Top Pick Of The Week

May 27, 2008

. .

CheeseburgerIn a country that prefers salsa to ketchup, diners will really enjoy Sweet Sunshine Chile Sauce on their burgers and fries. Photo by Paul Johnson | IST.

WHAT IT IS: Artisan-crafted chile sauce.
WHY IT’S DIFFERENT: Made from outstanding ingredients, the sauces shout with spicy, good flavor.
WHY WE LOVE IT: Wow! You can actually taste the different chiles in each sauce. It’s not just heat in there—there's real fruit flavor. Yes, chiles are fruits—and they are snazzy!

.Sweet Sunshine Chile Sauce:
Captivating Condiment

CAPSULE REPORT: We taste more than 3,000 foods a year; sometimes it seems that half of those are barbecue sauces and similar condiments (in reality, we probably taste more like mere hundreds of them). While some of the sauces stand out (here are prior favorites), only one has made it to Top Pick status. Until now.

The sun is indeed shining in New Haven, Connecticut, where six varieties of Sweet Sunshine Chile Sauce are made: Sweet, Warm, Roasted Garlic & Shallot, Jamaican Jerk, Hot and Atomic. Our personal preference leans to the milder side of the chile spectrum. But the captivating thing about Sweet Sunshine is that Jamaican Jerk, Hot and Atomic all deliver wonderful, complex chile flavors instead of the simple, searing heat found in many other products. No wonder they’ve racked up 18 awards at major chile festivals. People looking for a great new sauce are urged to let some Sweet Sunshine into their lives...and onto their grilled meats, sandwiches, eggs, chicken wings, crudités and other dippers.

What an easy way this is to spice up everyday foods—and what a great gift for anyone who likes flavor sensations. If you plan to be invited to barbecues this summer—or want to impress guests at your own—lay in a stock of these. Read the full review, and get more serving suggestions, below.

THE NIBBLE does not sell the foods we review
or receive fees from manufacturers for recommending them.

Our recommendations are based purely on our opinion, after tasting thousands of products each year, that they represent the best in their respective categories.

How Hot Is It? These Books Will Tell You!

The Pepper Pantry: Habanero The Great Chile Book The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia
The Pepper Pantry: Habañero, by Dave Dewitt and Nancy Gerlach. A comprehensive investigation of one of America’s most popular chiles, plus 40 recipes from normal to scorching. Click here for more information or to purchase.
The Great Chile Book, by Mark Charles Miller. Miller, the chef/owner of Santa Fe’s Coyote Café, provides 140 chile-based recipes from Thai to West Indian to Tex-Mex. Click here for more information or to purchase.
The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia, by Dave DeWitt. Everything you need to know, including history, easy-to-use alphabetical guide, beverage pairings and recipes. Click here for more information or to purchase.

Sweet Sunshine Chile Sauce: Captivating Condiment




Many creators of artisan foods start out this way: They cook up a product for home use that gets so much positive feedback from family and friends that they decide to try a commercial venture. No matter how good a product is, it is very hard for any small business to succeed. Getting shelf space at retail is tougher than tough, and internet sales rely on expensive advertising and promotion.

Fortunately for chile sauce lovers, Sweet Sunshine creator Len Sarris is a successful business executive to start with, and has a leg up: a good day job that pays the rent while his excellent line gets discovered. His product line certainly deserves it: After 15 years of development, he has perfected six flavors of gourmet chile sauce made from natural ingredients that are simple to use (just shake), delicious, fat free, low calorie, all natural (no preservatives) and a standout from the crowd.

Cheaper sauces use extracts to achieve levels of heat. Sweet Sunshine is all real chile, cooked up and puréed. That’s why you can taste the flavor profiles in each—the difference between ancho and cayenne in the medium sauces and habañero in the hotter ones. (The company’s motto is “Flavor Before Fire.”) Once you taste an artisan hot sauce, you won’t go back to the lesser ones.

The Difference Between Chile Sauce, Hot Sauce & Barbecue Sauce

Both hot sauce and chile sauce are made from hot chile peppers. Better products are made with the actual fruit, while lesser products are made with chile extracts, chemical extracts of capsicum that provide heat.

  • In the U.S., a hot sauce is a thin sauce typically made from chiles or pepper, vinegar and salt. Asian hot sauces add garlic and sugar (other cultures have their own variations) and are called chile/chili sauce rather than hot sauce. However, the consistency is the same—thin—and they can be shaken on foods (Asian chile pastes are thicker, like American chile sauces).
  • An authentic chile sauce in the U.S. is tomato-based, generally the consistency of ketchup, and includes chiles plus vinegar, onion, sugar, salt and spices. There are American supermarket products called “chili sauce,” such as Heinz’s, that are often not much more than ketchup with garlic and other spices, dehydrated onion and bell pepper. There is no chile heat and the products are not much more interesting than ketchup.
  • A barbecue sauce differs from a chile sauce in that the focus is on the sour, sweet, spicy, tangy and/or smoky balance, although there is a degree of crossover between heat- (chile) focused barbecue sauces and chile sauces. See our Chile Glossary to learn about the different types of chiles and why there are different spellings: chile, chili and chilli.
Sweet Sunshine Chile Sauce
Sweet Sunshine chile sauce is made from real chile
mash, not chemical extracts like many hot sauces and
chile sauces. Photo by Saidi Granados.

