When it comes to pantry staples that are simple and inexpensive to make rather than buy, hot sauce should definitely be high on the list. I can’t speak for your household, but we enjoy a lot of hot sauce and related spicy condiments (salsa, pickled peppers) over here, and it’s much more fun to make our own than to buy these.
Homemade hot sauce only requires three ingredients.
Unlike yogurt, hummus and bread, which are also simple and inexpensive to make, store-bought hot sauce typically isn’t full of terrifying ingredients (that said, always read the ingredient label). The most popular hot sauces in the U.S. include Tabasco, Frank’s, Texas Pete and Cholula, all of which are variations on the classic aged chile, vinegar and salt combination. Sriracha, which has only recently staked its claim on the American hot sauce market, is a sweeter hot sauce; sugar is its second ingredient. But as with anything you choose to make rather than buy, hot sauce can be infinitely customized to your own tastes.
Save your empty Sriracha and Tabasco bottles! They’re perfect for bottling your own concoctions.
As a rule, there are two standard types of hot sauce: fermented and non-fermented. Fermented is far more flavorful, as you might imagine, but takes months or even years. (Tabasco is aged in oak barrels for at least three years!) Non-fermented is much quicker, but lacks depth. Some hot sauces are cooked, others are raw. The best thing about making your own hot sauce is that you can hardly screw it up; it will likely end up delicious no matter which method you choose. Plus, chiles, vinegar and salt are all highly anti-bacterial, so you don’t even have to worry too much about leaving your experiments at room temperature. (A quick word of warning: whenever you’re working with hot peppers, wear disposable gloves, avoid breathing in fumes, and never touch your eyes or any other sensitive body parts. Also, this isn’t a kitchen project for children. Pepper spray is used in riot control for good reason.)
Our hot peppers were wildly successful this year.
We grew a bumper crop of hot peppers this year, many of which will end up in various hot sauces. I like to make both fermented vinegary hot sauces as well as quicker, sweeter Sriracha-style sauces, so that we always have an array on hand, depending on what might work best for a certain food. One thing I’m not a fan of, however, is making hot sauce that’s so spicy that the food it’s served with can’t even be tasted. (I also don’t cotton to the obnoxious trend of naming hot sauces with unpleasant and totally unnecessary references to devils, hellfire and/or bodily functions. I want hot sauce that’s spicy and flavorful and delicious but not obliterating, and I don’t need crude toilet humor alongside my food.)
Never, ever breathe in the fumes when pureeing or simmering hot peppers.
If you want to start with a simple Tabasco-style sauce, puree hot red peppers (I used a mix of ripe red jalapeno, serrano and cayenne) with enough water to create a reasonably thick mash. Once the peppers are blended, add in about 2.5% of the weight in salt. (You’ll see recommendations for salting at anywhere between 1.5 and 3%.) A pound of peppers, for example, equals 454 grams, so I add just over 11 grams of kosher salt. This mash is then left to ferment for weeks, or months, or years, then blended with distilled white vinegar (or white wine vinegar if you’re fancy) to the consistency you like. You can strain out the seeds and pulp, or blend them in if you have a high-powered blender. People add in garlic and wood chips and liquid smoke and all sorts of other mysterious ingredients; feel free, but you don’t really need to. The same idea works for hot green peppers, too; I always keep my red and green peppers separate so that I don’t create an unappetizing muddy brown sauce.
Homemade hot sauce and pickled jalapenos make nachos super-delicious.
For a sweeter, mellower hot sauce, I’ve adapted Melissa Clark’s garlicky red hot sauce. This cooked sauce uses red bell peppers as a base, which gives it good structure without needing to add too much sugar. As with other hot sauce recipes, feel free to adjust according to your own taste; my version results in a sparkly, bright condiment that can be drizzled with abandon on grain bowls, roasted vegetables, flatbreads and slow-cooked beans.
The little packets you get from the pizza place? They’re just pepper seeds. I made my own from green jalapenos and they’re extra-spicy.
If you don’t grow your own hot peppers, find a good Latin American market in your area; these markets usually have a vast selection of different fresh peppers at great prices. Also remember that peppers – even the same variety – can vary immensely in heat level depending on the year’s growing conditions. Always add the minimum of hot peppers, then taste and adjust as needed; there’s no joy in a hot sauce that annihilates the taste buds. With a few dollars’ worth of produce and a bit of experimentation and time, you might find that your own special housemade hot sauce becomes a mandatory condiment at your table.