I like my electronic gadgets–whether they be an iPod or immersion circulator–to be practical, unaturally efficient, and to possess a balanced mix of user-friendlienss and aloofness. Conversely, I like most of my food to be natural, recognizable and, perhaps, a bit “slow.”
I consider most edible items to be food, save for uber-manipulated items like Twinkies, Funyuns, bologna or packaged ramen. (Now, just because I don’t consider these to be “food” doesn’t mean I don’t like eating them…on rare occasions, of course.)
Most food falls clearly into either the ”natural and recognizable” or “manipulated” category—though the direction of a few distinctions may depend on with whom you speak. [Regular Fritos (corn, corn oil, salt), for example, would land in that gray area for me.]
What started me thinking about this wasn’t a bag of Fritos, a pizza pocket or box of Sour Patch Kids, it was a bottle of hot sauce.
I like to think of myself as a chile head—an afficianado of all things spicy. I don’t typically sacrifice flavor for heat, though occasionally I’m in the mood for foods higher up the Scoville scale.
However, I have a hard time with spicy foods or sauces that rely primarily on extracts and crystals. I respect the heat, and that it is naturally derived, but it seems like we’re warping the natural—and unecessarily so.
I know plenty of people who don’t care for spicy food at all. From my perspective, that still leaves a decent number of people enjoy heat at a jalapeno level and a few who enjoy the blow-out (pun intended) heat of super-spicy Thai dishes, for example.
But I don’t know anyone who regularly eats Trinidad Scorpion peppers (about 1.4 million Scoville units), Naga Vipers (about 1.3 million Scoville units) Bhut Jolokias (about 900K Scoville units), or even the relatively tame Red Savina Habanero (about 400 or 500K Scoville units).
[Note: The Scoville scale ranks peppers by combining a prescribed amount of a given pepper's alcohol-extracted (heat-containing) oils with a sugar-water solution. The Scoville number tells how many parts of solution (units) per one part pepper extract it takes to render the heat in the solution undetectable by a panel of human tasters.]
Granted, my casually assembled list of peppers includes a couple hybrids and one that is unstable (read: sterile). These peppers didn’t exist naturally before we started messing with them, but they are actual peppers…not extracts.
If we have peppers that are too hot to eat, why do we need extracts? It just seems like a macho pissing contest. And when I find a sauce that has a good flavor, but the first few ingredients list includes “extract,” I feel like the sauce maker took a shortcut or is just showing off.
I think the art in making a sauce is to balance the heat with flavor—to showcase the particular peppers with complimentary or contrasting elements. It’s akin to how chefs build their dishes, and, sadly, many hot sauce makers miss the boat. Fortunately, this world has a boatload of sauce makers.
Even if that weren’t the case, we still have our mother nature-made peppers, including the bhut jolokia, or ghost chili. I just rehydrated a batch of dried bhut jolokias. The water I used to rehydrate them is wonderfully scorching…my eyes water a bit when I open the lid on their container.
Honestly, I don’t know if my eyes tear up because of the airborne capsaicin, because, admitedly, I do get a bit emotional over my little rehydrated ghosties.
I digress. Let me conclude with a short list of some favorite hot sauces:
Anything by Melinda’s (from Costa Rica) is top notch. If I had to choose a single hot sauce maker over all others I’ve had, this would be it. (Granted, the next two brands in the list are close seconds.) Every Melinda’s sauce I’ve tried posessed an amazingly well balanced flavor—even their hottest sauces. My favorites (these are very hot): Melinda’s Naga Jolokia Hot Sauce, Melinda’s XXXXtra Habanero Hot Sauce, and Melinda’s XXXtra Habanero Hot Sauce. (Melinda’s does have some great medium and mild options, too.)
El Yucateca (product of Mexico) makes a sauce, which is not as hot as those mentioned above, but that gives my Melinda’s favorites a run for their money: The XXXtra Hot “Salsa Kutbil-ik de Chili Habanero.” What a sauce! And the best part (certainly in eastern NC) is that it’s available in most grocery stores with a decent “Mexican” foods section. Some people seem preoccupied with the sauce’s color, which seems to be created, in part, by whichever of the ingredients is fire roasted. (At least that’s my guess from judging by the tiny, irregular black specks in the bottle.) Regardless, this sauce is a must have.
Marie Sharp’s (a product of Belize) is another maker of balanced and flavorful hot sauces—which, amazingly, are occasionally seen in mainstream grocery stores. Where Melinda’s leans towards flavor over heat, Marie Sharp’s leans towards heat, but still preserves the balance. My picks: Marie Sharp’s Hot Habanero Pepper Sauce, Marie Sharp’s Firey Hot Red Habanero Sauce, and the less common Marie Sharp’s Grapefruit Pulp Habanero Pepper Sauce.
Iguana hot sauces—like Melinda’s, are another great product from Costa Rica. Iguana leans more toward flavor over heat, and their best sauces are medium to medium-hot. They aren’t as finessed as Melinda’s, but are still phenomenal sauces. The Iguana sauces I purchase most often: Iguana Bold Gold Habanero Pepper Sauce and Iguana Gold Island Pepper Sauce. These sauces add cumin to the usual mix, which is a great pairing with the habanero-garlic-onion-mustard base.
Bee Sting sauces (Also from Costa Rica) are mild to medium-plus heat, but I am a huge sucker for fruit or honey-based hot sauces. Their Bee Sting Honey Habanero is a flavorful choice.
Even if high-heat isn’t your game, most of these brands offer tamer options. And don’t give up hope if your tongue or stomach don’t share your desire to reach to top of the Scoville charts; hot pepper tolerance and enjoyment can be be easily acquired and developed.
Regardless of your tolerance for spice, a great hot sauce will give you an unparalelled rush that’s much cheaper than getting another tattoo—and better still, your parole officer can rest easy because even the most extreme sauces are totally legal.