As far as the different spellings of chile, chili and chilli, the etymology is nationally-based. Chilli is the Aztec spelling (used in the U.K.), chile the Spanish spelling and chili an American evolution. As with barbecue (barbeque, BBQ, bar-b-que), the spellings are interchangeable. THE NIBBLE chooses to use chile for the fruit and chili to distinguish the bean dish; of course, we observe the spelling the manufacturer chooses for its product.

Gourmet Chile Sauce Flavors

The sauces are built on a base of tomatoes and molasses, plus sugar, vinegar, onion, cayenne, spices and corn syrup solids; most have habañero. The varieties then diverge in their flavor ingredients.

Paul Sarris claims that only two of his six varieties are hot, but that depends on your definition of hot. There is no “mild” in this line—it's for people who are serious about chiles. The line starts with medium-hot sauces. Of course, this note is written from the standpoint of a person who prefers a mild salsa to a medium-hot (possibly because we need to safeguard our taste buds for our profession, tasting the nuances of every food, so we can’t enjoy the joy of scorching). The nice thing, as noted in the summary, is that even the hottest of these sauces delivers the complex flavor of its chile fruit—not single-minded searing heat we find in so many other products. We’ll start with lowest heat levels and work our way up.

  • Sweet is the quintessential sweet heat table sauce or wing sauce, flavored with ancho chile and mustard seed. It’s the only flavor without cayenne and habañero. Sarris claims it’s mild enough for a child: Sure, if your child likes spicy food. It delivers sweet chile fruit and is very spicy. Sweet has won two first place awards and a third place Golden Chile award at the Chili Pepper Magazine Fiery Food Challenge, and the same awards at the Zest Fest.
  • Warm has a slightly higher level of heat than Sweet; it keeps the ancho and layers on cayenne and habañero. There is still sweet chile fruit, but now, instead of “spicy,” you get a light burn. Warm has won a first place award at America’s Best Food Event.
  • Roasted Shallot & Garlic, made with ancho, cayenne and habañero mix, plus Worcestershire sauce (among other ingredients), is closest in flavor to a barbecue sauce. It was the thinnest in consistency—pourable like a salad dressing, not ketchup-thick like the other flavors. The roasted onion and shallot flavors were delicious; there was a bit of sweetness in the background, and lots of chile flavor. It seems to be slightly less hot than Warm, although that may be an illusion due to the preponderance of roasted onion flavor. Roasted Shallot & Garlic has won a first place award at the Zest Fest, a second place Golden Chile award and a third place award at America’s Best Food Event.
Sweet Sunshine Jerk Sauce
Jamaican Jerk sauce uses imported jerk. Jerk spice is a blend, beginning with allspice, Scotch bonnet chiles and thyme. Depending on the manufacturer, the blend can include bay leaf, black pepper, clove, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, onion and more. The term “jerk” comes from charqui (CHAR-kee), the Quechua (Inca) word that gives us “jerky.”
  • Jamaican Jerk is plenty sizzling. While jerk sauce is classified as “medium” in chile fests, if you’re not used to heat, consider it borderline hot. But it is hot with so much flavor, you can’t stop eating it. Made with authentic jerk seasoning imported from Jamaica, this may be the best jerk sauce we’ve ever had. Scotch bonnet peppers—a cornerstone of jerk seasoning, along with spicy-sweet allspice—are added to the ancho-cayenne-habañero blend; scallion and mustard seed contribute to the flavor profile. If you live in an area without a Jamaican population and don’t have much access to jerk-seasoned food, buy a bottle of this to see what the excitement is about. Jamaican Jerk Sweet Sunshine has won a first place Scovie Award, a first place award at the Zest Fest and a second place award at America’s Best Food Event.
  • Hot asserts itself immediately: You know that you have entered a higher plane of heat, for which the label on the bottle does not exaggerate. No ancho here—just cayenne, habañero and Red Savina habañero, an ever hotter variety. Hot has the same level of heat as most hot sauces—but with so much more flavor, sweetness and charm. We tried our first tastings straight from the spoon; later, when mixed with rice or broiled on chicken, it was even more endearing in its complexity. Hot has won a second place Scovie Award.
  • Atomic—what can you say about a sauce made from 25% Red Savina habañero mash, with an estimated 100,000 Scoville units? You can sense the heat just by smelling the open bottle—but you can also recognize the tomatoes, vinegar, molasses and other flavor ingredients. For chile heads, it is an excellent table sauce and wing sauce. It’s the same profile as Hot, but with a higher percentage of Red Savina in the blend, plus it has the “atomic” habañero seeds in the sauce—not strained out, as with all the other varieties. Atomic has won two first place awards and a third place Golden Chile award at the Chili Pepper Magazine Fiery Food Challenge, two first place awards and a third place award at the Zest Fest, and a second place Scovie Award.



