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|Hot Sauce Buying Guide|
Peppers of Key West
Hot Sauce Buying Guide
With literally thousands and thousands of hot sauce choices out there, it can be tough to navigate which ones are best for you. There are a lot of factors to consider, such as which peppers you like the best, some of your other favorite ingredients, particular styles of sauce you like, and, of course, your tolerance for heat.
The last item there, your tolerance for hot sauce heat, may just be the most important. We say that because no matter how much you like the underlying ingredients, you will not enjoy the sauce if you are overwhelmed by the heat. For some people, extreme levels of hot sauce heat only add to the enjoyment. While, for others, too much heat just flat out ruins the experience. We like to say here in the store “If the sauce overpowers the flavor of the food then why use it?”
Because everyone has different tolerances and we want everyone to enjoy sauces, hot or not, we think it's important to start by explaining how we rate the heat level of hot sauces we carry.
Our Heat Level Rating Scale
Every sauce we carry undergoes a testing process. First, we receive samples of hot sauces in the same form that they're sold to customers. That means, we're sampling the products in the same packaging, with the same ingredients, and from the same batches that we sell to our customers. We don't accept samples from specially made batches just for us to test or in special packaging made just for wholesale buyers. We do this because we want to make sure our customers always get the best products available and also so we know exactly what you're getting when you purchase from us.
We take a look at the ingredients and make sure the sauce maker is only using high-quality, consistent products in their hot sauces. Because we are so ingrained in the hot sauce industry, we know about the global supply of ingredients, particularly of different pepper types. That may not sound important, but we want to ensure our suppliers will be able to provide a continued level of quality to our customers.
Second, we taste every hot sauce that we consider selling. We don't just have one person taste it; we have several. Our staff samples the sauces and we rate them on taste from 1 (we don’t like it) to 5 (we should bring the sauce in). We also beta test the sauces we are considering with you, our customer. That's because everybody has different heat tolerances and we want to make sure we rate it correctly for the average person. In most cases, we try the hot sauces on different foods and in different recipes so we're able to make recommendations on pairing that sauce with different foods. This is especially true for unique sauces that people may not be familiar with.
We rate all of our hot sauces and products on a heat scale of 0 to 10. Keep in mind, every sauce in the store contains some kind of pepper. The hot sauce or product with a rating of 0 is one that has nothing more than a slight tang, usually from simple black pepper. A rating of 10 indicates that hot sauce has earned the honor of being one of the hottest substances known to man. Many of the hot sauces with the ratings of 10 are what are known as “collectors sauces.” These products are not necessarily meant to be consumed, but are still food grade products. The following is a more detailed description of our hot sauce heat level rating scale:
0 through 0.9: Sweet and Tangy. Sauces in this bracket are well-tolerated by pretty much anyone. The only reason we can see people not enjoying the sauces is because they don't particularly care for, or are allergic to, specific ingredients of that particular sauce. Allergens are a topic we specifically ask our customers prior to starting a tasting. Our entire selection of “Sweet and Tangy” sauces can be found here and here are a few examples of sauces in this category:
Keep in mind - just because a sauce mentions a particular pepper does not mean the sauce is going to be hot. The Mango Ginger Habanero mentions what used to be the hottest pepper on the planet but it is one of the last ingredients listed.
1 through 3.9: Mild. Sauces in this bracket begin what can aptly be called “hot sauces.” On the lower end of the scale, these sauces carry a slight heat level that would be comparable to a spicier black pepper or the mildest jalapeno. Hot sauces on the upper end of this bracket are significantly hotter. Most people can enjoy any of the sauces we rate as mild, even if they are not accustomed to spicy foods. These sauces often contain fruit ingredients in order to tone down the heat of the underlying pepper. Most of the hot sauces you find in your local grocery store would fall into this category, with the exception of a few that we would consider in the lower range of “hot.” Our entire selection of “Mild” hot sauces can be found here and here are a few examples of sauces in this category
4 through 6.9: Hot. Sauces in this range separate those with high tolerances and those with low. There's nothing wrong with having a low tolerance to heat, but chances are you'll find your threshold within this range. Because we have people in our store everyday tasting hot sauces of all kinds, we have a pretty good handle on what most people can tolerate. Over the years, we found that most people tend to find their limit around a heat rating of 5. That's one of the reasons we built our heat level rating scale the way we have. Hot sauces with a rating between 4 and 5 will usually seem very hot to the average person. Hot sauces with a rating above 5 may be extreme to some and just very hot others. For the most seasoned hot sauce lover, the fun begins at 5. Products in the upper end of this bracket are sauces that can still be used on food as opposed to in food and are best used sparingly. Our entire selection of ”Hot” Hot Sauces can be found here and here are a few examples of sauces in this category.
