If variety is the spice of life, hot sauce must be the jewel in variety’s crown. Ever since the first chemical cascade of endorphins flooded early man’s brain after biting into what he thought was a pickle, the antioxidant-rich pepper has found its way into the food of almost every civilization, from the ancient Aztecs to twenty-first century Asians.
Besides adding peppers to dishes, such as soups, stews and meats, culinary connoisseurs puree peppers–with and without an assortment of piquant ingredients–to develop some of the world’s finest hot sauces. Usually bottled in containers with miniscule opening to prevent over-saturating with the explosive potion, hot sauce is not difficult to make at home. In fact, with these five important tips, you can make hot sauce in your own kitchen that rivals the top shelf blends found in the best cantinas.
- Protect yourself. The active ingredient in peppers is capsaicin, a compound that produces burning when it comes into contact with human tissue. Capsaicin gives peppers their punch. Wear gloves when handling peppers and wash your hands immediately to prevent transferring the irritant to your eyes, nose or lips. The juice and oils from the peppers can soak into your skin and burn for hours. If you get juice or oil on your skin, make a thick paste with baking soda and water and scrub the affected area. If you get juice or oil in your eyes, rinse with cool water until the burning stops.
- Use the right pepper. Peppers come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and spiciness. A pepper’s spiciness is determined by its genetics and the environment in which it was grown. Peppers grown in stressful conditions produce a hotter flavor. Pepper heat is rated using the Scoville scale. For milder sauce, use a pepper with a lower Scoville rating, such as NuMex Primavera (1,000); for a medium heat, choose jalapeno (5,500) or cayenne (8,500) and for a more intense heat, choose tabasco (120,000) or habanero peppers (150,000). The hottest pepper on the scale is the red habanero, although heat levels can vary among cultivars.
Different peppers will also yield different flavors. Some red varieties are sweeter than their green counterparts. Experiment with different kinds and colors to find a flavor you like.
- Use the best ingredients. You’ll want to choose ripe–but not mushy–peppers. If you are unsure about the quality and age of a pepper, speak to a grocer. Ideally, peppers should be deep in color (yellow, orange, red or green) and have smooth, shiny skin. The peppers should not show any signs of disease or decomposition. While peppers are the main ingredient in most hot sauces, the quality of the other ingredients can make or break a sauce. Whenever possible, opt for fresh over dried, canned or frozen ingredients. Some popular add-ins include garlic, mango, onion, oranges, cranberries and sugar. Most serious sauce aficionados swear by the simple recipe of ripe peppers, salt and vinegar.
- To seed or not to seed. Because the majority of the heat in a pepper comes from the membranes that connect the seeds to the flesh, some chefs like to include some of the seeds in their recipes. If you want a smooth, creamy sauce, omit the seeds. If you are looking for a chunky, bold, salsa-like hot sauce, you can leave some of the seeds in the recipe.
- Use proper bottling techniques. Whenever you cook food at home, you must be careful to can or bottle it safely. If not, the food can rot and develop botulism, a rare but deadly bacterium that can grow in home-canned foods. Because most hot sauce recipes call for acidic ingredients, such as vinegar, the risk is low, but properly sterilizing and bottling your sauce can preserve the integrity and safety of the food. Boiling bottles and sealing them tightly can help prevent spoilage. Store hot sauce in the refrigerator.
With a few simple ingredients, you can create a variety of delicious sauces. One of our favorite basic hot sauce recipes simply calls for 3 cups of distilled white vinegar, 2 lbs of mild to medium peppers, seeded and chopped, and 2 teaspoons of salt. Simply simmer the vinegar, salt and chopped peppers for about 5 minutes, then puree in a blender or food processor. Place in a sterile glass jar and seal tightly. You can use this blend immediately or store in a dark place for a stronger flavor.