Some Like It Hot! Making Hot Sauce from Homegrown Chile Peppers
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 28, 2008)
Hot peppers seem to increase in popularity each year. With all the different varieties available, it's tempting to start dozens of plants. Before you know it, you're harvesting chiles in far greater numbers than you ever intended. When you realize how sparingly you're using the really hot ones, you start to wonder what you can do with them all. Even if you're mostly growing milder jalopenos and chiles with just a touch of heat, you may have more than you can use up in salsas and sauces. It's time to make some hot sauce!
The very simplest hot sauce is pique, vinegar flavored with whole peppers. When we honeymooned in the Caribbean, a bottle of pique sat on every table, just like ketchup here in the US. To make pique, cut slits into small hot peppers (or roughly chop large ones) and stuff them into a sterile glass 12 ounce bottle. Add a good pinch (1/8 teaspoon) of pickling salt. Toss in some whole peppercorns and a few peeled cloves of garlic. Add a bit of mixed pickling spice or a bay leaf, if you like. Fill the bottle with vinegar (I like to use white wine vinegar, but cider vinegar would also work) and let it sit in a cool place for a couple of weeks. 
As you use the pique, simply top up the bottle with more vinegar until the peppers run out of zing. You could decant the flavored vinegar and throw away the peppers, but I like the look of the peppers in the bottle as well as the way they continue to add flavor to the sauce. I've got a small glass jar of pique made with bird's eye peppers, one of the very hottest varieties. It's 4 years old and still so hot that I use it very sparingly, drop by drop.
You can make hot sauce from fresh peppers, or you can harvest the peppers now and simmer your sauce this winter, when you won't mind heating up your kitchen. I like to seed and mince hot peppers, then store them in a little vinegar in a glass jar in the refrigerator until I'm ready to use them. Removing the seeds and "insides" takes some of the heat from chiles, which to me means I can add more chile peppers to a recipe without getting it so hot nobody will eat it.
If I measure both the peppers and the vinegar, I can label the jar accordingly and be all set for my recipe. If my recipe calls for 2 cups of hot peppers and 2 cups of vinegar, and I have 2 cups of peppers and ½ cup of vinegar in my jar, for example, I know I can just dump the contents of the jar into my pot and add an additional 1 ½ cups of vinegar.
Hot peppers should be handled with care. I wear gloves when working with them and keep "just in case" remedies close at hand–saline eyewash in case I forget and rub my eye, milk in case I taste something too hot to handle, and a solution of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dish soap that seems to work pretty well for getting capsaicin (the hot stuff) off my skin.
My favorite hot sauce recipe is a tomato based sauce from The Joy of Pickling, by Linda Ziedrich (click the link for my Garden Bookworm review). I've varied this recipe by using different types of hot peppers and by adding different spices as I simmered the sauce on the stove. You'll find your own favorite variations as you experiment, but be sure to keep the proportions of the ingredients pretty much the same if you plan to put up the sauce in jars, as that's important for food safety. Because heat processing can change flavor balances and heat levels, we generally opt for refrigerator storage of our hot sauces.
If you see a great end-of-the season deal at your local farmer's market, don't hesitate! Even a couple pints of peppers will let you turn out a great batch of homemade hot sauce. You'll be able to adjust the heat level and tweak the seasoning until you have a creation that's uniquely your own–a signature dish, a true "house seasoning." Put some next to the tortilla chips at your next party. Everybody loves to try a new type of hot sauce, the hotter the better. Finding out that you made it yourself will definitely spice up the conversation around the hors d'oeuvres!
"Leaping Lizard" Tex-Mex Style Hot Sauce
3 1/2 cups fresh tomato purée
Put the tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and 1 ½ cups of the vinegar into a nonreactive saucepan. Crack the peppercorns (I fold them in a napkin and bang them with a hammer). Put them into a teaball, or tie them up in a bit of cheesecloth, and add them to the pot. Boil the mixture, stirring occasionally, until it is reduced by half.
Take the pot off the heat and remove the peppercorns. Purée the mixture. You can use a blender or a food mill. I like to use my little immersion "stick blender" for this, running it around in the pot until the contents look smooth. Be careful, because splashing sauce may be hot not only from the stove but also from the chile peppers.
Put the purée and the peppercorns (still in their teaball) back into the pot. Add the salt and the remaining 2 cups of vinegar. Bring the sauce back to a boil and cook it down, stirring often, until it's as thick as you'd like.
The finished hot sauce can be processed in a boiling water bath (leave ¼ inch headspace and process 15 minutes for pints or half pints) or stored in sterile glass bottles in the refrigerator. The recipe can be doubled or tripled if you have a big pot. I keep a big jar or jug at the back of the fridge and use it to refill smaller bottles for everyday use.
Makes about 2 pints.
Not hot enough for you? Stay tuned for next week's article, "Some Like It Hotter! Making Caribbean Style Hot Sauce from Heaps of Habaneros."
 Recipe for "Pique" hot sauce adapted from Linda Ziedrich's wonderful book, The Joy of Pickling, Harvard Common Press, 1998. ISBN # 1-55832-133-0.
Photos and recipe variations by Jill M. Nicolaus.
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