Jackie Newgent is hot on hot sauce.
"It's definitely an inexpensive way to add flavor to food, quite convenient," she says. "And it's ideal for more nutritious cooking because you can really boost up the flavor without adding extra fat or extra calories."
An American Dietetic Association spokeswoman, Newgent, a registered dietitian, teaches at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York. She calls hot sauce her secret ingredient. "The trick is you don't want to actually taste the hot sauce. You just want to taste more flavor."
But with about 500 hot sauces on the market, how do you pick one? A mix of veteran and first-time fire-eaters tried a blind taste test.
All the sauces tested were widely available. Tasters were asked to comment on each sauce's heat, flavor and texture. Crackers with cream cheese and sour cream helped cool lips and clear palates between sauces. Tasters ranked their preferences from one to 12. Then the numbers were totaled -- meaning the low score won.
Tabasco Green blazed to the top with a score of 59, including three first-place votes. Tropical Pepper Co. Scotch Bonnet, Cholula, Tabasco Red and Crystal each had two first-place votes.
Why so many different favorites? Heat is "a very personal thing," says Jennifer Trainer Thompson, author of several nutrition books, including "The Great Hot Sauce Book."
Flavor also is personal. "For something to add to a drink or scrambled eggs, I go for a straight Louisiana hot sauce," Thomas says. For something more complex and flavorful (in beans or stew, for instance), she'll choose a sauce made with vegetables or fruit.
Louisiana-style sauces have peppers, vinegar, salt and sometimes a few additives. Southwest style and Mexican sauces offer thicker texture and added spices, onions and tomatoes, plus preservatives. Caribbean sauces often include fruit.
Just one more thing to remember: "Go judiciously--you can always add more," says Thompson.
Aflame with flavor
The sauces appear in order of judges' preference. Judges ranked them from one to 12, then the scores were totaled; the low score won. Included here are the name of the sauce, the manufacturer or importer, the score (with the number of first-place votes in parentheses), and tasters' comments:
Tabasco Green, McIlhenny Co., Avery Island, La.,59 (3), "very good;" "vinegary"
Tropical Pepper Co. Scotch Bonnet Sauce, made in Costa Rica for H.L. Benndorf Corp., Medford, N.J.67 (2), "awesome;" "not hot at beginning, great heat after taste"
Cholula Hot Sauce, made in Mexico for Jalisco Food Co., San Antonio, Texas70 (2), "like roasted peppers"
Old El Paso Hot Taco Sauce, Pillsbury Co., Minneapolis72 (1), "sweeter like salsa;" "barbecue sauce-y"
Goya Hot Sauce, Goya Foods Inc., Secaucus, N.J.,72 (0), "gave my mouth a glow;" "nose watering"
Crystal: Louisiana's Pure Hot Sauce, Baumer Foods, New Orleans75 (2), "vinegary"
Louisiana Hot Sauce, Bruce Foods Corp., New Iberia, La.90 (0), "bitter"
Tabasco Red, McIlhenny Co., Avery Island, La.91 (2), "killer!"; "too salty;" "hot! hot!"
Tropical Pepper Co. Extra Hot Habanero Sauce, made in Costa Rica for H.L. Benndorf Corp., Medford, N.J.93 (0), "hot!"; "didn't like seeds in it;" "too salty"
Thai Garlic Chili Pepper Sauce, made in Thailand for Andre Prost, Inc., Old Saybrook, Conn.94 (1), "loved it;" "hated it"
Texas Pete Hot Sauce, T.W. Garner Food Co., Winston-Salem, N.C.98 (0), "hot but good;" "too salty"
Taco Bell Hot Sauce, Kraft Foods, Inc., Glenview, Ill.107 (0), "smells like chili;" "bland"
Note: Based on a one-teaspoon serving, all contained zero fat, calories or carbohydrate except the Thai sauce, which logged 10 calories and 2 grams carbohydrate. Sodium levels vary, but small amounts rarely pose an issue.