7 through 9: Extreme. Hot sauces in this range have earned the “hot” in their names. The average person will not endure products in this bracket. Even on the lower end of this bracket, these hot sauces are nothing less than extreme. The sauces are the opposite of the previous bracket – they should be used in food not on. Just a few drops to an entire batch of chili can make some of the hottest chili you ever had. The heat that comes from the sauces in the 7 range can be compared to eating a raw habanero pepper. In the upper ranges, the heat is even more intense as it is derived from pepper extracts and even the Ghost Pepper. Many of the products in the extreme heat levels are considered food additives and not sauces. This is because they are so hot that consuming them straight from the bottle is not only excruciating, but can actually invoke a guttural reaction from your body that is neither pleasant to experience or witness. There are few people in the world who can tolerate the hot sauces in the upper end of this category straight from the bottle. The best use for the sauces for most people is to enhance the flavor and heat level of their overall dishes and even other sauces. Hot sauce aficionados consider it a rite of passage to explore and experience the hot sauces in the extreme range. Our complete selection of “Extreme” hot sauces can be found here and here are a few examples of sauces in this bracket.
9.1 through 10: Weapons Grade. Earlier, we said we taste every sauce we sell. There are a few rare exceptions. The only sauces and products we don't taste ourselves are contained within this bracket. In some cases that's because not even we can tolerate the heat contained within these seemingly innocent bottles. In others, it's because the sauces are so rare that only a few bottles exist in the world. Just as you and I like to taste hotter and hotter sauces to find our own personal limits, there are sauce makers who continually try to make the hottest substances in the world. The hot sauce products in this bracket are the result of those efforts. In fact, we require a signed waiver to purchase many of the sauces in this bracket. There are still products in this heat range that are used for cooking. They are most certainly considered food additives and not sauces. A single drop added to an entire batch of food will make it hotter than most people can handle. Only those with the greatest tolerance to hot sauce heat should even consider entering the house of pain built with weapons grade hot sauces. Our entire selection of “Weapons Grade” Hot Sauces can be found here and here are a few examples of products in this bracket.
Mad Dog Pepper Extracts
Pepper Types and their Heat Levels
Just like hot sauces, there are a lot of different peppers out there. We can’t cover all of them without writing a novel, so let’s cover the most used in Hot Sauces. We’ll start with the low and no heat and end with the hottest. Before we do that though, it’s important to understand how a pepper’s heat is rated; enter the Scoville Scale.
The Scoville Scale was created by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. His scale is a relative measurement of the heat people experience when they eat peppers. It is measured by taking an alcohol extraction of the capsaicin concentrate in a given pepper and diluting it with a solution of sugar water. The extract is given to a panel of five testers and they report whether or not they detect the heat. A Scoville rating of zero means that no dilution was necessary. A Scoville rating of 200,000 means that the capsaicin extract had to be diluted 200,000 times with sugar water for the heat to be undetectable. As you can imagine, the results are pretty subjective. Testing the Scoville scale today no longer use’s Wilbur Scoville’s method. Instead, they use high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). HPLC is a test that uses equipment rather than people and is much more accurate.
Since the hot sauce world doesn’t like having to say “This pepper is a 100,000 on the high-performance liquid chromatography scale,” the industry has stuck with the term “Scoville Scale” even though the test is much more accurate. As a rule of thumb, the HPLC test results can be multiplied by 15 and the result is a relatively accurate Scoville Rating.
The Bell Pepper
The bell pepper has a Scoville rating of zero. That’s because it doesn’t contain capsaicin, the stuff that makes peppers hot. It doesn’t matter what color it is, it just doesn’t have any heat. Scientist’s have discovered that there is actually a recessive gene in the bell pepper that prevents the creation of capsaicin. Native to Mexico, South America, and Central America, most of the world’s bell peppers are now grown in China. Here are some sauces with bell pepper:
Remember – these sauces include the bell pepper but will also contain hotter peppers. Don’t assume that just because a sauce has bell peppers as an ingredient it will not have any heat.
