Friday, January 31, 2014

Flavor Profile: Hot Sauces

Apparently I have entered a stage in life where food just can't have too much punch. I crave salt, pepper, lots of herbs, spice. When bland food is booooring I find a way to take it up a notch.

Sometimes just a little kick can take a dish from ordinary to extraordinary. And sometimes that little something is hot sauce.

Hot sauce refers to any spicy sauce condiment made primarily from chili peppers. Tabasco sauce is the earliest recognizable brand in the U.S. hot sauce industry. It appeared on the scene in 1868 and became synonymous with the term "hot sauce".

But there are endless recipes for hot sauce. Many are made by using chili peppers as the base and can be as simple as adding salt and vinegar, while other sauces use some type of fruit or vegetable as the base and add the chili peppers to make them hot. Manufacturers use a variety of different processes including aging in containers, pureeing and cooking the ingredients to achieve a desired flavor and "kick".

By the way, it's the capsaicinoids that are the chemicals responsible for the "hot" taste of chili peppers. They are fat soluble, therefore water will be of no assistance when countering the burn. The most effective way to relieve the burning sensation is with dairy products, such as milk and yogurt. A protein called casein occurs in dairy products which binds to the capsaicin, effectively making it less available to "burn" the mouth, and the milk fat helps keep it in suspension. Rice is also useful for ameliorating the impact, especially when it is included with a mouthful of the hot food. These foods are typically included in the cuisine of cultures that specialize in the use of chilis.

So now you have no excuse for not trying hot sauces - you at least know how to extinguish the flames! But which ones to try?

It's overwhelming, the choice, really. Surely you've seen the stores that sell oodles of them, each one having a funnier (and scarier) name than the next. Why not take a chance and try "Nuclear Hell", "Spontaneous Combustion", or my favorite, "Butt Twister"? 

There are literally thousands of brands of hot sauce on the market and from nearly every continent (Mexico, the U.S., West Indies, Asia, Africa, Europe, the Pacific Islands and New Zealand). 

Today I'm going to focus on a few that I particularly enjoy, in order of spiciness. I realize that mentioning how I perceive spiciness will likely be of no help to you, because spice is really relative. Everyone perceives what's spicy differently. But nevertheless, I've gotta start somewhere.

Tabasco Green Pepper Sauce (U.S.)

Personally, I like this version better than the red variety that's so ubiquitous. The green one is great in homemade guacamole. Just a few drops in a bowl of mashed avocado, chopped tomato, chopped cilantro, diced onion and lime juice will add a nice citrusy note to dip your tortilla chips into. I don't think this is really spicy at all. Green peppers are usually not as hot as red anyway.

Cholula (Mexico)

This is a delicious hot sauce which adds a bit of spice. When I'm in the mood for a little kick on a burrito, I'll add a few drops of this to each bite (yes, each bite). I don't think this is that spicy either but rather adds a little vinegary note, which I think is great on refried beans. It comes in a few different varieties, as you can see from the photo. I've tried the regular and chipotle variety, the latter of which is very tasty.

Iguana Deuces Chipotle Pepper Sauce (Costa Rica)

Even better than the Cholula Chipotle sauce is this one, in my opinion. I recently had it at Café Rio, a favorite restaurant of mine.

Chipotle chilis are smoked and that adds great flavor to Mexican dishes such as beans, burritos, tacos, whatever, with just a little more kick than the Cholula. I love chipotles.

Iguana makes a ton of hot sauces which you can buy by the case load, should you wish.

Sriracha (Thailand and the U.S.)

Sriracha is a type of hot sauce made from a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. It is named after the coastal city of Si Racha, in the Chonburi Province of Eastern Thailand, where it is frequently used as a dipping sauce, particularly for seafood.

In Vietnamese cuisine, it appears as a condiment for pho, fried noodles, a topping for spring rolls, and in sauces. It is ubiquitous in Vietnamese pho restaurants and sits on every table along with the Hoisin sauce. Sriracha is also eaten on soup, eggs, and burgers.

Sriracha enjoys an almost cult-like following among its fans. And this stuff is spicy!

So, live a little and try a new hot sauce. It needn't take the wallpaper off the walls. You can experiment with different kinds to see which one you like best. If you like 'em milder so you can still taste your food, there are many that won't peel paint. If you like to burn your esophagus, there are certainly enough of the "Butt Twisters" out there for you to try. The thing is, be bold. Try something new.

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