Spicy food is exciting. Eating it comes with the thrill of consuming something that is meant to hurt you—contests like Paqui’s One Chip Challenge have gone viral many times over. When you cook, adding a bit of heat can be a good way to get a visceral reaction from your guests. And for a truly personal touch, you can craft a hot sauce recipe that’s entirely your own.
Homemade hot sauce is super simple to make, too. At its most basic, a hot sauce is three ingredients: hot peppers, vinegar, and salt. Beyond this trinity, most sauces contain just a few other components—habanero sauces often use mango for that extra sweetness, for example.
Despite their overall simplicity, figuring out how to make hot sauce that pleases your palate is a trial-and-error process, as you add and subtract extra ingredients to build the perfect concoction. So while the two recipes below are solid walkthroughs for mild and spicy sauces, you should feel free to experiment and alter the add-ons as you see fit.
Before you start
When you’re handling hot peppers, it’s important to keep your hands away from your eyes and other sensitive areas so you don’t accidentally irritate your skin. Capsaicin—the chemical compound in hot peppers that makes you feel like your mouth is burning—is largely found in the placenta, or the white stuff that connects the colorful flesh with the seeds. Use particular caution there. With milder peppers, like jalapeños or serranos, the decision to use gloves is up to you, but if you use your bare hands, make sure to wash them thoroughly when you’re done.
If you’re using a superhot pepper like the bhut jolokia or Carolina reaper, definitely wear gloves and be careful with the whole thing: their skin contains capsaicin too, according to Paul Bosland, director of New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute. Workers at Puckerbutt Pepper Company, where the Carolina reaper was invented, use two pairs of gloves when handling the peppers because the outer pair will wear off in just 30 minutes.
[Related: Why do people like spicy food?]
Although capsaicin is absolutely an irritant, the heat response you feel when touching or eating hot peppers is more of a biological trick. Your skin has one sensory receptor that responds to heat, and capsaicin can bind to that receptor, tricking your body into thinking it’s hot, Bosland says. Capsaicin attaches to fats and oils, but not water, so Bosland suggests reaching for any kind of milk if you eat something too hot. This heat-quenching strategy could be useful as you refine your hot sauce recipe.
- Time: 15 to 30 minutes
- Ingredient cost: $10
- Difficulty: easy
- Yield: about 1 pint
- Cutting board
- Chef’s knife
- Storage containers (like old hot sauce bottles or mason jars)
- (Optional) oven
- (Optional) funnel
How to make mild hot sauce
A pepper’s spice level is measured using the Scoville Heat Unit scale (SHU). Pure capsaicin is approximately 16 million SHU, and the Carolina reaper runs at about 1.5 million. This sauce uses jalapeños (about 8,000 SHU) and a roasted poblano (around 1,000 SHU) for a mild concoction with a lot of flavor.
This sauce came out green because all the peppers I used were green, but if you want a red hot sauce, you could use Fresno, Calabrian, or cayenne peppers. Beyond the base pepper-vinegar-salt combo, you can add a few cloves of garlic and some ground cumin if you want to make the flavor more complex.
- 4 jalapeños
- ½ cup of white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon of kosher salt
- 4 garlic cloves
- Black pepper
- (Optional) 1 poblano pepper
- (Optional) 1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1. (Optional) Roast the poblano. Preheat your oven to broil, then wash your poblano pepper. When the oven is ready, roast the pepper for five minutes on each side, 10 minutes total. You’re looking for charred, blackened skin, so feel free to cook for another five or 10 minutes if you’re not satisfied with the results.
2. Prepare your ingredients. Wash your peppers if you haven’t already, then remove their stems and peel the garlic cloves. Cut the jalapeños and poblano into halves or quarters, depending on their size. Since all of this will be blended together, you don’t have to finely chop the ingredients.
3. Blend everything. Put the halved peppers, garlic, white vinegar, and kosher salt into your blender, and blend until all the ingredients are well combined, about one minute.
4. Add seasonings. Despite the name of our publication, cooking can definitely be more of an art than a science sometimes. Before you add anything, taste the blend to figure out what’s missing. After my first spin, I added a teaspoon of ground cumin, eight cranks of black pepper, and another splash of white vinegar. If you think the sauce is too acidic, you can add a bit of sugar. If you want a very runny hot sauce (like Tabasco) you can add more vinegar. You can also dilute the vinegar with water to avoid making the sauce too acidic.
- Note: This recipe is light on vinegar because I wanted a slightly more viscous sauce. It’s also important to remember that while you can always add more of an ingredient, you can’t add less, so use moderation if you’re unsure about proportions.
5. Blend everything again. Incorporate the seasonings you added by blending the mixture for another minute. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you’re satisfied with how your sauce looks and tastes.
6. Bottle it up. Once you’re happy with the taste of your homemade hot sauce, it’s time to store it. You can reuse old (clean) hot sauce bottles by putting a funnel into the bottle and pouring your new sauce in. If you have a few mason jars lying around the house, you can use those instead.
How to make spicier hot sauce
For a hotter sauce, I decided to use Thai (or bird’s eye) chilies. These chilies are small and packed with heat, coming in at roughly 100,000 SHU, so I added a red bell pepper to reduce the spice and increase the volume of my sauce. Hot sauces are normally made with white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or rice vinegar, and I chose the last of those three for this because it’s the sweetest and least acidic—I was concerned about too many conflicting tastes. I also added some soy sauce (and halved the amount of salt so the sauce wasn’t too salty), garlic, and ginger to add a different type of pungent flavor.
[Related: Spiciness isn’t a taste, and more burning facts about the mysterious sensation]
If you don’t have high spice tolerance, don’t worry. Everyone’s spice tolerance is based on the number of sensory receptors they have on their tongue, Bosland says. Fewer receptors means a person has high spice tolerance, while more receptors means a lower tolerance. But the more receptors you have, the more you’ll pick up on the subtler notes of a pepper’s heat.
- About ⅛ pound of Thai chilies
- 1 red bell pepper
- ½ teaspoon of kosher salt
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 small knob of ginger
- ½ cup of rice vinegar
- ¼ cup of soy sauce
- (Optional) toasted sesame oil
1. Prepare your ingredients. Wash your chilies and pepper, then remove their stems. Roughly chop the bell pepper. The Thai chilies are small enough that you can just leave them whole. Remove the skin from both the garlic and ginger.
2. Blend everything together. Put the peppers, chilies, garlic, ginger, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and kosher salt into your blender, and blend on high until the ingredients are well combined. This may take one to two minutes.
- Note: You may have to stop the blender and scrape down the sides a few times to ensure all ingredients are fully mixed into the sauce.
3. Add seasonings. For this sauce, the only additional seasoning I used was toasted sesame oil. Its flavor can be overwhelming, so add extremely small amounts if you use it, tasting until you reach your preferred flavor.
4. Blend everything again. Incorporate the seasonings you added by blending the mixture again for about a minute. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’re satisfied with how your sauce looks and tastes.
5. Bottle it up. Once you’re happy with the taste, use a funnel and an old hot sauce bottle, mason jar, or another equivalent container to store the sauce.