I bought my 100th bottle of Tabasco® sauce the other day. OK, I made that up but it’s probably close. I bought it because I eat a lot of gourmet hot sauce and forgot how this classic hot sauce tasted. It was as delicious and pungent as I remember it being and it made me ponder the question of not what it’s made with, but how is Tabasco® made? The process in which a hot sauce is made will distinguish the flavor.
Tabasco® sauce is made with distilled vinegar, red peppers, and salt. The peppers are mashed and fermented in white oak barrels for three years. The mash is then strained from the seeds and skin and mixed with the vinegar and salt before it is bottled to be sold.
How can just a few ingredients taste so good?
I decided to dig deep and break down the process of how Tabasco® is made. Sure, it is no secret because they have plenty of information on their website and YouTube but there is a lot of details that go into making this classic hot sauce that is part of their Trade Secret. I did not tour the factory where you can sample the sauce at different stages or dive deep into the mysteries of how the sauce is made. Tabasco® gives away a lot of secrets but there are many details to making their hot sauce that give it such a distinct flavor.
It does not take a lot of research to find out what Tabasco® sauce is made of…just read the ingredient label…distilled vinegar, red peppers, salt. I have combined these ingredients many times before and have never gotten a sauce even close to the flavor of Tabasco®. Why? The reasons are due to the source of ingredients and a detailed, long, and drawn-out process of making the sauce.
Tabasco® uses 3 simple ingredients
For an ingredient label to be compliant with FDA regulations it needs to list the ingredients by volume. The first ingredient on the label of a bottle of Tabasco® is vinegar. This goes against my golden rule of making hot sauce, that hot peppers should be most of the contents…but I certainly have no right to complain to Tabasco® and I do not want to change my philosophy of hot peppers being the main ingredient. I know Tabasco® uses ingredients that are of superior caliber.
Tabasco® claims the vinegar used in their hot sauce is “high-quality vinegar”. There is more to this than just purchasing Heinz distilled white vinegar off the shelf…but there is nothing against Heinz. This is the first ingredient listed so by volume it is what constitutes most of the sauce and is what is responsible for its tanginess, not the heat.
McIlhenny gives away a lot of information on their hot sauce but the vinegar they use is difficult to find information on. According to seriouseats.com, a high-quality vinegar can enhance the flavors of other ingredients it is used with. Although many hot sauce companies use it, distilled white vinegar is usually considered by many as a bottom shelf or low-quality vinegar.
Houseofcaviarandfinefoods.com states that kinds of vinegar that have many ingredients are trying to mask the pure flavor from simple ingredients that it should have. Like a fine wine or hot sauce, a high-quality vinegar will be fermented for longer periods to produce rich flavors. Fermentation and aging are processes synonymous with bringing out the deep and rich flavors of many different types of foods, especially hot sauces. Once the vinegar is mixed with the mash it gets stirred with the peppers for an additional 28 days.
Red peppers are listed as the 2nd ingredient on the Tabasco® label, so by volume, there are fewer hot peppers than vinegar. It is also difficult to determine the ratio of peppers to vinegar. My guess is based on the sharp pungency of the vinegar and the diluted heat of the pepper to be about 8 ounces of vinegar to 5 ounces of peppers, although I have seen some homemade recipes for a Tabasco® style hot sauce where the ratio is equal. I do not know how those sauces compare to the original. Before the peppers are mashed, fermented, and mixed with vinegar the source of the peppers themselves can determine the flavor and other attributes.
Soil, climate, and growing conditions affect a hot pepper
I am an avid gardener, so I know that soil conditions and climate have a lot to do with the results of growing hot peppers. Some research points to proper soil conditions affecting the heat level of the peppers due to the pH of the soil. Maintaining proper conditions are needed for the consistency of the hot peppers used in a sauce.
