Saturday, September 10, 2011

How to Make Your Own Hot Sauce - Brazilian Style

Obviously, a blog that concerns itself with Brazilian food and Brazilian cooking traditions is going to spend some time discussing hot chili peppers. Though some regional cuisines of Brazil do entirely without chilis, they are in the minority. (Most of these regional cuisines are in the southernmost part of the country, which is not tropical and which has a population of mostly European ancestry).

Chilis are native to the hot-climate zones of the Americas and have been consumed in Brazil for millennia. The native population used chilis to season and to preserve foods long before the arrival of Europeans. The slaves who were transported from Africa to Brazil took enthusiastically to chilis upon their arrival. Even European culinary traditions were perked up with a dash of chili in Brazil.

Flavors of Brazil already has a significant number of posts about chili peppers. You can use the search box on this page or the Flavors of Brazil labels to track them down. We've discussed the botany of the capsicum family of plants, we've talked about the quest for the world's hottest pepper, and we have demonstrated how to preserve chili peppers at home in vinegar or cachaça.

We think that one of the most useful chili peppers products to have in one's kitchen, particularly when faced with a Brazilian recipe that calls for some heat, is in the form of a hot-chili sauce. A hot sauce is not the same thing as preserved chilis. Preserved chilis are left whole, or at most halved, and depend on the preservative powers of vinegar or cachaça. When they are used in the kitchen, it isn't the chilis themselves that go into the dish, it's the preservative liquid, which in the meantime has picked up flavor and piquancy from the chilis. The chilis themselves are not eaten and in the end are discarded.

In a hot sauce, however, the body of the chili becomes part of the sauce, and so the sauce has much more of the heat and the fruity flavor that a hot chili provides. Think of Tabasco sauce or any other bottled hot sauce. The ingredients are chilis, vinegar, flavoring ingredients and salt. These are combined, blended and bottled, resulting in a sauce which can be added to almost any dish in exactly the quantity desired.

It's this ability to control the amount of chili "heat" that makes hot sauce so useful in the kitchen. If you're making a stew, for example, and want to perk it up but not make it fiery, adding hot sauce drop by drop and testing after each addition allows precise control of the heat. If you're working with whole chilis you can control the heat a bit by adding only one chili or two, but you don't have the same control. Sometimes even one chili is too much, and if you cut a chili in half you don't necessarily cut down on the heat. That's where hot sauce steps in.

Brazil has thousands of hot sauces sold commercially, including American-made Tabasco sauce by the way. Many are cheap industrial products that add little to a dish but heat, though there are many, many wonderful sauces as well. However, it's so easy to make hot sauce at home and the result is so superior to almost any commercial product that it's worth the effort to make you own at home. It will taste better than just about any store-bought sauce, it will have just the potency you want, and just like a favorite perfume can become your fragrance identifier, your homemade hot sauce can add your own identity to your spicy dishes.

Next round on Flavors of Brazil we'll detail exactly how to make your "signature" hot sauce.

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