How Hot Sauce Became the World’s Favorite Condiment

Even serious Sriracha fans might not be aware that the history of hot sauce goes back thousands of years.
Even serious Sriracha fans might not be aware that the history of hot sauce goes back thousands of years. / Scott Olson/GettyImages

No matter where you’re dining, a bottle of hot sauce is likely close at hand. Cuisines around the world use forms of the condiment to spice up everything from fermented cabbage to chicken wings—but despite its global footprint, hot sauce was missing from tables beyond Central and South America for most of human history. It wasn’t until the 15th century that the hot pepper was set on a course for world domination. If you've ever wondered who invented Tabasco sauce, or what Scoville Heat Units really measure, read on.

Hot Sauce as Medicine

Hot sauce, as a broadly defined condiment, is enjoyed around the world today, but it originated in the Americas. We’ll likely never know who the first people were to mash up chili peppers into a liquid; there are candidates ranging from Bolivia to Mexico. We do know that people in Central and South America have been making hot sauces for thousands of years—and it wasn’t always just a tasty condiment. 

A red chili pepper growing.
Chili peppers were an important part of medicine for the Aztec and Maya. / Jenny Dettrick/Moment/Getty Images

Both the Aztecs and the Maya valued hot peppers for their medicinal properties. Sore throats, stomach aches, asthma, and colds were just some of the ailments chili products were thought to remedy. Today we know that hot sauce isn’t a cure-all for most medical problems, but it can be used as a painkiller. Chili peppers contain a number of capsaicinoids, chief among them capsaicin, which mimic the sensation of heat when they touch our sensitive tissues. 

Once you endure the initial burn, consuming capsaicin lets loose a rush of endorphins in your brain, which in turn triggers an anti-inflammatory reaction throughout most of your body. This is why medical professionals have experimented with using capsaicin as a pain reliever. It’s also why the ancient Aztecs used drops of chili pepper sauce to relieve tooth pain.

For millennia, humans have prized hot peppers for the same mouth-scorching properties they evolved to keep hungry animals away. Which brings up an interesting question: Why would a fruit evolve to avoid being eaten? Isn’t that a big part of how they spread? 

A bird taking a bite out of a pepper.
Birds may have been instrumental in pepper propagation. / Juana Mari Moya/Moment/Getty Images

The key here may be which animal is eating the plant in question. When small mammals eat peppers, they tend to destroy the seeds with their teeth and ruin the plant’s chances for propagation. Birds, on the other hand, don’t have teeth, so they can consume peppers and disperse their seeds intact. Birds also have different taste receptors than mammals—capsaicin doesn’t deter them the way it would a rat. Peppers may have evolved to discourage mammals but not birds. Along the way, they seemed to have made themselves particularly appealing to people.

Hot sauce allows us to apply the taste of peppers to just about anything. When they weren’t dabbing hot sauce on sore teeth, ancient Mesoamericans enjoyed it with corn tortillas. This early version of the condiment was likely a simple paste consisting of ground peppers, water, and possibly herbs. Though they didn’t have access to the onions or garlic often used to flavor modern hot sauces, they refined the taste by cultivating new pepper strains. By the time Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the Americas, many of the varieties we know today—like anchos, jalapeños, and cayenne—were already part of the region’s cuisine. 

Peppers and Hot Sauce Go Global

Peppers were one of the most exciting discoveries transatlantic explorers brought back with them to Europe. They were flavorful, cheap to grow, and adaptable to new climates. Spaniards borrowed the Nahuatl word chilli from the Aztecs. The name pepper came from the plant’s similarity to black pepper, which was the main source of spice in Europe’s pre-Columbian food. Before the Columbian Exchange, there wasn’t anything quite like hot peppers growing outside of the Americas.

Chilies completely transformed the cuisines of many places they reached. They arrived in Asia via Portugese traders—probably in the early 1500s—and they were an instant hit. Thanks to their affordability and appealing taste, chili peppers quickly replaced black pepper as the primary spice throughout much of the continent.

Sambal sauce on spoons.
Sambal sauce on spoons. / R¸ther, Manuela/FoodCollection/Getty Images

Like the ancient Americans, Asian cooks began mashing their peppers with liquids and other flavorings to make them into versatile sauces. These condiments were a little bit funkier than what the Aztecs were dipping their tortillas into. Thailand became the birthplace of nam phrik, which combines peppers with ingredients like fish sauce or fermented shrimp paste. Out of Indonesia came hundreds of varieties of a crushed chili condiment called sambal. In Korea, the fermented pepper paste gochujang is such a staple that there’s actually a spiciness scale called the Gochujang Hot-taste Unit. 

Africa was also introduced to hot peppers by way of the Portuguese, and many cultures there embraced the affordable flavor bombs. One of the most prevalent hot sauces in southern Africa is piri piri, which is Ronga for “pepper pepper.” The condiment is made from African Birdseye chilies—a pepper strain cultivated on the continent—and other ingredients like lemon, vinegar, garlic, oil, and herbs. Angola, Namibia, and Mozambique are just a few of the countries where it’s popular.

European colonization and global trade also transformed hot sauce in the pepper’s birthplace. Spicy condiments that are enjoyed in the Americas today include Chilean pebre—made from tomatoes, onions, and chiles—and garlicky Mexican hot sauces, like the kind that brands like Cholula and Tapatio sell.

