Dried chili peppers are a somewhat perplexing ingredient – they don't seem to be edible as-is, but you know those wrinkled, shriveled pods promise complex, concentrated flavors along with some smoldering spice. One of the simplest ways to prepare dried chili peppers and best showcase their flavors and heat is to make your own hot sauce. Given the great variety of dried chilies available, plus countless combinations of other ingredients, a DIY hot sauce is an infinitely variable concoction that inspires experimentation. For your debut hot sauce endeavor, start with the most basic version comprising just chilies, vinegar or citrus juice and a little salt.
Select Your Dried Peppers
Designing the heat level and flavor profile of your DIY hot sauce starts with your choice of dried chili peppers. Dozens of varieties are available, each with a slightly different character. You can opt for a single pepper variety, but for a more complex flavor, combine two or more kinds. In general, smaller peppers are usually hotter, and darker colored peppers are usually fruitier. On the very hot side, there are small and nutty chiles de arbol and pequin peppers. For peppers with medium heat, look for guajillos, or puyas, larger and smaller versions of earthy, smoky peppers. Well-known chipotles, which are dried, smoked jalapenos, also offer a medium heat. At the milder, fruitier end of the pepper spectrum are ancho, chocolatey pasillas, smoky moritas and chiles negros, which offer a raisin-like flavor.
Gather Other Ingredients
The second key ingredient in hot sauce is vinegar, although fresh citrus juice (lemon, lime, grapefruit or a blend) is also an option. Distilled white vinegar is the most neutral choice, letting the flavors of the chilies stand alone, but you can also use apple cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar. Avoid strongly flavored vinegars like malt or balsamic, which tend to overly dominate.
For a minimalist approach, stick to salt and perhaps a little sugar for seasoning. Other optional seasonings include garlic, ginger, citrus zest, dried oregano and cumin. Some recipes call for seeds, such as sesame and pumpkin seeds. You can also venture into sauce and salsa territory with dried or fresh fruit or vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, carrots and celery – but know that these ingredients significantly decrease the shelf life of the hot sauce.
Prepare the Peppers
When you're working with hot chili peppers, it's advisable to open windows, turn on a fan and wear latex gloves. If you forgo the gloves, never, ever rub your eyes or nose after handling them.
Prepare dried peppers by first cutting off the stem with scissors or a knife. Break or cut the peppers open and shake out all the seeds. Scrape the insides of the peppers with a knife if necessary. You can successfully blend the dried peppers, along with the other ingredients, into a hot sauce at this stage, however two additional steps – toasting and soaking – make for a more flavorful, better-textured sauce. Toasting the chilies brings out their flavors, and soaking plumps them up and makes them easier to blend.
Toast the peppers in a medium-hot skillet, stirring often, for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until they smell toasty, Or, use the microwave. Put the chilies on a microwave-safe plate and zap them on high for 15 seconds at a time until they smell toasty. It shouldn't take more than 1 minute. Next, soak the toasted chilies in very hot water (boil it, then turn off the heat) for about 20 minutes.
Blend the Sauce
Add the chilies, vinegar or citrus juice and a pinch of salt, plus any other seasonings, to a blender. If you're not following a recipe, try a ratio of three parts vinegar/juice to one part dried chilies (by weight). Blend the ingredients for several minutes until the sauce is as smooth as can be. Taste it and adjust the salt (and optionally sugar) a few times after letting the sauce sit at room temperature for about an hour. If it's too hot, you can dilute the sauce with a little water. For a clear, smooth hot sauce, strain it through a fine-mesh sieve.
Store the Hot Sauce
Homemade hot sauce can be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for months. Expect the flavors to get better and better over time. If you have the tools and know-how, can the sauce so you can store it safely at room temperature.
Joanne Thomas has worked as a writer and editor for print and online publications since 2004. As a specialist in all things food and drink, she has penned pieces for Livestrong, Robert Mondavi and Modern Mom, among other names. She found her first jobs in a series of kitchens before moving on to celebrate food via the written word. Thomas resides in California and holds a bachelor’s degree in politics from the University of Bristol, U.K.