The Banana Pepper
These are the little guys you often see in pizza places and many people mistake them for some type of pickled jalapeno. Depending on the exact variety, growth conditions, ripeness, etc, they have a Scoville rating of 100-900. They are not very hot, but do have a detectable heat. Banana Peppers are a pretty hardy variety that can be grown in most places. Here are some sauces with banana pepper:
Most people are familiar with pablano peppers. Many restaurants use them to heat things up a bit and add a peppery flavor. Some people even substitute them for bell peppers when called for in recipes. They have a Scoville rating of 1000-2500. The average person can consume food with these peppers without any “adverse” reaction. Most can even consume them raw and not be put to tears. They originate from Mexico, specifically the Puebla region of the country. The dried version of Pablano Peppers are called Ancho. Here are some pablano pepper sauces:
The Jalapeno Pepper
We’re pretty sure everyone knows what a jalapeno is and has probably tasted them at one time or another. They come in a wide spectrum of varieties and heat levels, but generally they fall within the 3,500-8,000 Scoville unit range. In the upper end, we start to see the tolerance of people decline. For the seasoned hot pepper lover, this is where the fun begins, but for others it can be their limit. As a side note, studies show that the average person believes that Tabasco sauce is the hottest sauce in existence. Tabasco sauce falls into the same Scoville bracket as Jalapeno peppers, so needless to say it is not the hottest sauce out there- not even remotely close. Jalapeno’s originate in Mexico and are still a major export of the Veracruz state of Mexico. There are far too many of our hot sauces containing jalapeno peppers to list – the following is just a smattering:
The Serrano Pepper
Serrano peppers are a popular pepper for making hot sauce. They have a distinct flavor and fall into the Scoville scale right above Jalapeno’s, but before things get really serious. With a Scoville rating of between 10,000 and 23,000, the heat does start to separate the timid from the chilihead. Remember the nursery rhyme about Peter Piper? Well, there is actually a variety of peppers called Peter Peppers and they also fall into this bracket. Serrano peppers also originate from Mexico and are the most used pepper in the country. The most common use is in pico de gallo. Some serrano pepper sauces:
The Cayenne Pepper
Most times people experience cayenne pepper it’s in a dry spice form. Although it’s a great spice, it just doesn’t have the resident heat of the actual pepper. It may surprise you to know that the cayenne pepper has a Scoville rating for between 30,000 and 50,000. It’s actually a pretty hot pepper that has a smoky taste. The name is after the capital city of French Guiana, which is Cayenne (maybe that’s a Trivial Pursuit question). Back in the day, these peppers were sold as male aphrodisiacs in Europe based on the claim that the high levels of capsaicin increased blood flow and… well, you can guess. Here are some cayenne pepper sauces to get you going:
Peri Peri Pepper
The name “Peri Peri” is actually somewhat of a slang term. The translated name of the pepper is African Bird’s Eye, but Peri Peri comes from terms used by tribes that are more similar to “Pili Pili” and “Peli Peli.” As travelers found the peppers and brought them back to Europe, the name was adopted as Peri Peri. To even further cloud the waters, the Portuguese use sauces based on the pepper with citrus and spices that is called “Peri Peri Sauce.” So, true Peri Peri sauces are, in fact, derivations of this concept, but there are also Peri Peri sauces that employ the pepper and not the Portuguese recipe. On the Scoville Scale, the Peri Peri Pepper is in the range of 50,000 to 100,000. Here are some peri peri sauces:
There are a lot of folks who believe the Habanero pepper is the hottest in the world. It’s not, but it is understandable why they might think that. Until the 2007, the Red Savina variety of the Habanero was the hottest pepper around. It has since been surpassed on more than one occasion. The Habanero pepper originated in the Amazon and spread through Mexico, the Caribbean, and even the southwest US. It thrives in hot climates and the flavor of the pepper varies greatly with growing conditions and actual variety. Because there are so many different versions of the Habanero pepper, the heat also varies greatly. Habanero peppers range in heat from 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville units- a very wide range to say the least. Just like jalapeno sauces, habanero peppers invade most hot sauces like jelly beans around Easter (seriously, we make habanero jelly beans)!
