Freelance writer Alicia Ranch-Traille joins ES to talk hot sauce. Very hot sauce.
You don’t quite know what makes yourself tick. As a kid, you played mad scientist with the solvents and cleansers beneath the kitchen sink. As a teenage vandal, you really got something out of chemistry class: a temporary record down at the police station. In college, you jumped out of a plane because the sky would win if you didn’t, and you once made a resume that listed only your bodily scars. As an adult, you’re either the dude who sets his head on fire at a bar and makes the national news, or you’re someone for whom ingesting the world’s hottest sauces and peppers is an extracurricular pursuit.
Or maybe both. It’s a fine line. There’s a way out of this hole, man. It’s time to bottle and sell your pain. You need to make your own hot sauce.
Hot Sauce: A Truly Hot Commodity
Hot sauce isn’t just for men, of course. It’s just that guys have built a whole subculture around it, a close cousin of the microbrew movement. Americans love hot sauce, and the fact that it’s one of the top-10 growth industries in the U.S. right now proves it. By 2017, according to an IBISWorld report, hot sauce is expected to be a $1.3 billion industry, and the movement is already well underway. Just take a look at all the chilihead resources that have popped up in recent years. Austin has a store devoted just to hot sauce. You can get lost in the Hot Sauce Blog for hours, and certain people are obsessed with Sriracha.
What this means for the home chili pepper enthusiast is simple. There’s a market for that thing you love, and you should consider getting in. Unfortunately, chiliheads—being reckless and impulsive by nature—tend to be both rule-averse and unsystematic. That’s no way to learn cooking. “Trial and error” doesn’t mean throwing a bunch of stuff together at random, you know. You can’t see your variables that way. It’s not scientific.
Start with a super-basic hot sauce. The simplest sauce you can make will include cayenne or tabasco chili peppers, white vinegar and salt. Simmer it, puree it and call it Tabasco. You didn’t age it, but you’re done. Now tweak it. What else might fit with those ingredients? Garlic seems like a natural fit, so try it again. Now it’s tasting a bit like Tapatio.
So now you’ve made two basic hot sauces, and you’ve seen how sour, hot, salty and pungent play together. Drink it and go to sleep.
Sleight of Tongue
In your first experiment, you combined saltiness, piquancy, sourness and bitterness (to a degree, with the garlic). You haven’t yet touched sweetness or umami, and you can go further with the bitterness. Should you? This is hot sauce after all, so who needs sweet? Well, consider ketchup for a moment.
It’s said that ketchup pushes all of your taste buttons, and in a special way. So go to the fridge now. Squirt some Heinz directly into your mouth—because the Internet told you to—and notice what happens. Notice the order of what happens. Sweet, salty, sour, umami and then spicy. Some of the most addictive foods in the world use time-delayed mouth fireworks, and you should too. But watch out, for this is an arcane science. Exploiting molecular volatility for flavor is like using calculus to decorate your house, and emulsification is a brand of sorcery.
To make your sauce stand out from the rest, experiment with each of the five fundamental flavors. If you can work in some umami (cooked tomatoes are a good choice), you’ll up the addiction factor. Add a strange note of sour and a quick hit of sweetness and see if you can get them to vanish beneath the long, hot finish. Experiment with things like onions, peppercorns, mustards, molasses, honey, fruits, lemon or lime juice, ginger, cloves, cumin, tumeric and coriander. Check out some flavor pairing sites. If you can make a great flavor submerge and disappear beneath another, people will have to hit the bottle again and again.
Bringing the Heat
Every chili pepper brings a different kind of heat and flavor, and your pepper mix is key to the specific character of your sauce. Habaneros and Scotch bonnets are bright and intense, and serrano peppers have a good bite. Jalapenos blend well with cayenne, pequin or tabasco peppers, and chipotle peppers add a familiar, smoky kick to anything.
If maximum heat is your game, you’ll want to experiment with bhut jolokia, the “ghost pepper.” As one farmer said, “If you eat one, you will not be able to leave this place.” Until recently, it was the hottest pepper in the world at 1,041,427 Scoville units (the humble jalapeno comes in at around 8,000). But if that’s not hot enough for you, try the new world champ: the Trinidad moruga scorpion. Its Scoville score is 2 million.
Soon it will be time to share your creation with your friends and family, and then with the wider world. But first you’ll need a creative name – and the weirder, the better. Remember, when it comes to naming a sauce designed to inflict pain, nothing is off limits, so go nuts.
You’re going to need a label too, because custom labels really help to get people excited about what’s about to happen to them when they use your condiment. Make yours with the help of companies like Shindigz or Bottle Your Brand. You can use your own text and images—and that means that you can design something really cool in Photoshop.
Congratulations, You’re an Artist
A painting thrusts a visual scene, pregnant with meaning, into awareness. Music stirs the emotions via ordered tones and words in time. Hot sauce tricks your brain into believing that you’ve swallowed a flaming sword. It’s a strangely repetitive, endlessly fascinating and hilarious art form, and now that your recipe is complete, you can call yourself an artist too.
Fresh Pepper Sauce
You can make this basic fresh pepper sauce as hot or as mild as you like, so don’t be afraid to use the hotter peppers. To take advantage of their unique flavors while cutting excess heat, simply add more tomatoes.
1 qt. peeled plum tomatoes, fresh or canned
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1 tbsp. pink Himalayan salt and 1 tbsp. black lava Hawaiian sea salt (available at Whole Foods)
1 tbsp. mustard seed
2 tbsp. chipotle powder
1 tbsp. black or assorted peppercorns
1. tbsp. garlic powder or 1 tsp. fresh garlic
2 large sweet peppers, such as “Ancient Sweets” or red bell
Assorted hot peppers, such as: jalapeno, serrano, poblano, pequin, habanero, ghost, Trinidad scorpion
- Chop your peppers. Puree them using a small food processor (use some vinegar to moisten the mash if you find that the pieces stick to the sides) and place them into a pot.
- Puree your peeled tomatoes and your garlic (if you’re using it) and add them to the mix.
- Grind the mustard seeds and the peppercorns with the food processor or with a mortar and pestle. Add ‘em along with your sea salts.
- Add the vinegar.
- Simmer for 20 minutes.
- Season to taste with additional sea salts, chipotle powder and garlic powder.
- Simmer for another 10 minutes or until the sauce reaches your preferred consistency. Spoon it into clean self-sealing jars.