I remember sitting in a diner and my buddy Mike stating “hot sauce is so easy to make… it’s just hot peppers and vinegar”. Ever since then I wanted to make hot sauce, but it took years before started experimenting in kitchens and when I did it was hot peppers mixed with vinegar…hot sauce in its most basic form.
Hot sauce is traditionally made with hot peppers, vinegar, and salt. Gourmet hot sauce recipes may use citrus juice in replace of vinegar as well as other ingredients like fruits, vegetables, and spices. Trending sauces are using sweeteners and exotic ingredients like mushrooms, root vegetables, and a plethora of spices.
Hot sauce has evolved to be much more than hot peppers mixed with vinegar and a few spices. Many hot sauces are made today using different varieties of fruits, vegetables, and even mushrooms, using an assortment of processes. These are considered artisan, craft, or gourmet hot sauces and these products are what consumers are demanding to expand their palette. At their most basic form, hot peppers are blended with a liquid such as vinegar, citrus juice, or water to make a variety of hot sauce flavors.
Hot peppers are the main ingredient in any hot sauce that is worth calling a hot sauce. This is where the pungency, spiciness, heat, and tanginess come from. Although this can complement well with other spices it is this flavor that should be at the forefront of a hot sauce. You cannot make hot sauce without hot peppers although they can be used in different forms such as dried, powder, or extracts.
There are hundreds of different varieties of hot peppers but typically only a handful get used for commercially manufactured hot sauce. The trend in hot sauce production currently is to use some of the hottest peppers available. Manufacturers may be making sauces of extreme heat levels partly as a marketing campaign because they know consumers will purchase them. Carolina reaper and ghost peppers are rapidly replacing the classic flavors of cayenne and tabasco peppers.
Many people that begin making hot sauce purchase what is available at the local grocery store or market. The availability of hot peppers and the simple combination of ingredients allow hot sauce to be made very easily. However, peppers can be purchased from a variety of sources including less commonly available peppers by region. Read What You Need to Know About Purchasing Hot Peppers with a complete list and links to the best resources. Although hot peppers are a common ingredient in hot sauce there are other ingredients as important such as vinegar.
Vinegar has been and continues to be another dominant ingredient in many hot sauces. Distilled white vinegar has been the preferred vinegar used in hot sauces but like hot peppers, it is also getting replaced by other varieties. Apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, and rice vinegar are also being used in many hot sauce recipes and alter the flavor significantly. All types of vinegar help to preserve a hot sauce although each one can have a slightly different pH level. It is the acidity or low pH that provides the preservation and is what allows hot sauce to have such a long shelf life and remain edible. Read more on the Best Vinegar for Hot Sauce and Why.
Vinegar is not the only type of liquid used to make hot sauce but it has been the contributor to the classic flavors. Citrus juice, water, or other types of liquid can be used as well and can provide similar preserving quality. This has also become common practice for hot sauces and has recently replaced vinegar in many hot sauce recipes or is used in combination with other forms of vinegar. Citrus juice can come from many different fruits but it is lemon or lime juice that is most commonly used in hot sauce. These flavors complement well with many varieties of hot peppers. Other citrus juice like grapefruit, oranges, kumquats, tangerines, and ugly fruit are also used but are not as common as lemon and lime and will not provide as much acidity needed for preserving.
Water is often used as the liquid base for a hot sauce but will not provide any additional flavor or preserving qualities. Read The Use Of Water in a Hot Sauce is Not Always Negative. Adding water will make a hot sauce that could be more on the alkaline side of the scale. A sauce with a pH of 4.6 or higher may need alternate methods of preserving and will not have the same shelf life as a vinegar-based sauce. Here are the 12 Standard Hot Sauce Preservatives.
Other ingredients can vary significantly in a hot sauce recipe. These ingredients include many varieties of fruits, different vegetables, and just about any type of spice. This is because consumers are enjoying hot sauce with many different types of foods and are craving new and unique hot sauce flavors.
Hot sauce has evolved with what it is made with and how it is made but salt has also been one of the more common ingredients. Salt has been used to enhance the taste of foods for centuries and it is used in a hot sauce for the same reasons. It comes in many different forms but generally provides the same flavor once it is dissolved in a hot sauce recipe. The trick with salt is to not overuse it because this can ruin many recipes.
Hot sauce in its simplest form is hot peppers that have been blended but this will create a very thick sauce. Because peppers contain over 80% water there may not need to be much liquid added, depending on the consistency you want. A simple blend of hot peppers makes a great homemade hot sauce that will taste as fresh as the peppers used. However, to create traditional flavors or produce a sauce that has a longer shelf life other ingredients need to be added.
A classic or traditional hot sauce will contain hot peppers, vinegar, and spices like salt or garlic. Many classic hot sauce recipes use a process of aging the peppers in a salt and water brine solution to give them a distinct flavor. The process of fermenting or aging the peppers can be very simple if the conditions are right and the brine solution is mixed correctly. Read more here to Finally Understand the Fermented Hot Sauce Process.
Most recently the demand from consumers for new and exotic hot sauce creations has led to the manufacturing of gourmet, craft, and artisan hot sauces. Many of these sauces go beyond a simple combination of hot peppers and vinegar by adding juices, citrus, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, and a full range of spices. In addition process such as aging, roasting, and slow cooking sauces makes the flavors of the ingredients stand out even more.
Learn to make gourmet hot sauce!
With the Hot Sauce Recipe Workbook. Available NOW as a paperback on Amazon. Learn the intricacies of combining a variety of different ingredients with several select processes to become a gourmet hot sauce chef. The Workbook will walk you through step by step so you gain the knowledge of making hot sauce…and not just following a recipe.