Your heart races. A few beads of sweat break out on your neck. Your mouth puckers. All you can see is red.
You could be in love. Or you might have just eaten a plate of migas slathered with hot sauce.
There's a scientific correlation between falling in love and our love of hot sauce: The endorphins that rush through your body at the sight of a love interest are related to the painkilling endorphins your brain releases when it gets the signal that hot sauce, which is packed with a compound found in chiles called capsaicin , has entered your mouth.
A chile pequín -laced sauce like Cholula might make your tongue feel like it's on fire, but your taste buds aren't actually burning. The flavorless capsaicin bonds to trigeminal cells in the mouth, not taste buds, shooting a pain memo to the brain through something called "substance P."
And just as the fire between newlyweds dims over time, the more substance P released in your body, the less sensitive you are to it.
Capsaicin is a chile plant's natural deterrent against being eaten, so why are humans are the only mammals persistent - or crazy - enough to eat them? Probably the same hard-to-explain reason we fall for the wrong guy or let old girlfriends break our hearts over and over: The line between pleasure and pain is as thin as a heart-shaped Valentine cut from a sheet of tissue paper.
I love the mild
sauce makes me feel like a chip
Hope no one eats me
- Kylie K., a fourth-grader at Oak Hill Elementary
(We asked students in Cynthia Thomas' fourth-grade class to write and illustrate haikus about hot sauce.)
To the many of you, including my brother-in-law, who face incessant teasing for putting hot sauce on everything you eat, prepare to feel vindicated: The mysterious and wonderful capsaicin also increases your receptiveness to other flavors and might one day be used to cure cancer. Studies have shown that capsaicin can cause prostate cancer cells to self-destruct, and because it reduces sensitivity to pain over time, many pain relief creams already use it to ease arthritis and psoriasis.
I fall into the dabbler category of hot sauce users, but I've never seen anyone eat more of the stuff than Kenny Barrett, who married my sister a few years back. For him, most food just isn't worth eating if there's no hot sauce around. "I love putting it on everything," he says, "except cereal." As a child, he first tasted hot sauce when his mom put it on his thumb to stop him from sucking it. He's been hooked ever since. "I love it on popcorn, and I eat it on my spaghetti like crazy," he says.
Andrew Smiley, who is the director of Farm Direct projects for the Sustainable Food Center, holds a certain affection for Tabasco, which is from his home state of Louisiana, but he prefers to make his own. "There's a certain intimacy in sharing something homemade with others, especially food," he says. He gave away bottles of homemade hot sauce at the wedding of friends recently. "The spice from the peppers can get your blood up, and the sourness from the vinegar makes you pucker," he says. "After all, who doesn't want a little spice in their love life?"
What! This one's spicy!
Are you kidding? Mild's not hot.
Well, it's tart to me!
- Tommy W.
Tears of Joy has been selling almost every kind of hot sauce imaginable on Sixth Street for about 10 years, including several of its own hot sauces and salsas. Brian Rush, son of owner Joy Burleson, says everyone has a different tolerance for the sensation of "heat" caused by capsaicin. "For some people, habaneros aren't hot enough." Can't stand the heat? You can work up your tolerance level, says Rush. "Some people (genetically) have more pain receptors than others," he says, but the more you expose your palate to capsaicin, the fewer pain signals get sent to your brain.
Youch, ohh, yow, it burns
need some water, need it now
can't stand the salsa
- Dylan C.
Because fat strips capsaicin from the cells on your tongue, milk might be a better choice for Dylan, but if he were to eat hot sauce made from naga jolokia , the world's hottest pepper, a whole gallon of milk probably wouldn't cut it. The Indian-grown peppers register 1 million units on the Scoville scale, roughly half of the strength found in pepper spray used for personal defense. Tabasco, for comparison, has 2,500 to 5,000 units, and habaneros, which were previously considered the hottest pepper, score between 200,000 and 300,000.
Hot like tornadoes
in your mouth is a fire
Believe the peppers
- Austin C.
In the past 10 years, hot sauce has gone global, even in countries without a tradition of hot food, Rush says. "England has always had a reputation for bland food," but with the influx of Indian and Asian cuisines in recent years, more Brits are acclimating their palates to enjoy a level of spice that Texans take for granted.
"Different people bring different things to the table," says Rush. He's seen an influx of fruit-infused and fusion sauces incorporating trendy ingredients like goji berries. Thai hot sauces have a minty heat, while Szechuan sauces are more earthy. Some Chinese sauces are pickled or oil-based, and fermentation is what distinguishes Korean hot sauces.
Vinegar is essential to Louisiana-style hot sauces, which often include a mixture of cayenne, Tabasco, jalapeño or habanero peppers. (No telling what's in the novelty sauces whose labels are plastered with pictures of donkeys and names like "Lawyer Breath" and "Hot Buns at the Beach.")
Sriracha - the bright red California-made product might be better known as "the rooster sauce" in your house because of the iconic bird on the bottle - has become as much a staple as Tabasco in American refrigerators. Sriracha adds just the right amount of garlicky sweetness to just about everything from pizza to popcorn, which makes us forgive the fact that it's a far cry from the thinner and less sweet Thai sauce from which it gets its name.
it is made from tomatoes
less spice is nicer
- Eric P.
