Hot sauce: 'If it's only about heat, what's the point?'

Bailey's Irish Scream. Psycho Soy. Devil's Tingle. You have to love hot sauce names -- the selection is never static.

If food writer David Rosengarten, who tracks the latest in food for Forbes and The Huffington Post, ever makes a hot sauce, he already has a name picked out: Dave's Mildly Disturbed Sauce.

[Ed. note: You can find some of Rosengarten's recipes, including his recipe for Individual Jalapeño Corn Bread Loaves, here.]

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: There are a thousand chile sauces out there. Is there really something new?

David Rosengarten
David Rosengarten

David Rosengarten: You know the way that Mark Miller, the famous Southwest chef, always felt about this? He felt chiles are like grape varieties -- every one has its own character. That's part of the game in the cult of hot sauce, definitely.

But in addition to that, there's also how you make the hot sauce. It is such a confusing subject. There's no simple way to get a grip on it. I think wine is less confusing.

There's salting the chiles or brining the chiles. There's cooking them or keeping them raw when you make the hot sauce. When do you mash them? How do you mash them? What happens next to the mash? How long is it kept? When do you strain it? Do you add anything to it: sugar, vinegar, spices? All these things have led to a world of manifold chiles and hot sauces.

LRK: What's new out there?

DR: I would say the most important thing going on right now is people are becoming aware that the varieties, the cabernets and the chardonnays of the chile world, really do make a difference in the kind of hot sauce that you have. Some people have been really using varietal chiles for a long time.

The world's most successful hot sauce is Tabasco. It began in Louisiana around the time of the Civil War. They decided to use one type of chile only that they were growing on Avery Island. That chile was called tabasco, and that's the name of the sauce.

No one ever thinks of it as a varietal expression. Actually, it's not exactly any longer because some other chiles are in the mix now. But really, it's funny that the first one in the U.S. that was so important actually was a varietal hot sauce.

But then other kinds of things came along. The whole Mexican world of hot sauce started to get popular in the U.S. These are usually not particularly hot and do not have as much vinegar as Tabasco; Tabasco has a lot of vinegar. The whole Latino world of hot sauce came along. Asian hot sauce came along. Sriracha sauce started in Thailand and is now super popular across the U.S.; it's a different kind of hot sauce.

Also, we went through a period -- probably in the 70s, 80s and 90s and it is still going on -- when if you made hot sauce, you had to be really macho about it. First of all, the names were usually based on thermonuclear war or insanity: Dave's Insanity Sauce!

LRK: That really exists?

DR: It really exists. I always said that if I ever do a hot sauce, I'm going to call it Dave's Mildly Disturbed Sauce.

If it's only about heat, what's the point? Is it a macho game? Is it a bar game? Or, is it something that really tastes good on your food?

LRK: What about these new varietals?

DR: The one varietal that is towering above all others now as a single varietal for hot sauce is habanero. Habanero is working for a couple reasons. First of all, yes, its heat is fairly high. The tabasco chile on the Scoville scale is about 5,000 Scoville units. Habanero is about 250,000 units. But in the world of today's chiles, that's relatively low. There was a discovery a couple of years ago of a chile that is 1 million Scoville units from northern India. Then there was a discovery of a chile in Trinidad that's 2 million Scoville units. So 250,000 for habanero now starts to seem kind of low.

But here's the thing about habanero: It has a wonderful, specific flavor. I'm quite sure I could pick it out in a blind tasting. It smells fruity. In addition to fruity, my image is always when I went to school and they would bring in boxes of cookies to go with milk, they're not great cookies, not great baking, but they've got this confectionery smell about them -- that's how I think a habanero smells.

I like it with dishes that have creamy elements. I make a Southwest Indian creamy chicken curry with some of this habanero in it and it's just fantastic.

It's not exactly a variety, but you see a lot of chipotle sauces. Chipotle is, of course, a smoked chile, usually a jalapeño. So in a sense it's a varietal, but there's a lot of that. It's very popular as well.

I'm working with Bob Henry in Virginia. For me, he's the best. He's got 10 or 12 varietals in his field. He's working hard to make sure that each of those varietals gets its own hot sauce.

For example, he found a variety of habanero that is from Africa. It's called the African Fatalii, and it is the most expressive habanero that I've ever had. It's hot, but it's a cool thing because the flavor of the habanero rides over the heat. It's just like what I always say about Indian food -- it's my favorite spicy food in the world because there are so many flavors in that food that ride over the heat.

Featured recipe

Top Recipes

Featured recipe