“Our industry depends on it,” says Lindsay Howerton, senior vice president of operations and human resources at Original Juan, a Rosedale-based company that uses peppers from all over the world to invent and produce hot sauces, dressings and salsas that are shipped to every state in this nation and 13 other countries.
Turns out Original Juan makes some of the hottest hot sauces in the world. The hottest of the hot is the Source. A combination of chili pepper extracts, this sauce tops the charts at 7.1 million on the Scoville scale. It’s so hot that the company requires a signed liability waiver from anyone brave enough to sample the potion at the tasting room in the Original Juan production facility.
“It’s memorable, to say the least,” Howerton says. “People turn purple when they taste it.”
Why would people put themselves through such torture?
A chili addict herself, Howerton describes the heat as lighting up all the senses, starting as a slow bloom and finishing as a full rush. She adds that it can take 2 minutes to bring the taster to tears.
Just how hot is hot?
That’s the question pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville set out to answer in 1912. A century later, the world still uses the Scoville scale to measure the level of heat from a chili.
A chemical compound called capsaicin is what makes a pepper hot, and it’s found in the walls and veins of chili pods. Scoville devised a scale of capsaicin concentrations in multiples of 100, starting at zero and topping off at what was previously thought to be a hair-raising 350,000 units. A completely subjective measurement, the units essentially represent the amount of sugar syrup it takes to dilute the chili extract in your mouth. The degree of dilution determines where the pepper sits on the scale.
To get a sense of perspective on this hot topic, it’s important to note that pure capsaicin weighs in at 16 million units. Bell peppers contain no capsaicin and therefore don’t register on the Scoville scale. But once you start popping jalapenos and serranos, which weigh in around 5,000 to 10,000 units, you should feel the heat. Dried chilis are hotter than their fresh counterparts, and habaneros tip the scale at a mean 350,000.
In all fairness to Scoville, there are hotter peppers produced now than 100 years ago. And that’s where the fun begins. According to Guinness World Records, the hottest chili was found during a 2011 test conducted in Australia. The Trinidad Scorpion Butch T was rated a whopping 1,463,700 Scoville heat units.
Original Juan’s company slogan: “Pain Is Good.” Kit Maxfield, manager of product development, says Original Juan recipes have to be hot. In fact, the low end of their heat spectrum is what the typical consumer would consider to be medium hot.
“We want to please as many people as we can,” Maxfield says, “but we have to stay true to our brand.”
Likewise, Howerton says she understands that not everyone is suited to work at the company. “You have to be a foodie and a chili head to work here,” she says.
Chili heads know which pepper or sauce to use on which dish. For example, Howerton will reach for a jalapeno sauce if a light and lime-y additive is desired. But when she prefers smoke and heartiness, perhaps as a meat substitute, she may pick a chipotle-based sauce. So what does she do when she is dining at a restaurant that doesn’t offer myriad sauces? Howerton carries a bottle of sauce in her purse for just these situations.
Chilies are considered to be helpful in the pursuit of weight loss. Similar to forms of exercise that make you hot, consuming a hot sauce can increase your metabolism. It can also create the same endorphin rush that runners experience.
But what if the burn is intolerable?
Many of us have experienced that moment of panic when our mouth feels like it’s on fire. Instinctively, we reach for a glass of ice water and start gulping. But Maxfield explains that cold water is the wrong medicine. That’s because capsaicin is a fatty molecule that is not soluble in water; in other words, water merely spreads the burn.
Milk and hot sauce may not sound like an appealing combination, but a tall drink of the white stuff will snuff out the heat. Actually, any dairy product will do the trick. Olive oil works, too, for those in agony.
Cooking with hot chili peppers presents its own set of challenges. For starters, getting capsaicin on your hands can cause blistering of the skin, so wear gloves when working with hot peppers. There’s also a danger to your eyes, so don’t rub them when working with hot peppers.
But it’s not just eating and touching hot peppers that can cause discomfort. Breathing a chili pepper’s hot components can also be problematic. During the regular washdown of equipment at Original Juan’s, Howerton says, it’s not unusual for employees to start coughing. This is because water spreads vapors into the air and throughout the building.
Besides producing 150 of its own proprietary products, Original Juan also works with individuals to create micro-batches of products that are often based on long-held family recipes or pie-in-the-sky ideas. Jeff (Stretch) Rumaner, owner of Grinders and Grinders West restaurants, turned to Original Juan to make Death Nectar for the restaurant’s chicken wings, which have been featured on Food Network.
“Most manufacturers won’t talk to you unless you order 500 gallons right off the bat,” he says. Original Juan requires a minimum of 136 gallons, and that’s only after a sample kettle of 4 gallons is approved by the customer, and the company does a slightly larger test batch to make sure there are no issues before going to production.
“They have an in-house laboratory where they walk you through the entire process,” Rumaner says. This includes developing the flavor profile, doing taste tests and finding a source for the selected peppers to make sure the sauce can be mass-produced. Original Juan is now producing four products for Grinders at a total of 1,000 gallons annually.
Original Juan gets peppers from India and Ecuador, and most arrive in dried or powdered form, which makes the sauce preparation less labor-intensive than starting with fresh peppers. But Original Juan also works with pepper mashes. These are fresh chilies, such as habaneros, ghosts, serranos or aji amarillos, that have been ground and stemmed but not peeled. They are packed in a 10 percent salt solution to allow a bit of fermentation and add a savory layer of flavor to the eventual product.
