Rising Heat

Columbia’s hot sauce fever

“Feel the burn” is a popular catchphrase that refers to the intense reactions a person experiences while engaged in extreme physical exercise, or after a mouthful of a scorching hot sauce. 

If a chile-laced condiment is the preferred way to “feel the burn,” one might have a penchant for thrill seeking, according to researchers at Penn State’s Sensory Evaluation Center. They found that people with an affinity for the burning sensations caused by capsaicin — a natural, bioactive compound in chile peppers — might also relish the buzz associated with challenging activities like riding a bull or rappelling down a cliff. 

Beyond the dynamics of personality, there are other factors that come into play in determining an individual’s fondness for the peppery elixir: genetics, cultural influences and repeated exposure to capsaicin. But whatever the motivation, no food has inspired such a cult following as hot sauce, and America’s appetite for heat is on the rise! 


Hot Sauce is Caliente

To say the hot sauce industry is “hot” would be an understatement. Worth more than $1 billion, it has rapidly outpaced the overall condiment category. The sales tracking firm NPD Group says hot sauce sales have grown by 150 percent during the past 15 years; more than 56 percent of American households stock at least one brand as a pantry staple. Hot sauce lovers often buy a variety of hot sauces for different uses. Some carry a small bottle with them to spice up their meals wherever they go.

A bewildering array of hot sauces are available in local grocery stores. The gold standard is the TABASCO® brand from Avery Island, Louisiana — handcrafted since 1868 when it was sold in cologne bottles. Salt cultivated from mines beneath Avery Island plays an essential role in the production. 


Measuring Scoville Chile Heat

The Scoville Organoleptic Test is a method to quantify the amount of heat in chile peppers. Wilbur L. Scoville, a chemist with Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical Company, devised the scale in 1912. He soaked a precise amount of chile pepper overnight in an alcohol solution to extract the capsaicin. He then diluted the extract with sugar-water in incremental portions, tasting until the heat was barely perceptible to his palate. The more dilution needed, the higher the Scoville heat unit rating (SHU). For example, Scotch bonnet chiles (350,000 SHU) must be diluted up to 350,000 times to eliminate the heat.

Results varied slightly due to sensory fatigue and human subjectivity. Scientists now rely on high performance liquid chromatography instead of human taste buds; results are converted to SHU. As a point of reference, pure capsaicin is 16 million SHU; a sweet bell pepper registers near zero. A jalapeño is 2,500 to 10,000 SHU; a serrano 10,000 to 23, 000 SHU; and cayenne and tabasco, 30,000 to 50,000 SHU. Heat ratings can vary within a pepper variety depending on the growing conditions. According to the American Chemical Society, drought and dry heat produce the hottest chile peppers. Red chiles are hotter than green ones, and the thinner the stem, the hotter the chile.


Home Grown Heat

Boutique hot sauces made with organic ingredients combined in unique pairings are changing the industry landscape. They are characterized by small, handcrafted batches with bold levels of heat and flavor. Seek out artisan sauces at farmers markets, hot sauce emporiums, specialty food stores and online. Also check out fiery food competitions, the Columbia International Festival and trade shows. 

Red-hot chile peppers are the fruit of plants from the capsicum genus and the primary ingredient in hot sauce. Vinegar or water, salt and sugar are added, as well as fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. Usually more thin sauce ingredients are liquefied and can be processed raw, cooked, fermented or steeped. The earliest recipe most likely included small, hot chilies steeped in vinegar. In the South, this is called pepper sauce. It has a place on nearly every table; sprinkle over collards, turnip greens, cabbage or other cooked foods that need zip. 

Some hot sauce producers blend sizzling chiles with fruits and vegetables to help tame the heat. Melinda’s Original Habanero Hot Sauce blends chiles with fresh carrots, onions, garlic and a hint of lime for a harmony of heat and flavor. Melinda’s was the first hot sauce to introduce the habanero chile. 


Chiles Are Good For You 

Many health benefits are packed into each bottle of hot sauce. The Badiano Codex, a 16th century guide for Aztec herbal remedies, suggests numerous medical uses for chilies. Chile extracts were used as a painkiller in the pre-Columbian era.

Experimental research from the Harvard School of Public Health presents accumulating evidence that active components of spices, particularly capsaicin in fresh and dried chiles, can be beneficial to human health. Several studies link capsaicin with weight loss by decreasing appetite. It also burns calories by triggering a thermodynamic burn in the body, speeding up metabolism. 

