The Skinny on New Orleans Hot Sauces

Magnolia Sugar and Spice Praline Kitchen and Hot Sauce Bar in Royal Street, French Quarter of New Orleans, USA
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"Which of these hot sauces am I supposed to use?" This question has been posed to us more times than we can count. A friend comes in from out of town, we go out to a Cajun or soul food restaurant, the food arrives, and suddenly the little hot sauce caddy in the middle of the table looks incredibly daunting.

Choose well and you'll have Louisiana food the way it was meant to be tasted. Choose poorly and you'll ruin everything.

No pressure or anything. Stop. Take a breath.

Background

First off, let us offer a quick background. Why are all these hot sauces on the table anyway? Isn't Cajun food already spicy enough?

Well, no. At least not usually. Traditionally, Cajun food is, despite its reputation, not actually spicy-hot. It's well-seasoned and heavily spiced, yes, but typically, heat (as in Scoville units) is added at the table, not in the kitchen. And, of course, different sauces go with different things. (That last bit is not designed to confuse visitors, it just happens to baffle them every time.)

That's why in most Cajun restaurants (and in just about every Cajun household I've ever been in), a small variety of hot condiments take up permanent residence in the middle of the table. Add them as you wish. Remember in every case that it's easier to add more than take away! Here are the usual suspects and some suggestions for how to use them.

Usual New Orleans Hot Sauce Suspects

Peppers in Vinegar: If on the table is a jar of what appear to be tiny pickles floating in a clear liquid, don't eat them. Well, you can, but they're usually pretty hot, so be prepared. Instead, notice that the cap of the bottle probably has a flip-top which, when opened, reveals a shaker hole.

This briny pepper-infused vinegar is typically shaken on top of green vegetables (especially things like collards or turnip greens) and sometimes on top of fried seafood or in soups.

"Hot Sauce": Typically, when someone from Louisiana refers simply to hot sauce, they're talking about something like Crystal or Louisiana brand hot red pepper sauce (there are plenty of others; these are the two most common). These sauces are vinegar-based and generally in the medium range, heat-wise. They're all-purpose sauces that can be used on or in just about anything.

Tabasco Sauce: Tabasco sauce is similar to hot sauce, in its vinegar-based red pepper preparation, but it is made with significantly hotter peppers. Many people find Tabasco too hot to put on anything where it isn't diluted (that is, it's okay stirred into soups and gumbos, but too intense to sprinkle on a plate of fried seafood). If you like it really hot, go to town, but if you're not so bold, try a regular hot sauce instead.

Cajun Power Garlic Sauce: This is a light, slightly sweet garlic-flavored hot sauce that's become very popular in Cajun restaurants over the past couple of decades. It's great on food that needs both extra heat and extra seasoning -- I love it on eggs and omelets, for example, and it's very good on vegetables.

It can overly mask the flavoring of a dish that's already seasoned, so exercise subtlety here, but if you like heat and you like garlic, try this one for sure.

Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning: Tony Chachere's -- the latter word is improbably pronounced like "satchery" -- or one of its competitors (Slap Ya Mama, Chef Paul Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning, Zatarain's, etc.) is often found on restaurant tables, especially at seafood boil restaurants. It's a spice mix, not a liquid, and it contains cayenne, black pepper, garlic powder, and salt (some versions have onion powder, paprika, or other spices) and it goes well on top of almost anything. Use the same quantity that you would use of salt, or else you'll find your food too salty. Tony's can also be mixed with mayonnaise to make a snappy dip for boiled crawfish, and at crawfish shacks, you'll often find both of those on the table for just that purpose.