According to IBISworld.com Franks RedHot (McCormick), Tabasco® (Mcilhenny) and Sriracha (Huy Fong) are the three top selling hot sauce brands, maybe not in that order. If you read the ingredient labels there is a simplistic combination of ingredients; Peppers, vinegar and spices. Is it really that easy to make these hot sauces? How do you make one of the oldest hot sauces on the market, Tabasco® sauce?

Tabasco® brand sauce is made of tabasco peppers, salt and vinegar. The peppers are aged for three years in white oak barrels formerly used to age bourbon. To make Tabasco® sauce combine 5 ounces of Tabasco peppers, ¼ teaspoon of salt and 1 cup of distilled white vinegar. Bring the ingredients to a boil, simmer for 15 and then blend until smooth.

It takes a lot more effort to duplicate a sauce like Tabasco® the the above description. It reminds me of a comedy skit from Eddie Murphy where his mom makes homemade McDonalds hamburgers because all of his friends in the neighborhood are eating real McDonalds. Just not the same! Trade secrets play such a huge role in the way a product tastes so much that it really takes precedence over the ingredient combinations. Franks Red Hot, Tabasco® and Sriracha all have trade secrets that make their sauces stand out.

What are the trade secrets?

Trade secrets are the process that the company uses to combine the ingredients. These sauces are classic examples of trade secrets being the prominent reason each sauce has such a unique flavor to it. The vinegar used can certainly lend itself to offering some qualities that will make your sauce have exceptional taste and obviously so can the peppers but let’s look further into how they are combined.  The process that these sauces are made is kept under lock and key (literally) and anyone working on production will usually have to sign documentation stating they won’t share the methods.

I have included the recipes for each of the sauces below and have researched the reasons these brands of  sauces has such a unique flavor, but I don’t know if I can produce them in the kitchen exactly as they come out of the bottle. Beyond there ingredients it is the fermentation and aging

Sriracha

Unlike many hot sauces Huy Fong Sriracha brand sauce is not cooked. It is made into a mash (more on this below), combined with spices and put into drums. However, every homemade Sriracha hot sauce recipe that I have reviewed has a step for cooking.

The Sriracha recipe from Huy Fong stores the sauce in blue plastic 55-gallon drums but it is not aged as some other sauces are. The peppers used are only harvested once a year, mashed into a chili sauce and are stored in these containers to be sold throughout the year. They are then combined with garlic and sugar (this is part of their trade secret) and bottled.

Here is a Sriracha sauce recipe

1 lb of red jalapeno  peppers

½ pound red serrano  peppers

4 garlic cloves  

3 tablespoon light brown sugar  

1 tablespoon of salt  

1/3 cup water  

½ cup distilled white vinegar  

Here is the process for making it

  1. Remove stems, chop and add other ingredients except vinegar.
  2. Place in a jar at room temperature for one week. Open the lid to allow the fermentation process to “burp” every couple of days.  
  3. Strain brine (water contents…more on this below). Add vinegar and bring contents to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
  4.  Let cool and blend until smooth.
  5. Strain

Franks RedHot

Due to the simplicity of the ingredients, making all three of these sauces is very easy but duplicating the flavors is extremely complex. The key ingredient to Franks RedHot is “aged cayenne peppers” and it is the trade secret behind this process I would like to uncover. Flavors could vary with the amount of time they are stored (or aged), what they are stored in, where they are stored and any brine that may be used for storage as well. If you are an avid consumer of Franks RedHot you will notice a difference with the way this recipe taste (but it’s close).

Here is a great example of Franks RedHot recipe

20 cayenne peppers

½ cups distilled white vinegar

2 teaspoons of minced garlic

1 teaspoon of salt  

1 teaspoon garlic powder  

Here are the steps to making Franks RedHot Style hot sauce

  1. Remove stems, chop and add other ingredients except vinegar.
  2.  Place in a jar at room temperature for one week. Open the lid to allow fermentation to “burp” every couple of days.
  3. Strain brine (what is brine?…see below). Add vinegar and bring contents to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
  4. Let cool and blend until smooth.
  5.  Strain.

Tabasco®

The five-year process from farm to table is worth it but I am making a batch to take to a family gathering so I don’t have that long. After harvesting the pepper mash is aged in oak barrels for three years and this will have an 8% salt content in the mash.

Here is a great example of Tabasco® recipe

5 ounces of tabasco peppers

3 tablespoons sea salt

1 quart water

1 cup distilled white vinegar

Here are the steps to making a Tabasco® style hot sauce

  1. Remove stems, chop and add other ingredients except vinegar.
  2. Place in a jar at room temperature for one week. Open the lid to allow fermentation to “burp” every couple of days.  
  3. Strain brine and add vinegar. Bring contents to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
  4. Let cool and blend.
  5.  Strain

As mentioned, each of the recipes use the ingredients that each of these sauces use but there is so much more that goes into the production to include the fermentation and aging process.

