Skip to Content

Hot Sauces and Foods

America is in love with heat: piquant flavorings from hot chile peppers form the base of dozens of food offerings and literally hundreds of hot sauces. Several types of fruits and spices are called “pepper” around the world, but the fruits that get a hot food buff really excited are invariably of the capsicum family. The “heat” caused by the chemical capsaicin is claimed by many to cause the brain to release pleasurable endorphins (and even be addictive), but good chile peppers also provide complex flavor combinations.

Though chiles are now grown and enjoyed all over the world, the original plants were known only in Central and South America. In the 16th century, the Spanish brought chiles into what is now the southwestern United States; Spanish and Portuguese ships also spread chile cultivation rapidly around the globe, probably more rapidly than any other plant has ever spread. It is impossible to think of Szechwan, Hunan, Indian, or Thai cuisine without chiles, but there was a time when they were unknown in these cultures. Over the several centuries of worldwide chile cultivation and development, thousands of varieties have thrived, nearly all of which are available in some form in the United States.

The most commonly used method of determining chile pepper heat was pioneered by Wilbur Scoville in 1912, based on the number of times a given pepper extract had to be diluted in order not to burn the mouth. Scientific instruments have since been able to analyze the level of the active ingredient capsaicin very precisely, but Scoville Units are still used. The popular green or red bell pepper measures zero on the Scoville Scale. The hottest pepper ever recorded, a habanero, measured 577,000 Scoville Units. That level of heat is quite real, as any chef who has been too lazy to use surgical gloves before handling such a chile will readily attest.

One of the most popular hot peppers enjoyed on its own as well as in sauce in the United States is the jalapeño, a fat dark green pepper about three inches long that gives moderate heat, from 2500 on the Scoville Scale. Jalapeño bits are added to make pepper jack cheese and other widely sold commercial products, or tossed onto cheeseburgers to add some extra punch. Batter fried jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese are a popular bar snack. Sliced jalapeños are essential for the popular nachos, are a common salad bar offering, and frequently find their way into the dip salsa (which has recently dethroned ketchup as the most popular condiment in the United States).

The jalapeño gets far more serious in terms of both flavor and heat when it is dried, smoked and turned into the chipotle, which is commonly ground into a powder for use in cooking. Chipotle flavors are turning up in both fast food and in the more elegant American contemporary cuisine, as well as in commercially produced products like dips and salsas.

New Mexico chiles, while not particularly hot (500-2500 on the Scoville Scale) are prized for their unique depth of flavor. While they are descended from strains brought to New Mexico from Mexico in the seventeenth century, present cultivars are the result of concerted development efforts over many decades on the part of universities and the agricultural industry. Roasted “Hatch” chiles, named for the southwestern New Mexican agricultural town where an annual chile festival is held every year, are particularly prized.

Another type of relatively mild chile that is widely used, especially in Mexican cuisine and its American variants, is the poblano. The dried poblano is called the ancho. Poblanos are large and rather plump, hence when roasted and peeled they make an excellent vehicle for the popular stuffed chiles rellenos. The ancho when ground is an important spice in the Mexican chocolate-based mole sauce.

Habanero peppers have a Caribbean connection; they typical run from 80,000 to 150,000 Scoville Units, and hence they are rarely consumed in their unprocessed state, except on a dare. They have many relatives, including the distinctive Datil peppers of Florida (at 40,000 Scoville Units, a relative lightweight) and the ultra-potent Scotch Bonnet, a key component of Jamaican “jerk” seasoning.

The American taste for heat expresses itself in hundreds of condiment and cooking sauces. Since Americans have a taste for many imported cuisines known for heat—Szechwan, Hunan, Thai, Jamaican, Indian—they provide a market for a wide range of imported sauces. Cooks and diners in the American south have always considered hot sauce at least an option, but heat is known in other American regional cuisines as well.

Hot sauces may be sweet, vinegary, concentrated for use by the drop as a cooking ingredient, spoon-able for use as a condiment, or designed for barbecue or basting meats. They are available at every conceivable level of heat. Gourmet sauces may specialize in a particular pepper or fermentation process. At many standard American restaurants and lunch counters, a bottle of hot sauce is available (at least on request) along with the salt, pepper, mustard and ketchup. Bars and specialty restaurants may offer dozens of varieties.

Though true Mexican cuisine is not always hot, the American perception is that it is; the Mexican hot sauce Cholula, with its distinctive wooden screw top, is popular throughout the country; Melissa’s and several other Mexican brands also sell well.

A great number of hot sauces are made in, or are associated with, the state of Louisiana, famous for its spicy Cajun cuisine. The most prominent is Tabasco, produced for more than a hundred years by the McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana, a potent sauce, used by the drop rather than the spoonful, that conveys concentrated heat (9,000-12,000 Scoville Units) with a substantial finish. The company has been successful not only in protecting its Tabasco trademark, but in marketing its distinctive logo on products as diverse as T-shirts, aprons, potholders and refrigerator magnets.

Newer sauces—and they keep coming—compete under product names often designed to stimulate, shock, or associate the product with a spiritual or other worldly experience. Some examples: Venom, Acid Rain, Pain is Good, Arizona Gunslinger, Blair’s Original Death Hot Sauce (complete with complementary skull key chain), Endorphin Rush, Atlanta Burning, Spontaneous Combustion, Liquid Lava, Temporary Insanity, Pyromania, Scorned Woman, Tears of Joy, Toad Sweat, You Can’t Handle This, Mad Dog, Possible Side Effects, Psycho Sauce, Pure Poison, Widow-No Survivors, and hundreds of other varieties. These and many more can be tasted and compared at the Annual Fiery-Foods and Barbecue show in Albuquerque, New Mexico.