Nobody knows when humans first discovered that the capsaicin in chili peppers would not kill them, but hot sauce was probably invented shortly thereafter. Archaeologists have found jars of hot sauce at ancient digs, so a point of origin is probably a subject for prehistoric anthropologists rather than historians.
In the United States, hot sauce goes back to 1807, when cayenne sauce was first bottled and sold not in New Orleans or Texas, but in Massachusetts. Of course, some definitional arguments ensue. For example, it seems likely that in the territory that became the American southwest somebody was eating some sort of pepper-based sauce or salsa. Nevertheless, a liquid, bottled hot sauce officially originated closer to Boston than Austin.
In 1849, Britain’s Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire Sauce came to America, accustoming the broader American market to the notion of a bottled sauce with a kick. By 1860, J. McCollick & Co. in New York City was selling bottled “Bird Pepper Sauce.”
But U.S. hot sauce production was set to go south in a big way. In 1849, Colonel Maunsell White had planted a crop of tobasco peppers in Louisiana, and by 1859, one Edmund McIlhenny had planted some seeds from White’s peppers. By 1868, McIlhenny had bottled his Tobasco Sauce for sale. McIlhenny was also a pioneer of recycling; he offered the first batch in used cologne bottles. McIlhenny patented his sauce in 1870, and the race was on.
Over the next 140 years dozens of hot sauces have sprung up, many surviving to the present.
To make southwestern hot sauce start by choosing your peppers. Chilis range from “mild” jalapenos, recommended for this recipe, to the bhut jolokia, the hottest pepper in the world. Clean the peppers of veins and seeds, then boil them in enough vinegar to cover the peppers, in a non-aluminum pan (vinegar and aluminum do not mix.) Using commercially available pepper mash, a fermented product, can make your sauce even better.
Start with 2 tbsp.s blanched seeded peppers as prepared above, or 2 tbsp.s pepper mash. Add one roasted seeded red bell pepper, one-half cup distilled vinegar, 1 clove garlic, and your signature spices. Starter pack: 1 tsp. black cumin, 1 1/2 tsp. powdered ancho pepper, and 1/2 tsp. salt. Puree ingredients in food processor, then microwave or cook until it begins to steam. Add vinegar to bring the total volume to 5 fluid ounces.
Bottle or jar the sauce and age it in your refrigerator for at least one week before using.
Every culture with access to chilis makes hot sauce, and sauces change as cultures interact.
A few other varieties include:
- Vietnamese sriracha hot pepper sauce. Made from chilis, garlic, sugar, and vinegar;
- African peri-peri (also peli-peli or piri-piri) sauce. Made from the “African Devil” chili, one of the hottest in the world, as well as onion, roasted garlic, sugar, turmeric, vinegar and lemon juice;
- Creole hot pepper sauce. Contains chili and cayenne pepper, tomato paste, wine vinegar, garlic, onion, salt, sugar, spices, herbs, and dried parsley; and
- Buffalo sauce. Invented in the 1960s in Buffalo, NY, as a coating for chicken wings; contains cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, black pepper, distilled vinegar, salt, garlic, and distilled vinegar.
Some of the most established domestic brand names include Tobasco Sauce and Louisiana Crystal Hot Sauce. Several concoctions borrow their names from toxic chemicals and the threat of nuclear annihilation, such as Da Bomb Hot Sauce, Defcon 1, 2, and 3 Wing Sauces, and Acid Rain Hot Sauce.