Ongoing studies support the effectiveness of capsaicin in preventing and fighting cancer. One study from Chinese Medical University in Taiwan reports on capsaicin’s anti-tumor activities in targeting cancer cell’s mitochondria (cell energy-makers) and triggering their death. 

Capsaicin is also effective in headache medications, cough lozenges, muscle patches and analgesic creams to relieve soreness, arthritis and nerve pain. Chiles are a good source of potassium and vitamins. Sixteenth century Spanish sailors ate chilies on long voyages to ward of the effects of scurvy. 

One fresh, medium-size green chile pod has as much vitamin C as six oranges and one teaspoon of dried red chile powder offers the daily requirement of vitamin A — if you can eat it! 

Well, you know what they say: no pain, no gain. Sometimes beauty has to hurt! 


Carolina Heat

South Carolina and surrounding states are producing a bumper crop of flavorful hot sauces. Here are several to try: 

•9°80° Panamá Gourmet Sauces, created by Mount Pleasant resident Smith Anderson, can be found in restaurant kitchens throughout Charleston and in Columbia. The flavorful sauces and marinades are produced from Panamá-grown chilies and include Picante Panamá, Wild Cilantro and Smoky Chipotle. Sauces available at 980Sauce.com.

•Charleston Original Sauces, LLC, owned by Mary Caroline Rhea in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, created the popular condiment Charleston Hot Sauce, which is especially good with seafood. Sauces available at CharlestonOriginalSauces.com.

•Consuming Fires Sauces & Seasonings™, owned by Teresa and Ron Jones of Greenville, South Carolina, produces award-winning Smoked Andouille Sauce, Smoked Jalapeño Sauce and Smoked Habenero Sauce. Smoked chiles enhance the flavor-profile of the sauces, adding dimension. Sauces available at ConsumingFires.com.

•Food for the Southern Soul™ proprietor Jimmy Hagood of Charleston has made an indelible mark on the Lowcountry food scene. Jimmy keeps the pantries of South Carolinians and would-be Southerners well stocked with his Peach Slow Burn Hot Sauce, a classic sweet-and-hot combination that he says has a “slow burn.” Sauces available at FoodForTheSouthernSoul.com.

•Palmetto Pepper Potions hot sauce company, owned by Julie and Mark Riffle of Forest Acres, South Carolina, has earned 12 food industry awards and been featured in Chef magazine, Chile Pepper magazine and Southern Living, among others. Products include Molten Golden, Daily Red and Larynx Lava. The hottest sauce, Trenholm Venom, features red habaneros, South Carolina peaches, fresh lime and garlic. Available in fine stores locally and at PepperPotions.com.

•Red Clay Southern Hot Sauce, created by Charleston chef Geoff Rhyne, contains locally grown Fresno chiles. The flavorful sauce is aged in bourbon barrels and cold-pressed to retain subtle flavors. The Carolina Hot version includes a portion of blazing-hot Carolina Reapers. Hot Sauce Verde contains serrano peppers with hints of apple, fennel and cilantro. Find bottles of this hot sauce at RedClayHotSauce.com.

•Smoking J’s Fiery Foods in Candler, North Carolina, is owned by Tara and Joel Mowrey. It is one of the largest United States producers of ghost peppers and other super hot chiles. The handcrafted hot sauces include Roasted Ghost Hot Sauce, Jamaican Ginger Hot Sauce and Carolina Cayenne Hot Sauce. Sauces available at SmokingJsFieryFoods.com.

•The Carolina Reaper is a hybrid chile pepper of the capsicum chinense species, crossbred from the ghost pepper and the red habanero by cultivator Ed Currie in Fort Mill, South Carolina. This incendiary chile — with its scorpion-like tail — was certified as the world’s hottest chile pepper at Winthrop University and listed in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2013. Those brave enough to taste it, and there are many, say that eating one will make your eyes roll into the back of your head. You might even hallucinate! Ed works to develop rich flavor as well as heat, and he is interested in the health benefits, often donating chiles for cancer research.  Carolina Reaper hot sauces are available at PuckerButtPepperCompany.com.

•The Farmer’s Daughter brand is located in Carrboro, North Carolina. Owner April McGregor is the daughter of sweet potato growers. Her Sweet Potato-Habanero Hot Sauce has a mellow base of sweet potato with a fruity, vibrancy of flavor and heat. Sauces available at FarmersDaughterBrand.com.

•The Pepper Palace is an award-winning, privately held, online business with 30 retail store locations including Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. You can taste some of the hottest, most flavorful sauces around. Sauces available at PepperPalace.com.