The screaming hotness of the famed habanero

The screaming hotness  of the famed habanero

“What could it hurt?” I asked, removing the seeds and placenta from a bright orange habanero chili. It was part of a respectable stash of peppers gifted by a new friend last week. My wife was making up a scratch sweet-hot chili sauce, which would in turn flavor the burgers we were planning for dinner.

“Are you sure that’s not going to be too spicy?” she asked, as though there were such a thing, silly girl.

“It’ll be fine,” I said. “Trust me.”

Well, it wasn’t. Even removing the seeds and the part tucked under the stem inside, the placenta, failed to reduce the screaming hotness of the famed habanero. The resulting thick topping, sweetened and adjusted, was great for me, but I’m insane about such things. It was too hot for actual humans. She opted for plain ketchup.

Since it’s invented from the get-go, we get the fun of naming it, but I’m not sure what you would actually call the result. Chili sauce doesn’t cut it. Have you seen what they call chili sauce in grocery stores? It’s a key ingredient in the cocktail sauce typically served with seafood, but I’ll be hornswoggled if I understand why — It’s pretty much ketchup. Mix it with actual ketchup, horseradish, Worcestershire, lemon juice and Tabasco and you have cocktail sauce. But the standard recipe seems like mixing ketchup and slightly browner ketchup. Still, it’s hard to imagine giant boiled or steamed shrimp without it.

The thing about chili peppers is that the dumb things refuse to adhere to our efforts to classify their hotness. Last week I stopped at a roadside seasonal produce market and bought a bunch of yellow banana peppers. Now, as chilies go, they should be very mild, according to the Scoville scale, which places them far down in wimpy kid territory. But they were so hot there was nothing to be done but pickle them for the winter.

Jalapeño chilies from the grocery store usually register barely above a common green pepper when you taste them, but they’re supposed to be quite hot. With those you have to buy and taste and adjust accordingly.

This summer I grew several cayenne pepper plants, watering them every day and feeding them carefully through the unusually hot summer. Of the six plants, three produced some kind of fruit. They should have been pretty hot by any standard. Cayenne powder is the stuff we usually reach for when we want to add serious hotness to a dish or when we want to keep the dog from chewing on something.

It forms the base for Louisiana hot sauce, for which the peppers are fermented with salt and vinegar before bottling into sauces that give us the buffalo wings we like so much with football and beer. But mine? Mine were edible strait off the bush without so much as a water quench. They may as well have been ornamental.

The lesson here is that you pretty much have to buy fresh or dried chilies and taste them before deploying them in any kind of combat situation, and never trust their reputation.

Here’s a standard pepper sauce I enjoy.


1 pound assorted chili peppers: jalapeño, banana, cayenne — taste and see what you have.

2 cups apple cider vinegar

2 cups sugar

Whiz up the chilies and half the vinegar in a food processor until almost smooth. Bring this mixture to a boil in a saucepan. Add sugar and cook at a simmer until reduced, 15 minutes or so. Allow to cool and refrigerate. Use within about a week.

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