07.28.09

Hot-Sauce Addicts

Never seen a grown man cry? Give him a Bhut Jolokia pepper, said to be one of, if not thehottest in the world. And get the tissues ready.

Never seen a grown man cry? Give him a Bhut Jolokia pepper, said to be one of, if not the hottest in the world. And get the tissues ready.

Hot peppers, hot sauces, and how hot you can take it have become an obsession. Knowing what sauce you prefer on which foods, and what peppers you prefer in your sauces, is now as gastronomically necessary as knowing your guanciale from your lardons. And the hotter you can take it, the cooler you are.

There are thousands of types of hot sauces on the market today, made from many different chilies with different tastes, varying degrees of hotness, and ingredients. You expect to find hot peppers in barbecue sauces, salsas, rubs and seasonings, dipping sauces, chilis, jerk sauces, curries, and soups. But peppers have broken out and are making cameos in all kinds of surprising places—some favorites include Mama Zuma's Revenge Habañero potato chips by Route 11, Sriracha peanuts, and jalapeño-cucumber lemonade mixes.

“Hot-sauce eaters are like drug addicts—except with tacos instead of tourniquets.”

Cocktails in particular seem to be the new pepper canvas. In the past year, more and more restaurants have started adding spicy concoctions to their drink menus; in New York City, hip Chelsea spot Cookshop has a cilantro jalapeño margarita, and in the West Village you can try Mercadito Grove’s Tres Cítricos margarita, which takes it up a notch with orange, grapefruit, lime, and habañero.

Choosing which hot sauce or pepper to add to food has become an art form; there's Sriracha for Thai food, Tabasco for eggs, Cholula for pizza, and scotch bonnet varieties for jerk chicken and rice. There are hot curry sauces, green chili sauces, garlic-infused hot sauces, single pepper sauces, and buffalo sauces. There are entire stores and Web sites devoted to hot sauces, and manufacturers are tripping over themselves to come up with the spiciest sauces and the most memorable names to win your business—names like "Slap Ya Mama," "Acid Rain, " "Ass in the Tub," and "Anal Agony" wouldn't typically seem like such enticing marketing messages, but for hot-sauce fiends, the more it hurts, the better. Real habañero-heads have even started growing their own peppers (seedrack.com boasts that they now sell seeds for what they claim to be the hottest peppers in the world, the Bhut Jolokia, or “ghost pepper”).

But it's not always about the pain; there are some hot sauces that when used correctly can add actual flavor. Basically, for those of us who love hot peppers, food just isn't exciting without them. And there is real proof behind this.

1. Hurt So Good? Here’s how it works: When you eat hot peppers, especially the really hot kinds like scotch bonnets, the body feels pain in the mouth and throat that causes a release of endorphins. These endorphins create a sense of euphoria or well-being, which makes you want to eat more peppers for more endorphins. But the more hot peppers you eat, the more likely you are to build up a tolerance, which means that in order to achieve that high, you need to eat more and more hot peppers. So basically, hot-sauce eaters are like drug addicts—except with tacos instead of tourniquets.

2. The Heat Factor. Contrary to popular belief, the seeds of a pepper are not its hottest part; the burning, tear-inducing, beads-of-sweat-on-the-forehead-causing, sinus-clearing pain is caused by the capsaicin oils found in the veins and membranes of the peppers. And in general, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. If you’re hoping to reduce some of the heat, taking away the seeds and ribs (veins) will help, but typically, the heat from a hot pepper is virtually indestructible and will remain intact despite cooking and freezing and even grinding. In fact because of its durable, heat-creating properties, capsaicin has many uses including deep heat rubs for sports injuries, and of course, pepper spray.

3. How to Ease the Pain. Is your mouth burning? You may have heard that water doesn't help, because it doesn’t mix with capsaicin (oil). Dairy is your friend here, specifically the fat in dairy. So reach for some extra sour cream, yogurt, or drink a glass of milk. But remember: It's fat that's important here, so low-fat options won't work as well.

4. The Health Benefits of Hot Peppers. In case you needed a reason to pick up that extra bottle of “Ass in Space” hot sauce, you can take comfort in the health benefits of hot peppers. Chile peppers are naturally low in sodium, cholesterol-free, and are a huge source of Vitamins A and C. In fact, chile peppers have more Vitamin C than any other vegetable—though perhaps drinking OJ might be an easier way to get your daily allowance. Studies also have found that capsaicin has been associated with the lowering of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and can even be helpful to people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. And contrary to the belief that eating spicy foods can cause stomach ulcers, capsaicin is reported to hold digestive benefits. And for the grand finale, eating hot peppers with capsaicin has been found to increase metabolism and act as an appetite suppressant—which means you’re burning calories as you eat!

I'll drink a jalapeno margarita to that.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Abby Schneiderman has been a member of Cookstr's management team since its inception. Cookstr is a Web site devoted to great, tested recipes from chefs and cookbook authors. Abby is also a principal at Tipping Point Partners where she helps start and grow companies like Cookstr.