Set the Table with Hot Sauce
Written onJune 01 , 2011
Vermont is known for many things, but spicy food is not one of them. Fortunately for the spice lovers among us, many local farmers have bucked the trend and have been cultivating delicious, spicy chilis for us to enjoy. Hot peppers need heat to grow, but with a good dose of sunlight and perhaps some black plastic over the soil, peppers can thrive in Vermont’s warm summers.
If you grow your own peppers, you might have noticed that when the growing is good, it’s great. Much like zucchini, once a pepper plant starts producing, it has little interest in stopping. Fortunately there are many good ways to put up hot peppers for the winter. Salsa is an obvious pick, especially if you grow tomatoes. But hot sauce is a yummy condiment that most people don’t think of making themselves, even though basic hot sauce is fantastically easy and can really show off the flavors of your garden or local farmers’ market.
While chili peppers, as we know them, originated in the New World, their bright flavors quickly made them popular everywhere else, and different cultures have developed different styles of hot sauce. Louisiana style, which can be made with most any chili, is the type that we in the U.S. most commonly think of. It has a high vinegar content and gives a splash of intense flavor to any dish. Mexican hot sauces use very little vinegar and generally have a more complex flavor. In China, chilis are usually ground into pastes and then incorporated into other sauces. In the West Indies, fruits often shine with the tropical taste of habanero peppers. And American audiences have recently discovered the joys of Thai-style sriracha, a sweet garlic-and-vinegar hot sauce that can be found in many restaurants and salad bars here in Vermont.
Choosing the appropriate pepper for your hot sauce can be the most confusing part. Most of the names we use for chili peppers come from Mexico, where people use different names for the different stages of a pepper’s life; an unripe pepper might be called a different name than the ripe, dried, or smoked version of the same pepper. For example, a chipotle is a smoked jalapeno and an ancho is a dried poblano. Making matters even more confusing, a poblano is called a pasilla in California (even though poblanos and pasillas are completely different), but is called an ancho here in Vermont. Your best bet when buying peppers is to choose what looks like the pepper you want and then take a little taste.
Peppers vary in heat depending on a variety of factors. Heat from the sun is a big one. Generally, the more heat they get, the more heat they will produce. It also matters what they are grown near. A cayenne grown next to a bell pepper will be less spicy than one grown next to a habanero. And contrary to popular belief, the seeds are not the spiciest part of a pepper. In fact, they are the least spicy part! The membrane that attaches the seeds to the flesh is the spiciest part. You can cut out the membrane if you want to tone down the spice of a pepper, but you will also be removing some of the tastiest parts.
Hotter, smaller peppers generally make better hot sauces, but all peppers (even bells) can be blended in to create a distinct flavor. When making hot sauce for the first time, it helps to start with a basic recipe of just vinegar, peppers, and salt (1 cup, 3 oz., 1 tsp., respectively). You can then get an idea for which vinegars combine best with the flavors of different peppers. Apple cider vinegar has a flavor that often combines well with fruitier peppers, such as habaneros and red anaheims. Lemon and lime juice also make delicious acidic additions to hot sauce, especially ones using jalapenos or serranos.
Vermont grows a lot of produce that combines well with peppers, such as onions and carrots. Blueberries make a flavorful seasonal addition, as does basil. Maple syrup goes wonderfully with just about anything, and hot sauce is no exception.
Following are some of my favorite homegrown hot sauce recipes. They incorporate the chilis most commonly found in Vermont: habaneros, jalapenos, serranos, and cayennes. (Poblanos and anaheims are also popular here.) These recipes are for small batches, but are easily multipliable if you’re looking to put away enough peppers to have ample hot sauce to keep you warm all winter.