Serving Suggestions

A good condiment has more uses than one can imagine. While we wouldn’t shake Sweet Sunshine on ice cream, we did enjoy it in all of these dishes, and we know we’ll discover more.

Grilled Chicken
Sweet Sunshine is delicious with grilled chicken. Photo by Jack Jelly | IST.
  • Barbecue Sauce. Use sweet sunshine instead of barbecue sauce.
  • Cocktails. The quality of the flavors produces a much better Bloody Mary than most hot sauces.
  • Dips. Make an instant spicy dip by adding Sweet Sunshine to mayonnaise, plain yogurt or sour cream. (Add a few tablespoons to that classic onion dip!) It’s great with tortilla chips and pretzels. Using diet mayo or fat-free yogurt makes a pretty dietetic dip for crudités.
  • Eggs. Many people like to shake hot sauce on their eggs, others like ketchup. Sweet Sunshine is the best of both worlds. Add some to your deviled egg recipe to truly put the devil into the eggs.
  • Fish & Seafood. Try it on heartier fish that are pan fried, as well as breaded fried fish; it will totally overwhelm the flavor of milder fish. But if you are served fish that is too “fishy” for you, this is the perfect solution.
  • Meats. They seem to work especially well with burgers and any broiled or grilled meats— chicken, lamb, pork, steak. And of course, chicken wings.
  • Pizza. Mix with tomato sauce to make a spicy pizza sauce.
  • Sandwiches. As a spicy condiment; or mix with mayonnaise to make spicy mayo. For a fat-free spread, mix with fat-free yogurt.
  • Snacks. The options here are infinite. Our current addiction is spreading the sauce on tortilla chips, topping with shredded cheese and microwaving.
  • Soups, Stews and Chilis. Add a tablespoon to spice them up.
  • Tofu & Seitan. Make vegetarian dishes sizzle.
  • Vegetables, Fries, Baked Beans, Rice. The milder flavors are an excellent replacement for spicy ketchup. Use it to make a stuffed baked potato topped with shredded Cheddar (recipe on website).

There are quite a few recipes on the website; we’ve included one below.

Recipe: Sweet Sunshine’s Jamaican Chicken

Created by founder Paul Sarris. We’d call it Buffalo Wing Chicken Salad. Either way, it tastes great, if this popular flavor combination appeals to you. In a pinch, the colors qualify it as a “red, white and blue” salad for Independence Day. If you want more red, add sweet red onion to the chicken salad.


  • 2 cups skinless, boneless, cooked chicken breasts, cubed
  • 2 cups sliced celery
  • 1/2 cup blue cheese dressing (if you don’t
    make your own, buy a top-quality brand)
  • 1/2 cup Sweet Sunshine Sauce (any flavor will do, but consider your guests—unless they’re chile heads, we’d stick to Sweet, Warm, Roasted Shallot & Garlic or Jamaican Jerk)
  • 1/2 cup crumbled quality blue cheese


Blue Cheese
Buy a better quality blue cheese; unless you have a favorite, picking up a random inexpensive supermarket types can yield an overly salty cheese that will ruin the salad. Photo by Scott Karcich | IST.
  • Mix chicken, celery and blue cheese dressing.
  • Mound the chicken salad on a serving platter and drizzle the Sweet Sunshine Sauce over the salad.
  • Sprinkle the crumbled blue cheese over the top of the sauce.

If you’re looking for something new and exciting for stocking stuffers, the small gift closets, summer barbecue and house gifts—look no further.

— Karen Hochman

FORWARD THIS NIBBLE to barbecue lovers, hot sauce aficionados and anyone looking for a low-calorie, fat-free condiment and ingredient.

Atomic, Hot, Jamaican Jerk, Roasted Garlic & Shallot, Sweet, Warm

  • 5-Ounce Bottle
  • Includes $.75 Handling Charge

Purchase online† at

Or telephone 1.860.567.3529
Or check the website for a store locator

†Prices and product availability are verified at publication but are subject to change. THE NIBBLE does not sell products; these items are offered by a third party with whom we have no relationship. This link to purchase is provided as a reader convenience.

Sweet Sunshine Sauce


Check Out These Other Top Pick Of The Week” Condiments:


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