Bringing the heat: Spicing up winter cuisine

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For some people, hot sauce is a hard no. For others, it’s a risky adventure. Yes, the taste up front may be thrilling, but then you end up reaching for a glass of milk and a tissue to dab your leaking tear ducts.

Hot sauce does more than burn (in both good and bad ways). It’s a way to use some of those spicy peppers you may grow. It can be a great source of vitamin C. And it’s a way to add a kick to winter foods, from grilled cheese sandwiches to chili.

According to Need the Heat, the history of hot sauce is pretty epic. It goes back to the only place where chilies naturally grow, in Central America, and to the Aztec culture. Archaeologists have found evidence of its use by the Aztecs as far back as 7000 BCE. The first hot sauce in the world most likely was made of ground-up chilies with water and herbs.

After Europeans began bringing them back to the Old World, Hungary was one of the first countries to customize the peppers. They loved the flavor but not the heat, so they removed the seeds. They dried the peppers and ground them into a fine powder – paprika.

Hungary wasn’t the only country to embrace and regionalize spice; today, most cultures have their own type and style of hot sauce. For example, there’s peri-peri, made from the African bird’s eye chili, which originates from Mozambique.

Hot sauce products were first mass marketed in the early 1800s. A “cayenne sauce” was bottled and sold in Massachusetts then. And in the mid-1800s, a New York City company called J. McCollik & Company produced a bird pepper sauce.

The big innovator, though, was Edmund McIlhenny, inventor of Tabasco sauce. McIlhenny grew his Tabasco peppers in Louisiana and sold his sauce at $1 a bottle. The sauce became a cultural phenomenon. It was around this time that hot sauce became prevalent in home cooking too. Hot sauce recipes first emerged in cookbooks around 1872.

Whatever its heat level (measured in Scoville units), the chilis that make up hot sauce are great for your health. Despite capsaicin (the active component in chilis) technically being a deterrent, we still shake some drops on a lot of what we eat. Hot sauce is considered an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. It’s known to improve your metabolism and has been active in cold, sinus and flu remedies for hundreds of years. (Those who like it hot know exactly why too!)

According to Michigan State University research, hot sauce is typically low in calories, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals but tends to be relatively high in sodium. While it can add an extra zing to your meal without adding extra calories, it can also add extra salt, so be mindful of that.

Want to try to add some spice to your cold winter days? Serious Eats lists 25 different things to do with hot sauce. Some that we enjoyed as new or different at Country Culture include adding it to salad dressing, adding it to birdseed to keep squirrels from eating it and making Mexican hot chocolate.

Just remember – a little goes a long way.

by Courtney Llewellyn

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