The Science Behind Hot Sauce


Hot sauce is probably one of the easiest condiments to make. Although the combination of ingredients can be very simple some of the processes used can be very complex. Making hot sauce from a simple recipe is very easy but understanding the science behind how hot sauce is made can take some research and deep knowledge of ingredients and how they interact with each other.  

The science behind what hot sauce generates upon consumption is the capsaicin that is found in the hot peppers used to make the sauce. Capsaicin produces the spiciness, pungency, heat, or “burning” sensation in a hot sauce and it is found in every variety of hot pepper. All hot sauce contains this compound to some level depending on what type of peppers are used to make it.

The truth is that making hot sauce is not much of a science at all and great sauces can be made simply by combining hot peppers, liquid, and a few spices. Great sauces can come out of this simple combination of ingredients. However, lately, competition is fierce and hot sauce needs to stand out among the others and this has forced manufacturers to make gourmet sauces using extreme levels of heat, rare ingredients, or intricate processes. Understanding or duplicating how some of the sauces are made requires a deep study of what hot sauce is.

Hot sauce can be made of a plethora of ingredients and can take processes that can take months before a sauce is completed. Understanding the art of making a great sauce begins with the breakdown of what it is made with and how it is made. The examination of a hot sauce can be broken down into two categories: Heat and Flavor. Each of these groups can be broken down further.

The source of heat: Capsaicin

Capsaicin is the compound found in a hot pepper that is responsible for what is referred to as the “heat”. This is found in all hot sauces. This is a natural substance found in the hot pepper but does not have any taste and is not a source of heat like fire would be. The term heat or burn is used as a reference to reflect what the compound does to the human body.

Effects of capsaicin

Capsaicin is the compound found naturally in hot peppers to deter the fruits from being consumed by predators. Believe it or not, it is the same effect that attracts consumers to eating it. Capsaicin produces a tingling or “burning” sensation on sensitive areas in and around the mouth including the tongue, throat, and lips. It does not cause any harm or permanent damage to these areas but can also irritate areas of the skin. Typically, depending on how hot a sauce is the effects will go away in 5 to 15 minutes. Bread, crackers, or other grain products can absorb or dampen some of the effects of eating it. Milk and dairy products have enzymes that will break down the capsaicin quicker. Read 6 Things To Do If Hot Sauce Is Too Hot and 19 Ways To Relieve Hot Sauce Burn From Your Hands.

The capsaicin in hot sauce can also create some discomfort in the back of the throat depending on how hot a pepper or sauce is. Certain foods like dairy products, bread, or butter will absorb the capsaicin from the skin areas and make it go away faster but some liquids such as soda or beer will irritate the sensation further and make it worse.

Others areas of the body that can be affected by the burning sensation of capsaicin are the hands. This can happen when preparing fresh hot peppers to make hot sauce. The “juice” from a hot pepper can irritate these areas of the skin but are also temporary and can be absorbed using dish soap with cold water. Hot water can make it feel even worse because the hands can be sensitive.

The eyes are another area affected by capsaicin if you were to touch these areas with your hands while making sauce. This may seem ridiculous but it is not uncommon and can be prevented. Read 8 Ways To Relive Your Eyes From Hot Sauce Burn if this has happened to you. Capsaicin does much more than irritate areas of the skin and can offer positive effects on the human body.  

Is hot sauce healthy?

Because some hot sauces contain a high amount of capsaicin does not necessarily mean they are healthy. Although many traditional hot sauces have little or no calories the sauces that are made today can be high in unhealthy fats. Hot peppers themselves can contain vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants but often the peppers can be diluted with other ingredients and this decreases those qualities. Read here…Is Hot Sauce Unhealthy?

Capsaicin flavor

Capsaicin does not have any flavor or color to it. Chili peppers will give off a distinct almost bitter flavor but this is the flavor of the pepper itself and not the capsaicin. Each variety of hot pepper has a distinct flavor such as the fruitiness of Scotch bonnet and the coco of a chocolate habanero. However, the hotter the pepper the more capsaicin that it contains and the more bitter it will taste. There are 25 Most Common Peppers Used In Hot Sauce but there are hundreds more.

Capsaicin is measurable

The amount of capsaicin found in a hot sauce depends on what type of hot peppers are used to produce the sauce and how much of the peppers are used. Because one of the primary ingredients in hot sauce is hot peppers, the hotter the pepper is the more capsaicin that it contains.

The amount of capsaicin that a hot pepper or hot sauce has is measurable and this is indicated by the Scoville scale. This scale has a huge range from 0 to 16,000,000 million SHU (Scoville Heat Units). To get to the highest end of the scale the capsaicin needs to be extracted from the hot pepper. The result is…yup you guessed it…a chili pepper extract. Some of these extracts can equal the potency of law enforcement pepper spray. Some of the hotter extracts available are Maddog 357 No. 9 Plutonium, The End Flatline, Blairs Ultradeath, Pure Cap Hot Sauce.

How hot is too hot?

Gourmet hot sauce recipes can often mask the flavor of a hot pepper and diminish much of the heat. Other ingredients will not reduce the heat of a hot pepper unless the amount used is reduced to make the hot sauce. Gourmet hot sauce can still be very hot but it is often the flavor that prevails over the heat.  

Combination of ingredients

Combining ingredients to make a hot sauce can be a science if you are trying to create a specific flavor. Some hot sauces may get classified or categorized as Mexican, Caribbean, Louisiana, or others and this forces the recipe combination to be very specific. For example, a Mexican hot sauce does not typically use fruit as a Caribbean hot sauce does, Buffalo wing sauce will almost always use cayenne peppers and a Jamaican hot sauce will often use Scotch bonnet peppers.

Choosing the right hot pepper

Not all peppers produce the same level of capsaicin. Some do not have any heat to them at all whereas others may be unbearable to eat. Some manufacturers will use some of the hottest peppers available and use it in the name of their hot sauce, simply to boast how hot it is. This is a clear indication that the sauce will be extremely hot.

Why do people like hot sauce?

It seems odd that there is such a huge demographic that LOVES the burning, irritating, and sometimes painful effects of hot sauces but spicy food has been around for centuries. For some cultures, it is part of their everyday cuisine and they may have a higher tolerance. The trend in consumption now is to try new flavors of hot sauce or the hottest sauce available. Hot sauce connoisseurs love new flavors and the trend continues as more and more manufacturers enter the business.

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