Source of the Heat
By Ronna N. Welsh, The Austin Chronicle
Let's face it, we like our hot sauces hot. So hot, in fact, that they singe our tongues like a trailing flame or erupt in our throats and tease out desperate coughs. Perhaps it's for the chiles' healing properties that we're so rapacious in our consumption of them. Pre-Columbians, after all, used them to cure sore throats and ear infections. But maybe our masochism traces back instead to the use of chiles for wartime torture. Like combat training, our submission to chile burn builds our fortitude for pain.
Hot sauces are defined by pungency, a word that connoisseurs prefer over others like "spiciness" and "bite." In fact, makers often name their salsas for their chile strength, always upping the ante for the top of the heat. Chiles -- call them capsicums, pimenta, aji, peppers, whatever -- supply this vital burn. Generally, the smallest chiles rank the hottest. Eaten raw and unadorned, chiles such as tepin and pequin will knock you out flat. Capsaicin, an odorless, tasteless, water-insoluble compound found in a chile's seeds and veins, is responsible for this heat. The Scoville Organoleptic Test measures the pungency of each chile according to its heat effect on test subjects' tongues. A bell pepper tests at zero Scoville units; the habanero measures near 300,000. Many Thai pastes and sauces will use the whole chile, retaining all its potency; Mexican and Tex-Mex sauces often will not. Gloves and tweezers assist cautious cooks who choose to scrape out a chile's insides. Their kitchen first-aid kit might contain bleach for scrubbing burning hands and milk for taming scorched tongues.
The chile defies easy classification for the average cook. Of the more than 200 varieties, we see just about a dozen on our grocery shelves. Still, these constitute an impressive selection: the jalapeno, chipotle, serrano, ancho, pasilla, Thai, bird, habanero, banana, poblano, cascabel, cayenne, and, of course, the tame bell pepper. Their colors vary from burnt sienna and coffee to various shades of grass green. They may be smooth like tomatoes or fat, rough, and long like a carrot. They resemble knuckles, claws, teardrops, flowers, brains, apples, worms, and spaceships. And their flavors range from near-acidic to sweet. One chile's "rapid bite" burn smacks you at the back of your throat; another's long, low-intensity sizzle lays on the center of your tongue. With factors such as climate and age affecting chile flavor, pungency varies even within one type.
Within the wide assortment of chiles, aficionados divide them into two types: green and red. All chiles begin green and ripen into various shades of the sun from neon yellow-orange to lipstick red to asphalt black. Some chiles transform enough in maturity to warrant name changes: the mildly hot, forest-green poblano ages to a shade of tomato-red and gets smoke-dried into an ancho. We find green chiles used raw, like the serrano, and minced for pico de gallo. Or we taste them pickled in vinegar ("en escabeche") for use in sweeter sauces. Red chiles are usually dried, sometimes toasted, and, for hot sauce use, either ground into powder, flaked, or rehydrated and puréed into a paste. The nouveau-chic chipotle (a smoked-dried jalapeno) requires this last kind of preparation for use. Technically, you could divide all the shades of salsa into either red or green. Hence, salsa verde would not have to look green; it would simply use green chile.
Austin's year-round chile stock inspires a collection of local hot sauces that rivals any store's inventory of pasta and soy sauces combined. Serranos and jalapenos are the hot sauce building blocks; many salsas rely on their crisp, fresh heat. Wheatsville Co-op's Salsa Casera demonstrates how green chiles can be nicely balanced with fresh ingredients. Chipotles and anchos find their way into current specialty salsas and impart a deep, smoky flavor that reminds me of winter. Timpone's Salsa Muy Rica and Jardine's Campfire Roasted Salsa are some of the better examples of this. Habanero, a sickeningly hot chile the size of a crabapple and color of intense sun, remains at the pinnacle of popularity in local recipes. Though it is used sparingly -- often to boost the heat of other base chiles -- the habanero poses a challenge to all but the most diehard chile fans. Often, as in Austin Slow Burn salsa, the flavor payoff is great. Other salsas boast of their chile concoctions, such the Texas Six Shooter, which includes bell, habanero, and, though unrelated to the capsicum, black pepper in their mix.
Of course, with heat on the mind, it's easy to forget how well chiles hold together a hot sauce. They bleed into vinegars and cling to fresh herbs. Green chiles wake up the occasionally unripe tomato, help pronounce the sweetness in fruit, and go to bat against the rawest onion. Red chiles sneak up on you and linger about, like a savory perfume.
Each hot sauce leaves a chile stamp, a heat memory, which teases us to the level of near addiction. We'll consume a basket of chips, trying to match a salsa's fleeting taste with the scant remnants of the afterburn. So chiles don't just punctuate salsa, they make a defining flavor statement, transforming a humble chopped salad into something of substance and charm. However they're cloaked by tomatoes, fruits, onions, and herbs, they impart immodest style.