itself. Know your deep frier. ALWAYS use fresh wings (never frozen). Always naked (never breaded). Take wings out of refrigerator at least an hour before frying and let sit at room temperature. If using frozen wings, thaw completely before frying. 375 is a good temperature for more friers, but test yours because each frier is different. Frying should take 8-12 minutes. Aim to hit the sweet spot where the wings come out crispy on the outside but still tender and juicy (but not undercooked) on the inside.