The peppers that are grown specifically for Tabasco® sauce are grown in a region of South America called Cauca valley Columbia, a different location than the original sauce. The seeds, however, are from the plants on Avery Island. Tabasco has found other regions with duplicate climate and soil conditions throughout Central America and Mexico where their peppers are also grown. It is possible to duplicate soil and growing conditions to produce the desired peppers for a traditional hot sauce. These variables may only make a slight difference in taste, flavor, and color but Tabasco® approaches making a hot sauce with the details of making fine wine.
The ripeness of the pepper determines flavor
Ripeness affects how pepper tastes and how hot they are. It is no secret that Tabasco® uses a red-colored baton to compare it to the ripeness of the peppers to determine if they are ready for harvest. Peppers left on a plant to turn red will be hotter than their green counterparts and will have sweeter flavors. It is the precisely controlled harvest time that contributes to the overall flavor of making this hot sauce.
Tabasco® uses salt in two different ways
The salt used by Tabasco® is mined at the original location where the sauce is made called Avery Island
Many varieties of salt could affect the flavor of the mash and the results of the hot sauce. How much salt Tabasco® uses versus the amount of peppers in their mash is unknown to the public. This salt is added to the mash and the top of the barrel where it forms a crustation to help seal the barrel. However, 1 teaspoon of salt to 1 pound of peppers is a common ratio for fermenting hot pepper mash.
The source of ingredients makes a difference
All three of these ingredients can have their own distinct flavor to them depending on the product and where it is sourced from. This has a lot to do with the quality of the product and the result of the hot sauce. It is the unique source of these common ingredients along with a distinctive process that gives Tabasco® its classic flavor.
Precise control of the hot pepper mash
A mash is a chopped, but not blended hot pepper mix. Peppers can be fermented whole but a mash opens more of the pepper walls so fermentation can happen faster and easier. This probably does not make much of a difference if you are fermenting for three years. Where the mash sits for its duration is just as important as what it sits in. Controlled temperature conditions are essential in bacterial reactions. This is another “gray” area of information that Tabasco® does not provide but it is most likely a controlled room temperature condition between 68o (20o C) and 72o (22o C) Fahrenheit.
Ferment a mash in white oak barrels
Hot sauces have become as delicately processed as some fine wines, whiskey, and bourbon, including fermenting in oak barrels. Tabasco® uses white oak barrels, typical to what is used to age whiskey. These barrels are re-strapped and re-charred before the mash is added. Would red oak or other types of hardwoods make a difference?…probably.
What about other types of barrels for aging hot sauce?
Other types of hardwood barrels do not have the same tannins as oak. Barrels made out of steel or plastic are OK for fermentation but will not produce the same results as oak. Oak has a high level of tannin, and this helps to smooth out its pungency. These tannins are not as present in other types of wood, and they certainly are not present at all in steel or plastic barrels.
Charring oak barrels makes a difference in flavor
The charring of the inside of the oak barrel opens the wood so the mash can absorb its “flavor”. Tabasco® re-straps and re-chars their oak barrels. I am certain there is a distinct process to this to include the length of time and how hot the flame is that is charring them and how deep the char is.
A further process that Tabasco® uses separates the skins from the seeds. This probably is not done for a homemade sauce that tries to mimic a Tabasco® flavor but leaving either of them in the sauce is fine. Both the skins and seeds are responsible for flavor profiles and the heat of a hot sauce. These flavors in combination with the charring of oak barrels and the fermentation process in them, provide the uniqueness of Tabasco®.
Airtight lid with a one-way valve is essential in aging
An airlock is an essential component of the aging process. It allows gases to get released without letting air in. This is another essential component of the fermentation process and needs to remain reliable throughout the process and consistent between each batch.
Storing conditions of the mash
Storing a hot pepper mash needs to have a consistent temperature and climate that does not fluctuate. That bacterium that is created from the fermentation process of the mash will need to have air released from it. However, the addition of air could create “bad” bacteria and ruin the mash.