There are a lot of things out in the world to which people become addicted, but hot sauce isn’t one that we often list. Spicy peppers, however, are addictive, and as a southern Louisiana native, I have long required some at the breakfast, lunch, and dinner table.
Hot peppers, a specific type of capsicum, are loaded with capsaicin. Capsaicin doesn’t actually taste hot, but it provides a sensation that suggests it, fooling our mouths into perceiving spicy peppers as something like fire. These compounds interact with a particular protein—TRPV1—in our bodies that signals heat to our brains.
To prove the point, if anyone has, as I recently have, processed habanero peppers without proper precautionary hand protection, the sensation of fire is definitely present long before any pepper has been eaten. In other words, it’s not about taste buds. Going to the bathroom with peppery hands will drive this point home even more convincingly.
Amazingly, this sensation of being burned right in the mouth is what makes hot sauce and/or spicy food addictive. Torching our tongues triggers the response from TRPV1 proteins, which signal our brains to respond, and our brains release endorphins to relieve pain, as well as dopamine, which provides a euphoric feeling. This, in essence, is a natural high.
Not only do we want more of these feelings, but it’s not uncommon, as with this author, to continually up the ante for a larger response. That’s how and why some of us plow through a curry, sweat pouring out of our ear lobes, our noses running like faulty nozzles, and swear all the while that the meal is amazing. We truly mean it. We are riding high on heat.
All of this is to say, dear readers, that I want to share my love of peppers and hot sauce with you. In doing so, I’ll provide the occasional interesting tidbit about peppers interspersed with some simple homemade hot sauce recipes that have made my life so much more complete.
Hot Sauce History
Chilies date back some 100,000 years, with evidence of cultivation in South America about 6,000-7,000 years ago. This makes chilies amongst the first plants cultivated by humans. They were only introduced to Europe after colonisation and were reportedly named “peppers” because Columbus thought he’d discovered a new type of black pepper. Despite the mistake, peppers were a hit back in Europe and, ultimately, throughout the world.
Hot sauce went commercial in the 1800’s, starting in Massachusetts and reaching its historic peak when Edmund McIlhenny got into cultivating tabasco peppers on Avery Island, in my home state of Louisiana. Thus, Tabasco sauce—still grown on the same island—was born. Nearly 150 years later, I grew up with Tabasco as ubiquitous as salt and pepper on the table. Even though I love making my own hot sauces now, every so often, particularly with Cajun dishes like gumbo or jambalaya, Tabasco sauce just feels irreplaceable.
Nowadays, there are new challengers in the big-brand hot sauce market, particularly Sriracha (also deliciously distinctive). There are also any number of small batch options, typically named after the devil, hell, volcanoes, or lava. What’s more, there is a constant influx of newer, hotter peppers with which to, it-hurts-so-good, torture ourselves. Habaneros, which are still my favourite for hot sauce, don’t even crack the hottest 25 list anymore.
Toasty Roasted Pepper Hot Sauce (Mild)
I first started making my own hot sauces while a cook at a guesthouse in Guatemala called Earth Lodge. The basics of the original formula I concocted there—plenty other formulas were born in that tiny kitchen—has remained a favourite hot sauce for our kitchen table. Here’s what happened:
- It starts with about a dozen peppers, which would usually be jalapeños with an occasional 2-3 habaneros tossed in. I’d roast these whole with an onion cut in half, a few cloves of garlic, a carrot, and a dozen or more tomatillos. When the peppers started to shrivel and brown on the bottom, I’d take the veggies out of the oven and let them cool.
- This roasted mixture was then blended in a food processor, and I would add a spoon of yellow mustard, half a cup of vinegar, a couple spoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Water can be added to make it a little saucier. This creates a hot sauce that’s chunky and spooned onto food rather than squirted from a bottle.
- Because roasting the peppers subdues a lot of the spiciness, I’d often add a few raw peppers to the hot sauce to make it hotter. Earth Lodge hot sauces have a reputation for being functionally eye-popping. However, for those unaccustomed to spicy food, the straight-up roasted pepper hot sauce is a good place to start.