Franks and Tabasco®

Both Franks and Tabasco® have their peppers imported. Some say it is the ground, soil and conditions that make the specialty flavor of a produce product but for these sauces it’s more of the aging process. The barrels that Tabasco® uses are former bourbon containers that have been re charred. Perhaps it is this re charring process that give the pepper mash its unique flavoring.

Before these peppers are put into these barrels and aged a mash is created. Refer to this simple rule in understanding the process – mash – ferment – age. Don’t over think it because it is all really part of the same process. However, during the aging process some manufacturers will transfer their products to other container types such as oak barrels. Before the peppers are fermented, they need to be made into a mash. You can ferment whole peppers, but Tabasco® will ferment their mash. I have no evidence that either one will produce different results.

How to ferment peppers

  1. Place peppers in a jar. Sliced, cut or slightly pulverized or mashed or whole but I would recommend at least 1” size pieces.
  2. Add a saltwater brine. 10% salt per pound of peppers.
  3. Peppers need to be completely submerged in the solution.
  4. Seal and store for 1 to 2 weeks in a dry cool place.

What is brine?

Brine is a salt and water mixture with a high concentration of salt. Brine is found naturally throughout the planet on the earth’s surface in salt lakes and in concentrated levels at the bottom of the ocean. Brine is used in food processing to preserve and season foods such as meats and fish and is most important for the fermentation and aging of hot peppers.

It seems simple enough, just mix water with salt, right? There could be many factors that go into the simple combination of these two ingredients. What type of salt are you using? Table salt, Himalayan rock salt, kosher salt? Some believe there are a difference in flavors between salts and that they produce different results in your brine.

What is a pepper mash?

I am no vocabulary genius, but I can guess what a pepper mash is. Mashed up peppers. A pepper mash is a salt cured and aged which leads to the fermentation of the peppers. A mash should have a salt content of about 10% of the pepper weight. If you are using a pound and a half of peppers (24 ounces), you will use 2.4 ounces of salt or you could round up to 2 ½ ounces of salt. Some peppers that have less heat could use up to 12% salt. Whole or mashed peppers will weigh the same but make sure the stems are off before weighing. Pulverize the peppers but don’t blend into a smooth sauce.

4 things salt does to a hot pepper mash

  1. Reduces bitterness
  2. Enhances the flavor of the peppers
  3. Keeps peppers from developing mold
  4. Provides minerals to the lactic-acid bacteria

Will the mash go bad?

Certain salts used in recipes can aid the uniqueness of the flavors. This could be a controversial subject as some believe there is no difference in salt flavors. It is the high level of salt content that keeps your mash from the development of mold.

The process is similar to the way sauerkraut is made in which the bacteria is doing all the work. The fermentation will happen in about a week and the complete process will be done in a month. The finished fermented mash will make it resistant to spoilage.

Is aging the same as fermenting peppers?

Peppers are fermented and then aged. Aging and fermentation are not the same thing but are often referred to as being the same. Peppers are allowed to ferment in steel containers and are then placed in another type of container for the aging process. Tabasco®, for example, will use oak barrels like whiskey, wine and bourbon makers do. As mentioned above, the type of container will affect the end results of how they taste. Peppers can be fermented by mixing 10% salt per pound and letting them sit in a sealed jar for a week. Aging is allowing a product to sit over an extended period of time, months or years, to enhance flavors. The salts from the mash and fermentation will preserve the peppers during the process.

How to age peppers

You have made the mash; it has fermented now it is time to age the fermented mash even more.

So maybe you have made this sauce and it is pretty good but its no where near as good as Franks, Tabasco® or Sriracha probably due to the aging process that these peppers go through. The fermentation process is complete at this point and from here you can make sauce or age your peppers.

Aging is done to a variety of foods such as meats and fish to preserve them. Storing the peppers for the aging process can also affect the end product. Your fermented pepper mash can be stored in a variety of containers but should be in a dry, cool place.

Storing your aged peppers

Many wines, whiskeys and bourbon use oak barrels for aging, as well as hot sauce manufacturers, and they have for centuries. The oak allows air to slowly enter and draws in oak and smoke flavors as the mash continues to ferment. Tabasco® states that the oak barrels are an essential step to their sauce but good luck finding out why. Beginners can use the Amazing Pepper Barrel from Thousand Oaks Barrel Co.

Many restaurants and hot sauce manufacturers have adopted the principle of aging hot peppers in oak barrels but will only typically age them for under a year. If you are aging your own mash glass jars will be fine but perhaps one day you will want to experiment with oak barrels.

Obviously with these three popular and successful name brands there are processes aside from the ingredients that make them stand out among other hot sauces. You can spend time researching the process some hot sauce manufacturers go through to produce their sauce or you can use your own methods for your special sauce.

I personally don’t want to spend three years aging my peppers and the time and money it may take experimenting with different salts, but I am curious how they do it. Before you can do something original you should really know how it was done “originally” and then you can experiment with your unique, tasty, high quality hot sauce.

Jalapeno and Serrano Hot Sauce

The Hot Sauce Cookbook

Check out The Hot Sauce Cookbook with more easy hot sauce recipes and foods that pair with them. Get this book from Amazon and use these recipes at your next dinner party or family gathering.

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