Maybe it’s the sense of danger that reels you in at first. The crazy name, the wild picture slapped on the bottle. Before you know it, you’re on for the ride, and the best ones leave you reduced to a sweaty and speechless mess. When it’s finally over, you can’t help but want more.
I’m talking about hot sauce, a virtual thrill ride for the taste buds. And for fans, nothing beats the feeling.
So what makes hot sauce so attractive? Blame it on the capsaicin, the chemical behind a chili’s heat. When you eat hot sauce, or any chili-spiced foods, your mouth reacts to the capsaicin as if it’s in pain, signaling the brain. Your body responds by releasing endorphins, much like it does with laughter, chocolate, stress and sex.
Pleasure and pain, conveniently packaged in a bottle. All I know is I can’t get enough of the stuff. I have a collection at home and drizzle at least one sauce – more often two – over everything. A sure sign of a junkie, lately I’ve even taken to making my own.
It’s amazingly simple. A puree of chilies and salt, thinned perhaps with vinegar or water, maybe a secret ingredient or blend of spices thrown in for good measure. Voila.
The variations are endless. Probably the hardest part to a great homemade hot sauce is giving your wonderfully potent creation a fitting name. I simply call mine “Shock in a Bottle.”
Sriracha-Style Hot Sauce
1 pound mixed fresh red chilies (such as red Fresnos or jalapenos), stemmed and chopped
2-4 cloves garlic
¼ cup cane or rice vinegar
1½ teaspoons sea salt, more if desired
2 tablespoons palm or light brown sugar, more if desired
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the chilies, garlic, vinegar, salt and sugar to form a coarse paste.
Transfer the mixture to a nonreactive saucepan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the aroma softens or mellows a bit, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Blend the sauce again to form a smooth paste, thinning as desired with water.
Strain the sauce, pressing the solids through a fine mesh strainer with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Taste the sauce, and tweak the flavors as desired with additional salt, sugar or vinegar. Remove the sauce to a glass jar or bottle and cool completely. Refrigerate until needed.
Makes about 1½ cups.
Note: This sauce should be prepared in a well-ventilated area and is best prepared at least 1 to 2 days before using. Cane vinegar and palm sugar can be found at select well-stocked cooking stores, as well as Asian markets.
Four-Pepper Hot Sauce
3 ounces dried New Mexico chilies
1½ ounces dried ancho chilies
1 ounce dried arbol chilies
½ ounce dried pequin chilies
8-12 cloves garlic
¼-½ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons toasted whole cumin seeds, ground
2 teaspoons salt, more as desired
1 cup cider vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
Bring a kettle or large saucepan of water to boil.
Meanwhile, heat a large comal or skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Place a few chiles on the comal at a time, gently pressing to flatten. Leave the chilies just until aromatic, a few seconds, then turn them over and heat again until aromatic, careful not to burn (burning the chilies will make them bitter). Repeat until all of the chilies are heated; for the smaller chilies, shake them briefly in the comal to warm.
Stem the chilies and place them in a large bowl. Pour over boiling water to cover. Weight the chilies with a plate to keep them submerged, and set aside for 15 minutes until they are softened.
Remove the chilies from the soaking water (reserve the water) and place them in a blender. Add the garlic, cloves, oregano, cumin seeds and salt, along with the cider vinegar, 2 cups soaking water (taste the soaking water before using, and if it tastes bitter, use plain water) and the oil.
Puree the sauce until it is completely smooth, adding water as needed to thin. Taste the sauce – the flavors will vary with each batch of chilies – and adjust the flavorings and seasonings to taste (sweeten if desired with a little sugar).
Using a very fine mesh strainer or chinois, strain the sauce into a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk in additional water to thin as desired. Bring the sauce to a simmer and stir frequently for 3 to 5 minutes to marry the flavors, then remove from heat. Pour the sauce into a glass jar or bottle, cover and refrigerate.
Makes about 1 quart.
Note: This sauce should be prepared in a well-ventilated area.
Caribbean Jerk-Style Hot Sauce
1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1½ teaspoons ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons salt
¼ cup muscovado or dark brown sugar
6-9 Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers, stemmed and chopped
4 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 bunches scallions, chopped (green and white parts)
Zest and juice of 4 limes
¼ cup distilled white vinegar
¼ cup dark rum
¼ cup oil
½ to 1 cup water
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the pepper, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, salt, sugar, peppers, garlic, ginger, scallions, lime zest and juice, vinegar, rum and oil. Pulse a few times to form a coarse paste.
Transfer the mixture to a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, to marry the flavors.
Remove from heat. Place the mixture back in a food processor or blender and blend to form a smooth sauce, thinning as desired with one-half to 1 cup water. Strain if desired. To store, refrigerate the sauce in a covered glass bottle or jar.
Makes about 3 cups.
Note: The sauce should be prepared in a well-ventilated area. Muscovado sugar can be found at most cooking and baking supply stores. Wear gloves while chopping the peppers because the heat in the oils can sting your hands. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling the peppers.