Original Juan’s test kitchen is led by Ali Shirazi, chef of the late, great Shiraz Restaurant on Southwest Boulevard. With a thorough understanding of the heat levels and flavor characteristics of most peppers, he and his crew blend different peppers to see what works best for a particular product.
“We don’t go by formulas when it comes to conversion,” he says. “It’s all a matter of taste.”
Original Juan produces sauces for Blanc Burgers & Bottles, Oklahoma Joe’sand the Roasterie, as well as for clients who prefer to remain anonymous. In all, Original Juan churns out 900 products, 150 of which are proprietary.
Creating a sauce is a matter of trial and error. “Sometimes we nail it in the first three-hour session,” Maxfield says. “Other times, the tasting panel has to meet six or seven times in order to come up with the final product.”
Meanwhile, new varieties of peppers are being produced. In large part, this is because chilies are, pardon the pun, a hot product.
Tracy Ritter, who is the culinary director of the Santa Fe School of Cooking, sees a resurgence of interest in cooking with chili peppers over the last several years. As evidence, Ritter points to the country’s demographic shifts. “As the Hispanic population increases, there are more Mexican, Tex-Mex and Spanish restaurants rolling out across the United States,” she says.
For decades, Southwestern cooking was a niche cuisine, led by such chefs as Mark Miller in Santa Fe and Bobby Flay in New York City. “But now,” Ritter says, “chili peppers are part of the mainstay of the American diet.”
The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center reports chili pepper production is up 10 percent since 2009. Ritter, a former chef of a Mexican restaurant in New York City, experiments with a variety of peppers. But she says the four chilies easiest to use in sauces are chipotle, New Mexico red, guajillo and ancho peppers. Incidentally, guajillos have the same properties as grapes, with notes of raisin and smoke. And ancho chilies taste distinctly of chocolate.
California is the largest U.S. producer of chili peppers, but New Mexico is an obvious source of peppers, especially for the ubiquitous red chili sauce that smothers enchiladas, tamales and burritos in that chili-loving state. But the United States certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on this hot commodity. Chilies are grown around the globe, with hotbeds in India, China and Ecuador.
It seems that everywhere, bottles of hot sauce have a place at the table.
Where to buy hot peppers
Brookside Farmers Market: Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., April through October
Green Acres Farmers Market: Thursdays, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., June through September
KCK Greenmarket at Juniper Gardens (corner of Third Street and Richmond Avenue in Kansas City, Kan.): Mondays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., June through September
Marsh’s Sunfresh Market: 4001 Mill St.
Merriam Farmers Market: Saturdays, 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., May through September
Overland Park Farmers Market: Wednesdays and Saturdays, 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., April through October
Roeland Park Price Chopper: 4950 Roe Blvd., Roeland Park
Waldo Farmers Market: Wednesdays, 3 to 7 p.m., May through September
Who likes it hot?
There are more ways to love peppers than in sauce. Noteworthy chili pepper dishes on restaurant menus around town:
• Blanc Burgers’ chipotle aioli dipping sauce
• Gram & Dun’s shishito peppers, flash fried with sea salt and lemon aioli
• Grinders Death Wings with Wimpy, Molten, Near Death or Death Nectar
• The Jacobson’s crispy sesame-crusted oyster mushrooms, served with ponzu sauce and Sriracha aioli
• Louie’s Wine Dive’s La Havana sandwich with sliced porchetta, spicy capicola, pickled red onions, sweet pickles and fontina cheese on a hoagie roll with habanero aioli
• Port Fonda’s Bloody Maria bar
• Room 39’s crispy calamari with Pecorino Romano and roasted ancho-pepper aioli
• Swagger’s Suribachi burger, grilled then tempura-battered and fried, with Asian mustard, Sriracha chili sauce, pepper-jack cheese and wasabi coleslaw
• Tavern in the Village and Mission Farms’ chicken nachos with black beans, roasted corn pico de gallo and chipotle aioli
There are, of course, plenty of peppers and sauces on the market that won’t knock your socks off. Sriracha, a sauce typically found in a plastic squeeze bottle named after a small town in Thailand, has developed a loyal following bordering on obsession in a way that couldn’t have been foreseen years ago when it was primarily served as a condiment on tables in Asian-style restaurants throughout the United States.
Uses now range from the sublime, such as pepping up a cocktail sauce or mayonnaise, to the ridiculous — a sorbet flavor. The sauce has a touch of sweetness, making it unique among hot sauces and thus easier to squeeze with a heavy hand.
Makes 1 ½ cups
1 1/2 pounds red jalapeños, stems snipped off
6 cloves garlic, peeled
4 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
Place jalapeños, garlic, sugar, and salt in bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse until chilies are very finely chopped, stopping to scrape sides of bowl as necessary. Transfer mixture to a clean jar, cover, and let sit at room temperature. Check jar each day for fermentation (when little bubbles start forming at bottom of jar), about 3 to 5 days. Stir contents each day, continuing to let ferment until chilies are no longer rising in volume, an additional 2 to 3 days.
Transfer chilies to jar of a blender, add in white vinegar, and puree until completely smooth, 1 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a mesh strainer set atop of a medium saucepan. Strain mixture into saucepan, using a rubber spatula to push through as much pulp as possible, only seeded and larger pieces of chilies should remain in strainer.
Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until sauce thickens and clings to a spoon, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer to an airtight container and store in refrigerator for up to 6 months.
Per (1-tablespoon) serving: 18 calories (8 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 236 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Adapted from “The Sriracha Cookbook” by Randy Clemens