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It’s been a while since we had a post about food, not because I don’t enjoy chronicling my culinary experiments but because my camera sucks so bad—and what’s a food post without great pictures? But other than an amazing crockpot chicken satay with serrano peppers, red curry sauce, and tahini instead of peanut sauce, you haven’t missed much this season. Today, however, we break the dry spell with a simple but delicious hot sauce I improvised for fun this weekend.

I’m more of a salsa guy than a hot sauce fan, because I love the robust substance of spoonfuls of tomato-based sauce or a chunky salsa fresca. Most hot sauces seem to be more about heat than flavor, with just a tiny bit being enough to set your mouth on fire. I like something I can dip my tortilla chips in and get a big burst of flavor, or drown my tacos in, with the heat amplifying the taste rather than overpowering it. So, Sunday night, after doing some research on peppers, I decided to give hot sauce a try and see if I could find the right balance.

The inspiration came from watching Hot Ones, a fairly popular interview show on YouTube that disrupts the typical “talk show” format by having the guests eat ten consecutively hotter chicken wings—or vegan “wings” for the vegetarian guests. The defining elements of Hot Ones are how impressed the guests are by the deeply researched and often thought-provoking questions, only to violently curse interviewer Sean Evans as the sauces’ Scoville ratings become increasingly ridiculous and pain-inducing. It’s a fun show that features some wonderful musicians, comedians, and actors.

Hot Ones also did a great segment about how hot sauces are made, and just how easy they are to create from scratch in your own kitchen. After seeing that, I had to give it a shot. I’ve made my own salsas, salsa fresca (which is basically salsa with chopped ingredients but not pureed), gazpacho (which is basically salsa eaten as a soup), and spicy tomato-based pasta sauces before, so the key difference seems to come down to one simple ingredient: vinegar. Vinegar preserves the sauce, which is why you typically don’t refrigerate hot sauces but need to refrigerate salsa or marinara. Other than balsamic vinegar in salad dressings, I’m not so crazy about vinegar in food—I use it more often as a household cleaning product! But what the hell. Let’s see if we can make something tasty from it.

So, one trip to Sprouts later, here are the victims I chose, all lined up on the cutting board to be sliced and roughly chopped before the puree.

I did zero fermenting, no heating or boiling, and I did not heat to 185 degrees Fahrenheit before bottling. This was simply a quick-and-easy, totally raw sauce in a small batch meant to be finished off in three or four days.

We’ve got two shallots, two huge cloves of elephant garlic (which I like because there is less peeling involved than regular garlic) two tomatillos (which are the base for salsa verde), a few ounces of mini tomatoes from Mexico (which I have never tried before but just looked so cute and colorful), five Fresno peppers (which are a medium heat), and one serrano pepper (which is hotter than Fresno, for a little kick).

For vinegar, I used 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and 4 tablespoons of basic white vinegar. White vinegar just seemed too boring, but the Hot Ones instructional video included apple cider vinegar in one recipe, and I had some in the fridge. I wasn’t sure those amounts of vinegar would be enough liquid to get a good puree with my immersion blender, so I threw in a tablespoon of olive oil to lubricate everything, and figured I could add more vinegar later if necessary.

I added a little bit of sea salt (a special blend I’ve used for years, with kelp flakes and sesame seeds in it, and it is my all-time favorite salt), some ground black pepper, and maybe a tablespoon of dried cilantro.

I had a couple serrano peppers I held in reserve, just in case this mix wasn’t hot enough, but I learned my lesson last year about how easy it is to go overboard on serranos. The two backup serranos proved to be unnecessary, as the flavor and heat levels of this sauce came out perfectly matched to my taste. I’ll find something else to do with them! I love serranos, but they are like a cat who invites you to pet it, then at some point freaks out and claws your hand to ribbons. There is a serrano sweet spot, for sure, and beyond that point… abandon all hope, ye who pepper. But the same is true for hatch chiles, poblanos, and habaneros, all of which I’ve learned the hard way. They’re all fun and games until you cross a line, and I guess the trick is just finding that line for yourself.

The Fresno peppers, I could probably slice and eat raw or put them on a burger. That’s a comfortable heat level, and now I wonder where they have been all my life. Thank you, Hot Ones and Sean Evans for inspiring me to research peppers and try something new.

Anyway, here’s a crappy cell phone pic of the final product.

I lucked out and got what I consider the perfect consistency: thicker like a sauce, not watery but easily poured in controlled doses. My handheld immersion blender didn’t puree the seeds, and they’re visible upon inspection, but it did a great job liquefying everything else. You can also see the cilantro flakes in there, or maybe pepper skins. It looks prettier in person, but hey. Such is my camera situation.

I was almost scared to pour some on a tortilla chip and test it, but amazed when it came out perfect. I was like, Ooooh shit, get me a bowl of chips and let’s pour it on! The tomatillos give it a zesty tang, and there’s plenty of time to revel in the flavor before the heat comes through. When the heat arrives, it’s a friendly level of warmth, not a scary one. Eating it in quantities more appropriate to a salsa will make the eyes water and the nose run, along with a lingering endorphin buzz, but a few dabs of this gives a pleasant warmth. The warmth lasts for quite some time, and the garlic flavor stays around even longer. If you freak out over a few jalapeno slices on a hot dog or pizza, then your tolerance is lower than mine, so adjust accordingly. I think that without the serrano, this would be a somewhat mild sauce, and I’d rate it at medium with the serrano. It would definitely be hot if I had put in the backup serranos. 

I put some in a little jam jar after pigging out on it over chips.

My next plan was to put it on a burger for dinner. Mission accomplished. The burger was a bleu cheese and onion burger from Sprouts, pan fried in some olive oil with two toasted slices of Italian bread and some shredded Mexican-style cheese and not a single other condiment or dressing. Not to brag, but it might be the best burger sauce ever created. Though I didn’t snap a photo, I probably used half a cup of the sauce, slathering it on and adding some to every bite. It was warm, it was tasty, and it was a flavor explosion. I’m calling this experiment a resounding success, and I look forward to making more hot sauces.