Maybe it's the sense of danger that reels you in at first. The crazy name, the wild picture 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 p ackaged 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.
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It's amazingly simple. A purée of chilies and salt, thinned perhaps with vinegar or water, maybe a secret ingredient or blend of spices thrown in. Voilà.
For a quick Sriracha-type sauce, take a pound of fresh red chilies — red Fresnos and jalapeños generally can be found year-round — and mash them with fresh garlic and salt, a touch of sugar and vinegar. A little love on the stovetop — simmering the mash helps to marry the flavors — then blend and strain the sauce, thinning as desired with water. The sauce literally comes together in minutes (as opposed to fermented hot sauces, which can take days, or longer, to make). And while it tastes good right away, it gets even better after a day or two in the fridge.
Play around with the sauce to personalize it to your tastes, changing up chilies and flavorings. For a Caribbean jerk-inspired hot sauce, use the same method but switch out the Fresnos for Scotch bonnets or habaneros, rounding out the flavors with fresh ginger and green onion, lime, a blend of spices and a touch of dark rum. Playfully sweet and fruity at first, the heat will sneak up on you in the most wonderful way.
The variations are endless. Probably the hardest part to a great homemade hot sauce is giving your wonderfully potent creation a fitting name. I call mine Shock in a Bottle.
This sauce should be prepared in a well-ventilated area.
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 to 12 cloves garlic
¼ to 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 chilies 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, being careful not to burn them (burning the chilies will make them bitter). Repeat until all of 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. Cover with boiling water. Weight the chilies with a plate to keep them submerged; set aside for 15 minutes until chilies are softened.
Remove chilies from water (reserve water) and place them in a blender. Add garlic, cloves, oregano, cumin, salt, cider vinegar, 2 cups soaking water (taste the water before using, and if it tastes bitter, use plain water) and oil.
Purée sauce until it is completely smooth, adding water as needed to thin. Taste sauce — the flavors will vary with each batch of chilies — and adjust flavorings and seasonings to taste (sweeten if desired with a little sugar).
Using a very fine mesh strainer or chinois, strain sauce into a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk in additional water to thin as desired. Bring sauce to a simmer and stir frequently for 3 to 5 minutes to marry flavors, then remove from heat. Pour sauce into a glass jar or bottle, cover and refrigerate. Makes about 1 quart hot sauce.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 18 calories, 1 g. protein, 2 g. carbohydrates, 0 fiber, 1 g. fat, 0 cholesterol, 0 sugar, 74 mg. sodium.
This sauce should be prepared in a well-ventilated area and is best made at least 1 to 2 days before using. Cane vinegar and palm sugar may be found at select well-stocked cooking stores, as well as Asian markets.
Sriracha-style hot sauce
1 pound mixed fresh red chilies (such as red Fresnos or jalapeños), stemmed and chopped
2 to 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 bowl of food processor, pulse together all ingredients to form a coarse paste.
Transfer mixture to non-reactive saucepan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until aroma softens or mellows a bit, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Blend sauce again to form a smooth paste, thinning as desired with water.
Strain sauce, pressing the solids through a fine mesh strainer with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Taste sauce and tweak flavors as desired with additional salt, sugar or vinegar. Put sauce in glass jar or bottle and cool completely. Refrigerate until needed. Makes about 1½ cups.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 13 calories, 0 protein, 3 g. carbohydrates, 0 fiber, 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 2 g. sugar, 133 mg. sodium.