Photo: al62 (iStock)
FeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.  

I love hot sauce. I use it on almost every meal: pho, sandwiches, pizza, nachos. As Ethel so kindly states in a Frank’s Red Hot commercial, “I put that shit on everything.” I’ve got about a dozen bottles in my fridge, each with their own distinct flavors and heat levels.

I’m also an avid home cook. One of my goals this year is to cook through an entire cookbook, Alton Brown’s EveryDayCook Cookbook, and I’ve even been compiling recipes for my own family cookbook over the past couple years. But combining my love of hot sauce and cooking—making my own hot sauce—never crossed my mind, for some reason. Maybe I always saw it as a store-bought condiment, not a recipe? Who knows. I figured I’d try it out and see how bad I could mess it up. Turns out, it’s much easier than I thought.

I grew up in a family of chefs. My mom doesn’t even look at recipes to make delicious food—a skill I’m slowly learning—and my dad worked as a chef in the Army on his first tour of duty. So it’s in my blood to see a meal and try to figure out all the moving parts. This, however, can lead to me overthinking meals, making them seem more complicated than they are. I always looked at hot sauce bottles and thought “Just five or six ingredients? Must be a complicated process.” It might be for some of the more advanced recipes, but for a basic hot sauce, it’s not.

What do I need to start?

A recipe, first and foremost. I perused r/hotsauce and was led to a recipe on r/hotsaucerecipes. I wanted something simple. Nomzai presented the perfect option. This was an early crack at hot sauce so I didn’t want to get too fancy with fermentation and give myself botulism or something.

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You’ll need vinegar, which forms the base of most sauces. You’ll need salt. And obviously, you’ll need peppers. The most time-consuming ingredient was sautéed garlic, which says a lot about how easy the recipe is—simply throw everything into a blender and whazz it up. Beyond that, it’s all in the recipe or in your imagination. Hot sauces can be changed by more than just pepper choices. Some sauces, like Rick Bayless’ habanero sauce, uses apple cider vinegar. Tropical sauces are typically full of pineapple, mango, and even bananas.

All you need to get started with DIY hot sauce
Photo: Benjamin Dashley

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Do I really need gloves?

Yes.

If you’ve never experienced pepper burns before, they’re plainly terrible. In my experience, there’s no blister or even reddened skin, but it’ll hurt for a few hours at least. Even jalapeños can leave a stinging sensation on your hands for the rest of the day.

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The recipe I used included habanero peppers, at least 10 times hotter than jalapeños according to the Scoville scale, so I wasn’t about to mess around without some protection. And please, for your sake and mine, keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, ears or any other sensitive part of your body until you wash your hands with dish soap. Even if you used gloves.

Won’t my sauce go bad?

Photo: Benjamin Dashley

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The more acidic your sauce is, the longer it’ll ward off bacteria, mold, and other organisms that can make you sick. Vinegar is acidic, about 2.4 on the pH scale. Peppers are acidic. The sauce I made was full of citrus—grapefruit, lime, and orange—so that’s even more acid. So if I wanted to, I’m sure I could keep the sauce for a few weeks or longer. That said, I’m quite skittish about getting sick from food after a bout of food poisoning last year (I can still barely look at shakshuka), so I’m more than happy to devour the sauce in a week or two.

As a middling homebrewer, I know the importance of keeping all your vessels clean. It wouldn’t hurt to run the container you plan to use through the dishwasher. At the very least, use some strong dish soap and clean it by hand. Or, if you’ve got some in a cabinet somewhere, mix up a StarSan solution and dip the vessel in there.

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All this said, if you start seeing some growth happening in the bottle or jar you’re using, just toss it. New bottles are cheap and it’s not worth the risk unless you really know what you’re doing.

What are the best peppers to use?

This is entirely up to you. I’m a big fan of the heat level and fruity flavors of habanero peppers, so I used a handful of those. Habaneros are also cheap. They go for about $5 a pound at my local market and I used less than a quarter pound of them to make this sauce.

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If you like smokier sauces, go to your local Mexican market and grab some dried peppers. Smaller peppers tend to work best in the blender. I used chile de arbol for this recipe and they beefed up the spice, color, and smoky quality of the sauce in a lovely way. Just make sure you reconstitute the dried peppers by placing them in hot water for a half hour or so. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a plume of pepper powder flying out of your blender.

If you’re like me and want to limit the spiciness of your first sauce, don’t be afraid to use a few sweet peppers. They brightened up the sauce I made, in terms of both flavor and visuals.

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Photo: pioneer111 (iStock)

What would I change?

My only regret with this sauce is that it’s runnier than the rest of the sauces in my fridge. A lot of hot sauce companies use xanthan gum to thicken their products (Brooklyn’s Heatonist shop famously doesn’t sell sauces with xanthan gum, if you’re looking for such a thing), but I didn’t want to mess with an ingredient I didn’t know much about on my first try.

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Looking back, I’d have kept more pulp from the citrus fruits I used and I’d have run the blender about half as much. I’m sure I could have used less juice from the orange, grapefruit and limes, but I really enjoy the tropical flavors they give. I’d also love to play around with ground cumin or cayenne next time. Luckily, the basics of hot-sauce making are inexpensive and low-stakes.

Procedurally, I also would not have opened the blender right after mixing it and taken a big whiff. I basically pepper-sprayed myself (fun fact: I did that with the real stuff when I was 3 or 4 years old). Be patient and give it a second to settle before inhaling.

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What are the best resources?

I’m a grateful member of r/hotsauce, and I find a lot of recipes on there and other hot sauce related subreddits, but the best resource for me is hot sauce itself. Figure out what flavors you enjoy—I want to add cumin and cayenne—which peppers your favorite sauces are made from—I’m trying scotch bonnets next—and use your imagination to create new flavors and new experiences.

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Keep everything clean and keep your hands away from your face, trust yourself, and figure out what you like. I didn’t get everything perfect my first time, but I learned for the next attempt. And I certainly realized how easy it is to get started.