You may have come across “chili sauce” as an ingredient for your next great recipe find. But this term is just about as generic as can be in the world of spicy food. What is chili sauce, exactly? And what would be a good chili sauce substitute if you don’t have what’s called for in the pantry? Let’s review your top chili sauce alternatives, as well as one commonly used, but not recommended.
What is chili sauce?
Chili sauce is really a generic term for any sauce that utilizes chilies, tomato sauce, vinegar (sometimes), sugar, and other spices. The key differentiator from traditional hot sauce is its thickness. Chili sauce isn’t something you’d sprinkle from a hot sauce dasher bottle. It’s thicker, often more akin to ketchup in flow. Chili sauce also tends to be less vinegary than hot sauces in general. Some chili sauces are sugary sweet (like sweet Thai chili sauce often used for dipping). Others are more akin to a thicker hot sauce. Note: In this post, we cover general chili sauce substitutes, not sweet chili sauce. For sweet chili sauce substitutes, take a look here.
Because of the generalness of the term “chili sauce”, when its called for you have to give consideration to the context in the recipe and your heat tolerance.
- If a recipe calls for half a cup of chili sauce and proportionately that seems like a lot, then something less spicy and more tomato-based may be in order. A lot of meatloaves and sweet BBQ recipes call for this.
- If the recipe calls for simply a teaspoon or tablespoon (and proportionately in the recipe, it’s a small amount), then something more chili-concentrated and spicy is a better bet.
- Ketchup-like chili sauces also tend to carry less heat than more concentrated chili sauces do, so consider your heat tolerance as well.
Your best option for small proportions: Sriracha sauce
You may think of the famous Sriracha as a hot sauce (and it is), but technically it’s a chili sauce first and foremost. It’s not like Tabasco or other dasher-ready hot sauces. It’s thicker, tomato-based, with hints of sugar and garlic. This is a sauce that can fit for many chili sauce use cases in recipes. The heat comes from red jalapeño peppers, and there’s a definite fire here, so Sriracha isn’t the solution for big proportions in context to the recipe. But it’s so well-rounded as a sauce, it’s a must to have in the cupboard for when the need arises. You’ll find a lot of culinary use cases.
For big proportions and mild needs: Spicy ketchup
You have a few options when it comes to spicy ketchup. You can easily make it yourself (see our recipe for smoky chipotle ketchup) or you can buy one of the many options available at most grocery stores. Heinz also carries a chili sauce in its line that’s really much more like spicy ketchup than a Sriracha. Spicy ketchup will obviously be sweeter and very mild in comparison to Sriracha, so as an ingredient its good for big proportions (like for meatloaf). We wouldn’t use it for more authentic chili sauce needs (go with Sriracha there), but based on your recipe context it can work.
Not recommended: Ketchup alone
We know it may be very tempting to simply swap-in that ketchup sitting in the fridge, but spiciness is a primary expectation of chili sauce, and there’s obviously none in ketchup. Plus, it’s very simple to spice up that ketchup with chipotle or cayenne pepper to at least provide some heat.