Some like it hot: Chilies cause pleasure, pain

Noelle Carter, Los Angeles TimesFebruary 27, 2013 

Maybe it's the sense of danger that reels you in at first. The crazy name, the wild picture slapped on the bottle. Before you know it, you're on for the ride, and the best ones leave you reduced to a sweaty and speechless mess. When it's finally over, you can't help but want more.

I'm talking about hot sauce, a virtual thrill ride for the taste buds. And for fans, nothing beats the feeling.

So what makes hot sauce so attractive? Blame it on the capsaicin, the chemical behind a chili's heat. When you eat hot sauce, or any chili-spiced foods, your mouth reacts to the capsaicin as if it's in pain, signaling the brain. Your body responds by releasing endorphins, much like it does with laughter, chocolate, stress and sex.

Pleasure and pain, conveniently packaged in a bottle. All I know is I can't get enough of the stuff. I have a collection at home and drizzle at least one sauce -- more often two -- over everything. A sure sign of a junkie, lately I've even taken to making my own.

It's amazingly simple. A purée of chilies and salt, thinned perhaps with vinegar or water, maybe a secret ingredient or blend of spices thrown in for good measure. Voila.

For a quick Sriracha-type sauce, take a pound of fresh red chilies -- red Fresnos and jalapeños can generally be found year-round -- and mash them with fresh garlic and salt, a touch of sugar and vinegar. A little love on the stove-top -- simmering the mash helps to marry the flavors -- then blend and strain the sauce, thinning as desired with water. The sauce literally comes together in minutes (as opposed to fermented hot sauces, which can take days, or more, to make). And while it tastes good right away, it gets even better after a day or two in the fridge.

Play around with the sauce to personalize it to your tastes, changing up chiles and flavorings. For a Caribbean jerk-inspired hot sauce, use the same method but switch out the Fresnos for Scotch bonnets or habañeros, rounding out the flavors with fresh ginger and green onion, lime, a blend of spices and a touch of dark rum. Playfully sweet and fruity at first, the heat will sneak up on you in the most wonderful way.

The variations are endless. Probably the hardest part to a great homemade hot sauce is giving your wonderfully potent creation a fitting name. I simply call mine "Shock in a Bottle."

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