Sambal Oelek Vs. Sriracha: PepperScale Showdown

Two Asian condiments go head to head…

There’s arguably no spicy condiment more popular than Sriracha across the globe, but its chili paste cousin – sambal oelek – is doing its best to carve out its culinary niche worldwide . These are two fiery flavors, but when the line is drawn in the sand, where do they stand? Which is spicier? Is one more complexly flavored than the other? Can they be used interchangeably? We dive into these questions head first in another PepperScale Showdown.

In terms of ingredients, how do Sriracha and sambal oelek compare?

These two chili-based products have more in common than most people realize. Sriracha sauce mainly contains chili peppers, sugar, salt. garlic, and a light amount of vinegar. It’s a simple recipe compared to most hot sauces, and it helps keep the sauce rich in hot pepper flavor.

Sambal oelek, too, is simple – just chilies, salt, vinegar, and water. It’s by far one of the simplest chili pastes around, but that doesn’t mean it loses out of flavor.

So the big differences between sambal oelek and Sriracha can be boiled down to sugar and garlic, as well as how these ingredients are prepared. Sriracha is puréed into a relative thick, but smooth, hot sauce. Sambal oelek is made into a chunkier paste.

So which is hotter? Sambal oelek or Sriracha?

The heat is very comparable when comparing the store-bought options. Both of these products rely on similar groupings of red chilies most common is red jalapeño peppers, so expect a medium level of spiciness for each. Though, not all is as simple as it seems. Those extra ingredients in Sriracha do dilute the heat slightly, so a sambal oelek that uses the same chilies can sometimes taste slightly hotter since the chili is more prevalent.

Of course, any comparison on heat is thrown out the door if you’re considering homemade Sriracha or sambal oelek. Then it all comes down to the chili pepper choice and the amount used. One may be based on red serrano peppers (hotter than a jalapeño) while another may have stepped it up an entirely by using much hotter Thai peppers.

What about the taste? How different are the flavors between the two?

While the ingredients lists are simple and similar, there is a definite taste difference between Sriracha and sambal oelek. Sriracha tends to be sweeter with subtle garlic undertones, whereas sambal oelek relies on the chili pepper flavor itself as well as a touch more vinegar. Neither product is vinegary like Tabasco or another Louisiana hot sauce, but since there are less ingredients, you can taste that vinegar tang a little more with sambal oelek.

The other major flavor difference comes from the textures. This is a sauce vs paste comparison, so texture is big here. Sriracha is smooth while sambal oelek is chunky. If you love chunkier textures, you may be surprised at how quickly you convert to sambal oelek for some recipes.

Can you substitute Sriracha for sambal oelek (or vice versa)?

This is a very popular substitution, and for good reason. We mention many flavor difference above, but when put into context against the whole world of sauces and pastes – Sriracha and sambal oelek have more in common than most. There is going to be both flavor and texture differences. Sriracha will bring a sweeter flavor, along with garlic undertones, to a dish. And if you’re looking for an additive to thicken up a dish, sambal oelek is obviously the much better fit. Consider the use case, but there are many where the substitution can work.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on March 19, 2022 to include new content.
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