What’s A Good Chili Sauce Substitute?

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.

Note: In this post, we cover general chili sauce substitutes, not sweet chili sauce. For sweet chili sauce substitutes, take a look here.

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 the 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 and sweet (like sweet Thai chili sauce often used for dipping). Others are more akin to a thicker hot sauce.

Because of the generalness of the term “chili sauce”, when it’s called for you have to give consideration to the context of 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’s definitely used as one), but technically it’s a chili sauce by name on its own label (“Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce”.) It’s not like Tabasco or other dasher-ready hot sauces. It’s thicker, with hints of sugar and garlic. This is a sauce that can fit many chili sauce use cases in recipes.

The heat comes from red jalapeño peppers, and there’s a definite heat 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 have in the cupboard for when the need arises. You’ll find a lot of culinary use cases.

How Huy Fong’s Sriracha differs from its specifically branded “Chili Garlic Sauce” is both its consistency and sugar levels. Its chili garlic sauce is chunkier in texture and has less sugar compared to the “saucier” Sriracha.

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 (affiliate link) 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, it’s 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.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on November 4, 2023 to include new content.
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