Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hot Pepper Sauce – Hot? Salty? Sour? Good?

How does a Hot Sauce taste? Is that a silly question? Maybe, but maybe it’s worth thinking about. Is it just hot? What does it taste like in food?

Why do we put Hot Sauce in our food? Another silly question?

Is it for Heat? Really? Or is it for the salty-sourness that vinegar and salt provide?

Are we trying to "kick it up a notch?" Are we succeeding?

Most domestic American and many other Hot Sauces taste like vinegar and salt, with a little bit of heat thrown in. The overwhelming flavor is that of vinegar, or sourness, followed by saltiness, and then by some heat.

This is what people use across the country – it is the flavor profile of choice, or at least of the choice we are given by major brand marketers and supermarkets.

It’s not really a balanced flavor profile, but more like a single ingredient, that changes in a fairly major way the taste of the food to which it is added.

And it’s not always a good thing to add to many foods.

Why is that?

I like to think it’s because of balance, or lack of it.

So what do I mean by balance?

In Thailand, where they know something about spicy food, there is a well known culinary principle of balance in the 5 major flavors that they recognize -- Sweet, Sour, Salty, Hot, and Bitter. And Thais expect these flavors to work with one another and to be in balance in the foods they eat. I really like Thai food, and that may be one reason why.

The balance in these flavors is particularly useful in understanding both Hot Sauce and American Food flavors as well, even though it is a Thai concept.

Most American Hot Sauces are not very well balanced by that standard – they are too simple, too crude, and usually based on a few ingredients with just a few strong flavors, which permanently skew the flavor profile of the food or dish they are added to … out of balance.

Unless they are added to a very strongly flavored food. You might do very well adding Tabasco, for example, to a Hamburger with ketchup, tomato, onion, pickle, bacon, and cheese. I mean, there are so many strong flavors there it would take some work to ruin the burger.

So, how do you get around that?

Find ingredients that make a Hot Pepper Sauce balanced. Add them in quantities that give a balanced flavor, and stick to the predominant flavor of Pepper. Stay true to the desire to have a Pepper based flavor profile.

Don’t ruin the flavors of the ingredients you use by cooking or aging them. Or masking them with other ingredients. Remember it's a hot PEPPER sauce. OK, you can age them if you want -- if that's what you want to call storing them in salt for a long time -- I do like that "Aged" Pepper flavor. Do not think it compares to Fresh Pepper Flavor, though.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a hot pepper sauce that tasted like Habanero Pepper or Cayenne Pepper or the Pepper of your choice (with Heat and Flavor), and with just enough salt to bring out the taste of the Pepper, and just enough sugar to enhance the natural sweetness of the Pepper (if any sugar were needed), just enough acid sourness to brighten everything up, and just enough bitterness (the complexity that comes from herbs or unripe fruit) to add interest and mystery?

That would be a Hot Pepper Sauce in Balance. I think that would taste good. I think it would make food taste good, too.

Surprise, it does!

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