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Pepper sauce, also called hot sauce or chili sauce, is any variety of spicy sauce made with chili peppers. Pepper sauce is common in many chili-growing countries throughout the world. Hot sauce varieties are usually classified by the peppers used and the amount of heat in the sauce, determined by the Scoville Scale.
In North America, pepper sauces vary by region. Mexican hot sauces tend to be less hot and more flavorful than other varieties, often using smoky chipotle peppers as a base. Louisiana-style pepper sauce is usually much hotter, frequently using cayenne or tabasco peppers as the base. Throughout the West Indies, a variety of versions exist, most using the Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper to add heat to the sauce. These flavorful varieties often include unusual ingredients, such as tropical fruit, cloves and limes.
Asian hot sauce is usually used as a dipping sauce or an added ingredient in stir-fry, as opposed to the North American varieties’ prevalence as a condiment. While some varieties, such as the Chinese Duo Jiao, are extremely hot, many Asian pepper sauces tend towards sweetness as opposed to heat. In California, traditional Vietnamese pepper sauce has become a popular topping for french fries. Japanese hot sauces are often blended into soups and noodle dishes, or used as a dipping sauce for dumplings like gyoza.
The reason peppers and pepper sauce tastes hot is because of a chemical component called capsaicin. This naturally-produced chemical is mildly irritating to humans, causing a burning feeling or sensation of heat in the mouth when ingested. The measure of piquancy in a variety of pepper is taken by a method called the Scoville scale.
The scale, and its resulting Scoville heat units, measures heat by determining at what level the heat of a pepper is no longer detectable. By diluting pepper extract with sweetened water until the capsaicin reaction no longer occurs, the Scoville scale creates a rating of how hot the pepper is. Anaheim chilies are rated between 500-2500 units, making them one of the milder chilies, whereas the Naga Jolokia pepper of India is believed to be the hottest pepper in the world, with a rating of 855,000–1,041,427 units.
To make your own hot sauce, chop fresh peppers or rehydrate dried ones and blend with vinegar, garlic, salt and whatever extra ingredients you prefer. Some recipes tell you to simmer the mixture to make a reduction, others recommend just pouring the blended or food processed ingredients into a sterilized glass jar, covering and refrigerating. Take care preparing fresh peppers, as the chemicals in them can cause burning sensations on the skin, and particularly in the eyes. You may wish to wear clean kitchen gloves when handling peppers.
Pepper sauce makes an excellent dipping sauce for appetizers or vegetables. It is traditionally served with Southwestern and Central American cuisine as a condiment. If you are making a stir-fry or noodle dish, try adding a few spoonfuls of chili during the cooking. If you have a very thin liquid sauce, which can be sold as pepper oil, try adding a few drops to popcorn. Using pepper sauce gives a delicious kick to any meal, and as you experiment you will discover your own preferences for heat level, concentration and favorite pepper sauce dishes.