By Don Lesser
There are three families of bottled hot sauces: chili pepper-salt-vinegar combos, like Frank’s or Texas Pete; fermented hot sauces, like Tabasco; and flavored hot sauces, like sriracha or Melinda’s. About six years ago, I set out to make my own hot sauce using local peppers. It’s taken a number of batches, but I’ve settled on the recipes that work well.
The basic technique is pretty simple: Simmer chopped hot peppers—cayenne, Serrano, jalapeño—in vinegar and salt, pass them through a food mill to remove the skins and seeds, and thin the resulting purée with enough vinegar to get the texture you like. You can use either green or red peppers, but any amount of green peppers results in an olive-drab color that is not very appealing. McIlhenny, the makers of Tabasco, reportedly have a red stick, a baton rouge, that they used to select peppers of the proper bright color.
For a sriracha-style sauce, add garlic and sugar to the simmering mash. A Melinda’s-style sauce includes shredded carrots and habaneros. Once you have the basic technique down, you can experiment with ingredients until you have created your own unique blend. You can always raise the heat level (see the sidebar for a discussion of Scoville units) by adding one or two habanero peppers to the mash.
I keep my pepper mash in the refrigerator for several months before finishing and bottling it. The aging helps the flavors meld and mutes the bite of the vinegar. If you start the sauce in September, it will be ready for gift-giving by December. I also keep my finished sauce in the refrigerator; the salt and vinegar are preservatives and the sauce will keep for months, but the cold keeps the color nice and bright. The sriracha-style sauce stiffens and separates after a month, so I consider it a fresh sauce, best used soon after it is are made.
I’m not as fond of the taste of fermented sauces, but I’ve experimented with them enough to see the key problem is keeping a white mold from forming on the mash. McIlhenny seals its mash in barrels with holes bored in the top and covered with mesh. A two-inch layer of rock salt over the mesh keeps mold spores and insects out. You can approximate this with a French press: put the mash in the press, layer rock salt on top of the plunger and make sure to leave enough space between the mash and the plunger to keep the salt dry. Leave the mash in a dark, not-too-hot place to ferment. Bubbles will form on the side of the mash. When they stop forming, after a week or so, the mash is ready. McIlhenny ages its mash for two years for Tabasco.
Born in Queens, NY, Don Lesser came to the Pioneer Valley for an MFA in fiction in 1977. He has spent the last 30+ years living, cooking, and writing here. He currently lives in Amherst. He can be contacted via russelnod.com.