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Unlike many other vegetables and fruits, hot chiles grow all over the world and consequently are found in many cuisines. Their oldest origin has been traced back 7,000 years, where remnants of chiles were found at prehistoric Peruvian burial grounds. More evidence of chile cultivation was found in Mexican cave dwellings dated 3400 b.c.e. and also among Southwestern Pueblo tribes from 900 c.e.
Chiles grew wild over all of South America, much of Mexico, and the southern tip of Texas. Birds expanded the sprawl of chiles even more. Birds are immune to capsicum, so when they ate these chiles, they carried the seeds and dispersed them far and wide. The chiles themselves were very easy to transport, so Columbus was able to return to Spain from the Americas with chiles, thereby introducing them to Europe, and Portuguese explorers introduced them to Asia. Today chile sauces belong to every continent on earth, and one can find signature hot sauces from cuisines all over the globe.
Each sauce has a few ingredients or methods that are indicative of its style. Some sauces reflect a combination of cultures and cuisines, but among the hundreds of traditional hot sauces, the following are some of the most recognizable. They are easy to find on grocery store shelves or to make yourself at home.
Louisiana-style hot sauce is known for its blend of red chiles, like tabasco chiles or cayenne peppers, which are combined with vinegar and salt and can be fermented for years to develop flavor. Brands like Crystal, Louisiana, Texas Pete, and Frank’s RedHot are among the most well known in this category. Perhaps the most ubiquitous Louisiana-style hot sauce is Tabasco, first produced in 1868 by Edmund McIlhenny on Avery Island, Louisiana. Today, the Tabasco brand has expanded from their original recipe to produce flavors like chipotle, green jalapeno, Buffalo, and habanero to compete with the expanding hot sauce market.
Called “pepper sauce,” hot sauces in the Caribbean islands are extremely spicy and often feature tropical fruits combined with very hot chiles, most notably the Scotch bonnet. This close cousin of the habanero pepper may also be called Bahama Mama, Scotty Bons, or Bonney pepper. This distinctive Caribbean ingredient is fresh, fruity, and one of the hottest chiles on record. It is found in jerk seasoning, a common flavoring found throughout the islands. Though most people use it as a marinade, jerk sauce is a condiment too. “Jerk” is also part of a method of barbecuing that dates back 1,200 years to the native Arawak Indians, originally from what is today Guyana, and to the Caribs from South America. They used a mixture of chiles, spices, and garlic rubbed onto their meat and then cooked it slowly over a hot wooden grate known as a barbacoa. Today dry jerk spice blends and jerk sauces are used for chicken, pork, goat, beef, and fish.
Fiery red may be the color most associated with hot sauce, but plenty of green sauces have a good amount of heat too. Many cuisines have their own version of salsa verde (which translates to “green sauce”), so the name can be confusing. Italians make it with fresh green herbs like parsley and basil, garlic, anchovies, capers, and olive oil. Argentine green sauce, or chimichurri, has parsley, vinegar, garlic, and oil and can have a little or a lot of red pepper flakes. There are also non-spicy versions in French and German cuisines. Latin and New Mexican green sauces, on the other hand, are spicier and contain green chiles like jalapenos, serrano, or poblanos. One popular brand, El Yucateco, uses green habaneros and has an assertive kick to it.
One of the most popular Asian hot sauces right now is Sriracha, which is named after the coastal city of Si Racha in Thailand. Most people in the United States are familiar with the Huy Fong recipe made by Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant David Tran, but in Thailand, Thanom Chakkapak concocted the original Sriraja Panich sauce in 1930. She meant it to be used as a spicy cocktail sauce to accompany the seafood diet eaten in the port town, but today the iconic bottle with the rooster and green top can be found on grocery store shelves and restaurant tables everywhere. The sweet, tangy, and spicy blend of red chiles, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt adorns anything from American foods like hot dogs and pizza to Asian dishes like chow mein and phở.
In the infinite category of Mexican hot sauces and salsas, you can find hundreds of combinations of a variety of chiles like chipotles, New Mexico red chiles, habaneros, and cascabel, along with earthy ingredients like tomatoes and pumpkin seeds.
There are also non-tomato-based hot sauces in Mexican cuisine. Cholula, a popular brand that is recognizable by its carved wooden cap, is produced just outside of Guadalajara in Mexico. The 100-year-old recipe is very closely guarded. It is a blend of arbol and pequin chiles, water, vinegar, spices, and salt and has a mildly spicy and tangy, yet balanced, flavor.
Harissa is a less commercially known hot sauce used mainly in Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian cuisine. It may include garlic, olive oil, and aromatic spices such as caraway, coriander, or cumin and can be mild or fiery depending on what kind of chiles are in the mix. It pairs well with its native North African cuisines as well as Mediterranean dishes. You can find it commercially in tubes, cans, or jars at well-stocked grocery stores or Middle Eastern markets, but spice levels vary wildly. A customized homemade version is easy to make and guarantees the right punch of heat.
Photo from Adobe Stock/Bart
10 Tips for Making Great Hot Sauce
- The spiciness of a chile can be estimated, but never guaranteed, so a good rule of thumb is that the smaller in size, the hotter the chile. However, remember that spice levels, even between two chiles grown on the same plant, can differ. That is why the Scoville scale offers a range.
- If you’re working with a variety of chiles for the first time and are worried about a too-spicy sauce, remove the seeds and the white membrances from the interior to lower the heat.
- When buying fresh chiles, look for ones that seem heavy for their size, with tight, shiny skin free of blemishes. To help them retain their moisture, wrap them in paper towels (not in plastic bags) and refrigerate.
- When buying dried chiles, look for softness and suppleness. Avoid dusty, cracked, or faded chiles. Store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark spot.
- If you do have dried chiles that have become brittle, put them in an airtight bag with a damp paper towel and seal the bag. Let them sit overnight, and the next day your chiles will be supple again.
- Vegetables vary in size, so stick to weight measurements when possible. If numerals are given, choose medium-sized produce for more accurate results.
- Remember that chlorinated water kills fermentation, so use purified water when called for in a recipe.
- Make sure you have all of your ingredients and equipment ready and read through the entire recipe before beginning. You don’t want to be surprised by a 2-week fermentation time or be caught without storage containers!
- Know that you can always add to the recipes but you can’t take away, so taste your sauces as you go and when you’ve finished preparing them. Add extra seasoning to suit your taste and make notes for next time.
- Get creative! Recipes are just the beginning. Mix your hot sauces with other condiments like mayo, honey, mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce, and salsa to make even more simple and easy spicy sauces. Stir them into soups, stews, or softened butter to add spice whenever and wherever you desire.
Also from The Hot Sauce Cookbook:
- Easy Aged Pepper Mash Recipe
- Bermudan Pepper Sherry Recipe
- Puerto Rican Pique Recipe
- Sriracha Recipe
More on creating your own hot sauces:
Excerpt from The Hot Sauce Cookbook: The Book of Fiery Salsa and Hot Sauce Recipes , published by Rockridge Press. Copyright © 2014 by Callisto Media. All rights reserved.