Let’s face it. We like our hot sauces hot. So hot that they singe our tongues like a trailing flame or erupt in our throats and tease out desperate coughs. Perhaps it’s for the chiles’ healing properties that we’re so rapacious in our consumption of them. Pre-Columbians, after all, used them to cure sore throats and ear infections. But maybe our masochism traces back to the use of chiles for wartime torture. Like combat training, our submission to chile burn builds our fortitude for pain.
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Pungency defines hot sauces, a word that connoisseurs prefer over others, like “spiciness” and “bite.” Makers often name their salsas for their chile strength, constantly upping the ante for the top of the heat. Chiles — call them capsicums, pimenta, aji, peppers, whatever — supply this vital burn.
Generally, the smallest chiles rank the hottest. Eaten raw and unadorned, chiles such as tepin and pequin will knock you out flat. Capsaicin, an odourless, tasteless, water-insoluble compound in a chile’s seeds and veins, is responsible for this heat.
The Scoville Organoleptic Test measures the pungency of each chile according to its heat effect on test subjects’ tongues. A bell pepper tests at zero Scoville units; the habanero measures near 300,000. Many Thai pastes and sauces will use the whole chile, retaining all its potency; Mexican and Tex-Mex sauces often will not.
Gloves and tweezers assist cautious cooks who choose to scrape out a chile’s insides. Their kitchen first-aid kit might contain bleach for scrubbing burning hands and milk for taming scorched tongues.
The chili defies easy classification for the average cook. We see just about a dozen of the more than 200 varieties on our grocery shelves. Still, these constitute an impressive selection: the jalapeno, chipotle, serrano, ancho, pasilla, Thai, bird, habanero, banana, poblano, cascabel, cayenne, and, of course, the tame bell pepper.
Their colours vary from burnt sienna and coffee to various shades of grass green. They may be smooth like tomatoes or fat, rough, and long like a carrot. They resemble knuckles, claws, teardrops, flowers, brains, apples, worms, and spaceships. And their flavours range from near-acidic to sweet.
One chile’s “rapid bite” burn smacks you at the back of your throat; another’s long, low-intensity sizzle lays on the center of your tongue. With factors such as climate and age affecting chile flavour, pungency varies even within one type.
Within the wide assortment of chiles, aficionados divide them into two types: green and red. All chiles begin green and ripen into shades of the sun, from neon yellow-orange to lipstick red to asphalt black. Some chiles transform enough maturity to warrant name changes: the mildly hot, forest-green poblano ages to a shade of tomato-red and gets smoke-dried into an ancho. We find green chiles used raw, like the serrano, and minced for pico de gallo.
Or we taste jalapenos in a sugary brine to create our ever popular Candied Menace.
Red chiles are usually dried, sometimes toasted, and, for hot sauce use, either ground into powder, flaked, or rehydrated and puréed into a paste. The nouveau-chic chipotle (a smoked-dried jalapeno) requires this last kind of preparation for use. Technically, you could divide all the shades of salsa into either red or green. Hence, salsa verde would not have to look green; it would simply use green chile.
The Heat From Chilis And Hot Sauce
Austin’s year-round chile stock inspires a collection of local hot sauces that rivals any store’s inventory of pasta and soy sauces combined. Serranos and jalapenos are the hot sauce building blocks; many salsas rely on their crisp, fresh heat. Chipotles and anchos find their way into current specialty salsas and impart a deep, smoky flavour that reminds me of winter. Habanero, a sickeningly hot chile the size of a crabapple and colour of intense sun, remains at the pinnacle of popularity in local recipes. Though used sparingly – often to boost the heat of other base chiles – the habanero poses a challenge to all but the most diehard chile fans. Usually, the flavour payoff is excellent.
Why Hot Sauce Is So Popular
Of course, with the heat on the mind, it’s easy to forget how well chiles hold together a hot sauce. They bleed into kinds of vinegar and cling to fresh herbs. Green chiles wake up the occasionally unripe tomato, help pronounce the sweetness in fruit, and go to bat against the rawest onion. Red chiles sneak up on you and linger about like a savoury perfume.
Each hot sauce leaves a chile stamp, a heat memory, which teases us to the level of near addiction. We’ll consume a basket of chips, trying to match a salsa’s fleeting taste with the scant remnants of the afterburn. So chiles don’t just punctuate salsa. They make a defining flavour statement, transforming a humble chopped salad into something of substance and charm. However, they’re cloaked by tomatoes, fruits, onions, and herbs and impart the immodest style.