If you’ve ever been out to eat, you’ve likely encountered them – at least, in bottled form.
Tabasco sauce is one of the world’s most famous condiments, often accompanying salt, pepper and ketchup in the catchall containers of meal toppers that complete any restaurant’s properly set table.
But there’s so much more to tabasco peppers than the sauce that heats up your made-to-order eggs – and so much more you can do with the pepper than blend it into delicious, saucy oblivion.
Originally grown in Central America and the Gulf States of the United States, the tabasco pepper is no stranger to heat. You can almost say it’s in the chili pepper’s blood.
The pepper itself seems to embody this concept, growing in a two-inch long spike that – unique to peppers and most fruits generally – sticks straight up from the bush it grows on. And while these hot peppers can start out in all sorts of colors, including a beautiful, creamy yellow and a vibrant orange, if left long enough to ripen on the vine, they all tend to mature to a particularly fiery shade of red.
Indeed, aside from its bright hue, one of the tabasco pepper’s most stand-out characteristics is its signature spice. The peppers hit a particularly sweet spot on the Scoville scale – the official measurement tool used to determine pepper hotness – with a ranking that ranges anywhere from 30,000 – 50,000 SHUs, or Scoville heat units.
For comparison, the relatively humble jalapeno pepper reaches between 5,000 – 10,000 Scoville heat units, making the tabasco pepper many times hotter and putting it more on par with other popular mid-tier chilies like the cayenne pepper.
Still, the tabasco pepper has a number of other unique characteristics that has helped it stand out in the cut-throat culinary world – and rise to worldwide saucy prominence.
Lost In the Sauce
Perhaps its biggest assist in notoriety came directly from the McIlhenny family.
Hailing from Avery Island, Louisiana, family patriarch Edmund first encountered the tabasco pepper on the pre-Civil War table of a New Orleans plantation owner who was famous for his flavorful dinner parties.
McIlhenny was instantly enamored with the spicy sting of the tabasco pepper sauce and immediately began scouring for seeds from the plant’s native Mexico, repurposing much of the land on Avery Island to harvest his new obsession. (The Louisiana locale is still a hotspot of hot sauce production today.)
The condiment was a nearly instant success, with the tabasco pepper’s intense heat mixed down through a combination of vinegar and salt. (Because of its diluted nature, the sauce also routinely ranks much lower than its full-pepper embodiment on the Scoville scale, with most forms of tabasco pepper sauce weighing in between 2,000 – 5,000 SHUs.)
McIlhenny was so overwhelmed by demand, he had to sell several huge batches of the stuff off in cologne bottles. And though the original iteration of the hot sauce’s peppers were all grown on Avery Island, today, the operation outsources peppers from many other areas, to help keep up with demand – bringing in examples grown everywhere from South America to South Africa.
Still, despite its more exotic origin, its immediate and intense popularity in the greater New Orleans area lent the spicy stuff the nickname “Cajun ketchup.”
Yet, this household hot sauce – as delicious as it is – is far from the tabasco pepper’s only trick.
More Than a Name
Tabasco peppers make for brilliant ingredients in all manner of recipes that have nothing to do with its signature sauce.
Part of what makes these peppers such a delectable kitchen item is another unique aspect of their biology: Tabasco peppers are sensationally juicy. This, once again, makes them stand apart from their capsicum brothers and sisters, which are otherwise nearly all dry inside.
The juice makes for a pungent and delightfully-flavored addition to any number of culinary concoctions, including any number of sauces and salsas.
Still, there are those who like to stick to the more traditional concept of chili peppers, choosing to dehydrate the tabasco pepper to focus on its piquant kick rather than its decadent texture. Dried, or even in powdered form, these chilies can go on to make great bases for spice rubs that really punch things up.
And many people also choose to pickle these peppers, with their juicy flesh holding up especially well in the process – and making for not just a potent pepper but an extra-spicy brine, which can be used for still more recipes.
Yet, no matter whether you take it fresh, dehydrated or straight from the sauce bottle, there’s no denying that tabasco peppers make for one of the best-tasting capsicum choices out there.