People with a penchant for heat often use both salsa and hot sauce to kick up their food, but salsa typically has a chunkier consistency than hot sauce and is usually made with tomatoes in addition to chiles, Rush says. And what about the other tomato- and vinegar-based condiment found in most American fridges? "Salsa outpaced ketchup (in sales) a while back," Rush says.
In the past few years of peeking into Central Texans' fridges for the What's in Your Fridge Friday feature on my Relish Austin blog, more than half the respondents said hot sauce was their favorite condiment. About a third of them said mustard was their favorite, but not one person has claimed ketchup as the condiment they couldn't live without.
Annies' Calamari Salad with Sriracha Dressing
6 oz. calamari, cleaned of cartilage and ink
1/2 cup buttermilk
Oil for frying
2 cups panko bread crumbs
2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch salt and pepper (to season flour)
5 cherry pepper rings, thinly sliced
5 lemon rings, sliced paper-thin
5 banana pepper rings, thinly sliced
2 cups arugula
Sriracha dressing (see recipe below)
Soak calamari in buttermilk overnight. Remove calamari and slice into 1/2-inch rings. Heat deep fryer to 350 degrees.
Combine panko, flour and salt and pepper. Dredge calamari and lemon and pepper slices in seasoned flour-panko mixture and coat thoroughly. Place in fryer basket and shake to release excess flour. Fry for 45 seconds. Remove calamari and lemon and pepper slices and place on a paper towel to drain excess oil. Place arugula in a bowl and add fried mixture. Toss with 2 Tbsp. dressing and serve.
3 cups mayonnaise
3/4 cups rice vinegar
1/4 cup sriracha hot sauce
1/2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. soy sauce
Mix well and toss sparingly with salad. This recipe yields 4 cups, which means you'll have plenty left over to put on hamburgers, fish and wraps or use as a dipping sauce for french fries, vegetables or chips.
- Annies Café & Bar, 319 Congress Ave. 472-1884, www.anniescafebar.com.
13/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup melted butter
32 oz. cream cheese, softened
11/2 cups sugar
21/2 Tbsp. flour
4 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp. Original Tabasco Pepper Sauce
4 cups water
4 cups sugar
4 Tbsp. Tabasco Green Jalapeño Pepper Sauce
1 cup tequila
2 cups honey
Juice of 4 limes
12 flour tortillas
1/2 cup powdered sugar
To make crust, mix graham cracker crumbs and melted butter in a bowl until well blended. Press mixture into a springform pan and set aside.
For the cheesecake filling, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Beat cream cheese, sugar and flour with an electric mixer until smooth. Add eggs and yolk, one at a time, and then vanilla and Original Tabasco Pepper Sauce, beating on low speed until each ingredient is incorporated and scraping bowl between additions. Place springform pan onto baking sheet to prevent drips in the oven. Pour filling into crust and bake in middle of oven 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 200 degrees and bake for 50 minutes or until cake is firm. Run knife around top edge of cake. Let cool completely, about 6 hours.
Make glaze while cheesecake is cooling. Dissolve sugar in water over medium heat, and whisk in green hot sauce, tequila, honey and lime juice. Cook over low heat until reduced to a syrup.
To make garnish, cut fresh tortillas into strips. Fry until crispy and golden brown. Place on a paper towel to drain. Generously dust tortilla strips with powdered sugar. Pour warm (not hot) glaze over cheesecake and let it come to room temperature. Serve with dusted tortilla strips.
Homemade Hot Sauce
Andrew Smiley, director of Farm Direct Projects for the Sustainable Food Center, gave away bottles of this hot sauce, which he calls Hot and Saucy Spice, at a wedding recently. "This sauce is not fermented like the famous Tabasco, which means it's a bit simpler to make, but it can still pack a punch if the right peppers are used," he says. You'll need a food processor, condiment squeeze bottles, smaller glass bottles (Smiley bought his online at Freund Container and Supply , www.freundcontainer.com ) and a five-gallon, food-grade non-reactive container with a tight-fitting lid and airlock. Smiley uses bucket like the kind used in homebrewing beer.
15 lbs. locally grown red hot peppers (Smiley uses a combination of 4 parts cayenne and 1 part habanero)
2 gallons white vinegar (5 percent acetic acid)
1 gallon apple cider vinegar (5 percent acetic acid)
1 lb. sea salt
Wash peppers well and allow them to air-dry. Pull off stems and cut off any blemishes or bruised areas, but do not remove seeds. In a food processor, roughly chop the whole peppers into 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch pieces. Do this in several batches. Put the chopped peppers into the large container, cover with salt and then add the vinegar.
Stir the mixture once, put the lid on and insert the airlock (to allow gasses to escape but no bugs, moisture or bacteria to get in). Allow mixture to set in a cool, dry place for at least 6 weeks (10 to 12 weeks is preferred - the longer the better).
Remove the lid from the container, use the slotted spoon to remove most of the pepper pulp, then pour the remaining liquid through a strainer into a secondary container. You can also strain the liquid through cheese cloth.
Use a pitcher to transfer the strained sauce into condiment squeeze bottles, then squeeze the sauce into small glass bottles for storage. Note: If the sauce separates in the storage bottles, just shake before using.
- Andrew Smiley