Scotch Bonnet Pepper
The Scotch Bonnet is actually a member of the same family as Habanero peppers. Their pod is slightly different, but the organics are very similar. Because of that, the heat range of the Scotch Bonnet is the same as Habanero peppers, 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville units. Grown mostly in the Caribbean and West Africa, this pepper is actually named after the Tam o’Shanter, which is the traditional cap worn by Scots. Why, you might ask? Because people felt the pepper resembled the look of the cap. Some scotch bonnet sauces:
Datil peppers resemble Habanero and Scotch Bonnets in heat, in the 100,000-300,000 Scoville unit range. They are sweeter than those two, however, and are not grown widely around the world. That’s because they are a picky pepper. They require a very strict set of conditions in order to thrive. It just so happens that perfect location is in the area of St. Augustine, Florida and that’s where most of the worlds Datil peppers are grown today. The Datil has a fruity taste to it that is much sweeter than Habanero’s. Interestingly enough, the Datil belongs to the Capsicum Chinense family, which means Chinese Pepper. This is the same family as Habanero and Scotch Bonnet. None of these peppers originated in China, but a Dutch botanist, named Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin, mistakenly believed they did and gave them the family name in 1776. It stuck and was never corrected. Some datil pepper sauces:
Red Savina Pepper
As we said earlier, the Red Savina is indeed a Habanero. It has such a higher heat level than the ordinary Habanero, however, that it deserves it’s own mention. Red Savina’s rate from 350,000 to 580,000 Scoville units. They can be grown successfully in the same conditions as their parent Habanero. A gentleman named Frank Garcia of Walnut California is credited with the development of the pepper, but no one is really sure how he did it. He never told and we can only assume it’s a hybrid of different peppers, probably of the same family. The Red Savina held the Guiness record for hottest pepper from 1994 through 2007, when it was unseated by the Bhut Jolokia (aka Ghost Pepper). A few red savina sauces:
Bhut Jolokia Pepper
Things get really serious with this pepper. We take a big jump on the Scoville Scale with ratings for this pepper between 855,000 to 1,460,000 units. Yes, we have broken the million Scoville Unit measure with this pepper. From 2007 through 2012, the Bhut Jolokia pepper held the Guiness record, when it was unseated by the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T Pepper. Grown in India, for the most part, the Bhut Jolokia is a hybrid pepper that crosses family lines. With elements of Capsicum Chinense and also Capsicum Frutescens, this is one seriously hot hot pepper. There are many names for this little demon, but the most popular alternatives are Naga Jolokia and the Ghost Pepper. A few ghost pepper sauces:
Trinidad Scorpion Butch T Pepper
This pepper is a derivation of the Trinidad Scorpion pepper. Its name is derived from a man named Butch Taylor who is credited with propagating the seeds. For a short period of time in 2012, the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T Pepper held the honor of being the hottest pepper in the world, even though the heat range is within the same range as the Bhut Jolokia. That’s because the testing showed a more consistent higher level of heat than the Jolokia. Heat Ranges from 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 Scoville Units. As the Butch T held the hottest pepper ranking for such a short time we do not carry any sauces made with the “T”.
Trinidad Moruga Scorpion
To date, this is the hottest pepper in the world. Cultivated
in Trinidad, hence the name, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion comes in at a
whopping 1,500,000 to 2,009,000 Scoville Units. That heat level was previously
only achievable by processing the various pepper types into extracts and
concentrations. Now, you can get that level of heat from a single, raw pepper.
Just to give a point of comparison, the strongest police grade pepper spray
rates slightly less hot than this pepper in its raw form. I don’t know about
you, but I can’t imagine spraying that stuff right into my mouth. We expect
we’ll start to see more sauces made with the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion hit the
market shortly, but right now only a couple exist and here they are: AVAILABLE SOON!
Cajon’s Trinidad Hot Sauce
Heartbreaking Dawn’s Trinidad Scorpion Sauce
So, there it is. Certainly, this isn’t all there is to know about hot sauces; just when we think we’ve seen it all, something new comes out and we learn something new. We hope you learned something here and maybe this kickstarts your desire to learn even more.
We like to hear from our chiliheads, about their peppery experiences and things they’ve discovered that we may not know yet. So, reach out and share with us!
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