According to data from Instacart, Cholula is the most popular hot sauce in America, but it’s not the oldest product of its kind. Back in 1807, ads appeared in a Massachusetts newspaper for a pepper sauce, which some sources have proclaimed the first commercial hot sauce in the United States.

This is a bit tricky to pin down, though. Food historian Charles Perry doesn’t think this product would likely have been a hot sauce at all, but rather one of several “pepper flavored vinegar ketchups for doctoring your food” that began to appear around that time. The methods likely used to make the sauce wouldn’t have extracted much, if any, of the capsaicin in the peppers, according to Perry, and New England diets at the time were generally averse to spicy heat.

Perry speculates that rich Brits sailing to and from the Caribbean in the early 19th century might have put some hot peppers in a bottle of sherry—a treatment that might have begun as an anti-scurvy medicinal sauce. Soon enough, as Perry outlines it, it became a way to add a bit of flavor to tasteless ship food, and people began developing a taste for the spicy condiment.

Tabasco Takes Over

Whatever the origin, before the 1800s were over, a number of bona fide American hot sauce brands started popping up, including at least one name you’ve likely heard of. Tabasco company founder Edmund McIlhenny began selling a fermented, vinegar-based pepper sauce in bottles in the late 1860s. He named the sauce Tabasco after the type of chili it was made from, which itself was named after its state of origin in Mexico. 

Tabasco hot sauce seen at a supermarket...
Tabasco hot sauce at a supermarket. / SOPA Images/GettyImages

To get the sauce on the tables of as many people as possible, McIlhenny sold it in bulk to restaurants and hotels rather than directly to consumers. The ubiquity of the condiment in the hospitality industry made it familiar to the public, and soon it became the dominant name in the hot sauce market. The company was founded in Louisiana, but by the 1870s Tabasco had spread throughout the U.S. and Europe. 

The Tabasco company claims that McIlhenny invented Tabasco sauce, but the condiment’s origins are up for debate. Two decades before McIlhenny bottled his first hot sauce, Colonel Maunsel White came up with a similar concoction on his Louisiana plantation. He also grew Tabasco chili peppers, and had the crops preserved by boiling them with vinegar. In 1850, the New Orleans Daily Delta wrote that his sauce “possesses in a most concentrated and intense form, all the qualities of the vegetable,” and that “a single drop of [the] sauce will flavor a whole plate of soup or other food.”

Some believe that White should be credited with Tabasco sauce’s invention. It’s possible that McIlhenny—a fellow Louisianan—even acquired the seeds he used to grow his peppers from the colonel. The McIlhenny family counters that there’s little evidence for this assertion, and points to substantial differences between the sauces—White apparently didn’t ferment his product, for example. But regardless of who made the first true Tabasco sauce, it was McIlhenny who turned the recipe into an international brand.

David Tran
Sriracha creator David Tran at the company's California factory. / David McNew/GettyImages

Sriracha is another massive name in the hot sauce world. The version most Americans know with the green nozzle and the rooster on the label comes from David Tran, the founder of Huy Fong Foods. 

Born in Vietnam, Tran first started selling his chili sauce in 1975. At the end of the decade, he and his family fled their homeland onboard a Taiwanese freighter ship named the Huey Fong, which roughly translates to “gathering prosperity.” In the United States Tran eventually started selling his hot sauce again—this time to immigrants from Southeast Asia looking for a taste of home. For his recipe, he drew inspiration from a type of hot sauce from the town of Si Racha in Southeast Thailand. Tran combined red jalapenos with vinegar, sugar, and garlic for a thicker, sweeter hot sauce than most Americans were used to. 

Huy Fong’s Sriracha sauce was a relatively quiet success for decades, but it really exploded in the mid-2000s. In the 2010s, its branding was slapped on everything from potato chips to beer to cars. Sriracha mania may have passed its peak, but it still ranks No. 3 on the list of America’s favorite hot sauces, beating Tabasco.

Scorching Scoville

There’s an entire scale dedicated to measuring the heat of pepper-based products. Pharmacist Wilbur Scoville came up with what would become Scoville Heat Units while attempting to make a heat-producing ointment in 1912. 

A photo of Wilbur Scoville
Wilbur Scoville. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

SHUs originally measured how much a spicy food would need to be diluted to neutralize its capsaicin content, but nowadays scientists generally use high-performance liquid chromatography to identify where a given product falls on the scale. Tabasco sauce clocks in at 2500 to 5000 SHUs, while Mad Dog 357 Plutonium No. 9—possibly the world’s hottest hot sauce—reaches 9 million Scoville Heat Units

If you ever find yourself venturing into the high end of the Scoville Scale or are inexplicably a guest on Hot Ones, dairy may be able to provide some relief. Casein, a protein in milk, binds with capsaicin and carries it away from your sensitive taste buds. 

Your other option is to build a tolerance for spicy foods. By repeatedly subjecting your taste buds to capsaicin, you can desensitize your nerve endings. Experts recommend doing this by gradually introducing spice to your diet until you're consuming it on a regular basis. But past a certain heat threshold, the only thing that will heal your mouth is time.

This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.