Removing the heat from peppers isn’t all that hard. In the above recipe, roasting definitely takes out some of the heat. Classically, the innards of the pepper—seeds, veins, and pith—are scraped away, carrying with them that capsaicin that suggests heat and significantly reducing the sear. Of course, a lot of spice will depend on the pepper in the first place: habanero peppers are wicked hot, and jalapeños are recognised as mild (probably a bit of a downgrade from the heated reality), whereas Anaheim or Poblano peppers are barely tongue-tingling. Lastly, cut peppers can either be rinsed (losing important flavour) under the faucet or soaked in a solution of water (3 parts) and vinegar (1 part).
Raw Food Hot Sauce
This recipe later evolved when my wife Emma and I were 1) living without an oven and 2) looking to incorporate more raw food into our diets. We deleted a few ingredients, took the cooking out of the equation, and came up with the bare-bones recipe that stays with us today. This is the hot sauce friends and family look forward to when visiting us. Emma, a Brit who had little tolerance for spice when we met, now champions this sauce and keeps the jar full. This version is significantly hotter than the roasted version, but the roasted version undoubtedly has a nice element of flavour that’s missing in the raw version.
- Again, this begins with about a dozen peppers, typically jalapeños and/or habaneros for us. That’s what came from the garden this year, but we’ve tried plenty of other, regionally beloved peppers over the years. We include half an onion, 3-4 cloves of garlic, and a carrot as staple ingredients in the recipe.
- Like the roasted hot sauce, these raw ingredients are thrown into a food processor and liquified with vinegar (we like to go with our homemade apple cider vinegar now), a little oil, some water, and whatever seasonings. Lately, we’ve taken to a shake or two of chipotle for smokiness and additional spice.
- When feeling experimental or taking advantage of seasonal ingredients, we may add fruit—mangoes and pineapples when we lived in Panama, peaches in North Carolina—or something like tomatoes. Fresh herbs make a good addition as well. Honestly, though, the flavouring gimmicks don’t excite us as much as the straight up hot sauce.
There are a lot of health benefits found in hot peppers, particularly raw peppers. Many of the beneficial compounds in them are lost, ironically, when exposed to high temperatures. Peppers are packed with vitamin C, far more than in citrus fruits, and this helps boost the immune system and has anti-inflammatory characteristics that pacify arthritis and joint pain. Peppers also help with circulation, can be used topically for sore muscles, and somewhat surprisingly help with intestinal issues. Capsaicin has also been found to fight cancer, causing prostate cancer cells to “commit suicide”. Perhaps the most obvious, sometimes unavoidable, benefit is clearing sinuses.
Fermented Hot Sauce
Most recently, I’ve experimented with fermenting my hot sauces, which provides both the raw-food nutritive qualities as well as the probiotics associated with fermented foods. While I love that hot sauce has now become something healthy to have, the truth is that I’m chasing the dragon here. Fermented hot sauces have increased the heat because they are little more than peppers, salt, garlic (optional), and water.
- It begins with a brine. This is a mixture of 1 cup of purified water to ½ tbsp of sea salt. I double these amounts because I use a lot of hot sauce, but this ratio gives a brine of adequate salinity for fermenting successfully. The brine is heated such that the salt dissolves into the water, and that is allowed to cool (to avoid killing the beneficial bacteria) before adding to the peppers.
- I make fermented hot sauce in a quart-sized Mason jar. I dice the peppers into very small chunks, filling the jar a little over halfway with them. (The smaller the chunks, the more concentrated the peppers.) Thinly sliced cloves of garlic (2) provided a little more flavour. Once the brine is cooled, it’s poured over the diced peppers.
3. The mouth of the jar is covered with breathable fabric to keep bugs out but allow air in, and the hot sauce is fermented on the kitchen counter, out of direct sun, for at least three days. After the first day, if things are going well, it should start to bubble. I stir it twice a day during this process.
4. The fermented mixture is then liquified in a blender or food processor. The remaining bits of pepper can be strained out to make a water-y sauce, a la Tabasco, or I prefer to keep the bits of pepper around for a creamier sauce and additional heat.
Though the ingredient list for the fermented hot sauce is significantly shorter (something that usually excites me), fermentation has the magic ability not only to preserve natural and add probiotic health benefits but also enrich the complexity of flavour. Admittedly, I’m “high” on this hot sauce right now because my last batch has scared everyone else away, leaving it all to me, but for those who are ready for such things, it definitely has more than just Scoville points. It’s tasty stuff.