The Fiery Appeal of Hot Chile Peppers

Enthusiasts are drawn to their colorful culinary potential—or simply the thrill of the challenge

Grab a glistening, hot chile pepper—one jewel-toned beauty with a volcanic pedigree—and take the dare. Just know that once you pop that capsicum into your mouth, there is no turning back. No amount of water, beer, milk, or bread can fully put out the flame. 

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, for every coughing and gasping amateur daredevil, there are dozens of die-hard chile-heads for whom the pain of eating hot peppers is all pleasure. The seared taste buds, watery eyes, and sinus-clearing fumes are part of the attraction, along with the hunt for evermore pungent pepper thrills. 

Red chiles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bringing the Heat

Humans have been eating peppers for at least 9,000 years. While archaeologists pinpoint the eastern coast of Mexico as the cradle of cultivation, there’s evidence that around the same time, indigenous peoples were harvesting and eating wild peppers from what is now the southwestern United States through Mexico and south to Peru. 

Pecans, pistachios, and chiles at McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch, Almagardo, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nobody knows exactly why humans crave the culinary drama of hot peppers, but scientists have come up with a few theories. The word addiction has been bandied about, in part because capsaicin, the substance that gives chiles their signature punch, causes pain followed by an immediate release of endorphins. Endorphins floating around the brain trigger a sense of euphoria. In addition, capsaicin releases chemicals that reduce the sensation of pain (which is why it is a popular ingredient in topical pain relievers). 

Related: Chile Peppers 101

Red chiles at Farmers and Craft Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How Hot Is Hot?

In 1912, Parke-Davis Co. pharmacist Wilbur Scoville began exploring the capsaicin kick of different types of peppers. He wasn’t aiming for chile-head immortality but for a more efficient way to produce a capsaicin-laced liniment. He crushed chiles combined them with sugar water and had a panel of taste-testers take sips. Over time, Scoville diluted the chiles with more and more water until the tasters could no longer detect any heat in their cups. The pharmacist rated different chiles based on how much water was required to negate the capsaicin. 

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scoville called his process the Scoville Organoleptic Test. Today, in his honor, pepper punch is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) arranged on the Scoville Scale. No taste-tester tongues were harmed in the ranking process. Now, SHUs are measured using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), a process that measures the heat-generating chemicals in chiles.

Hot sauces at Billy’s Boudin, Scott, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For context, pure capsaicin ranks at 15 to 16 million SHUs, and sweet bell peppers come in at 0. In between is the Carolina Reaper at 2.2 million, orange habaneros at 150,000 to 325,000, cayenne peppers at 30,000 to 50,000, and jalapeños at 2,500 to 8,000.

Related: Feel the Burn

Pepper growers continue to try to out-spice each other with new tongue-searing cultivars. At any given time, a new hybrid could explode to the top of the scale.

Red chiles at Farmers and Crafts Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sensory Perception

What are the mechanisms through which the human body responds to the varying degree of heat in chile peppers? As it turns out we didn’t know until very recently. In fact, in 1997, Dr. David Julius discovered the neural pathway that gets activated by capsaicin, causing spicy foods to feel “hot” when consumed.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, on October 4, 2021, David Julius, a physiologist, and Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular biologist and neuroscientist, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The men were honored for their research into human sensory perception; each had, independently of the other, discovered mechanisms through which human bodies respond to touch and temperature.

Red chiles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The importance of the five senses cannot be understated. They are mediums through which we experience and understand the world around us, transforming external stimuli into electrical signals that our brain translate into the sensations of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. How exactly this transformation works out on a molecular level, however, was long unclear and still remains one of the most elusive questions in modern science.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dr. Julius currently serves as the chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of California in San Francisco. In 1997, his team of researchers compiled a library of neural pathways that are activated by capsaicin, a compound that gives spicy foods like chile peppers their burning sensation when consumed. Along the way, Dr. Julius discovered TRPV1, the ion channel that acts as our primary capsaicin receptor.

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico

In order to truly appreciate Dr. Julius’ discovery, a bit of context may be in order. Unless you build up a tolerance, eating spicy foods is painful. Peppers (and wasabi) give off a strange sensation that your mouth is on fire and for the longest time researchers simply couldn’t figure out why this was the case.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dr. Julius answered this question by showing us that TRPV1 is responsible for keeping our bodies safe from high temperatures. The channel responds not only to capsaicin but also to temperatures that are greater than 110 degrees Fahrenheit. TRPV1 also acts up when we are injured or sunburned, causing damaged tissue to feel hot to the touch. In all cases, the channel transmits a signal that our brains turn into the sensation of heat.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Matter of Taste

Chile aficionados know their way around the Scoville Scale but they also insist that chile varieties like grape varieties and wines have terroir. Put simply, terroir is a subtle turn of flavor based on the location where a pepper is grown. By this measure, a Hatch green chile from New Mexico will taste distinctly different from the same variety grown in California. 

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Hatch Chile Peppers

Tabasco Country Store, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Likewise, different peppers carry different signature taste prints. Habaneros are known for their fruity, floral flavors; jalapeños tend to be herbaceous; Thai chiles have an earthy flavor; Tabasco peppers have a slightly smoky taste. 

Experimenting with chiles of different pedigrees and forms—fresh, dried, crushed, powdered—could become a lifelong obsession. At what point does the chile overpower the food? What blends work together? What chile paste perfectly accentuates a stew, a kebab, barbecued ribs, or a block of tofu?

La Posta Restaurant, Mesilla, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, while you’re pondering, shopping, and cooking remember one thing: capsaicin, the thing that brings the truth-or-dare pleasure and pain to hot peppers has exactly no flavor. None! So if you’re expecting to add a sweet, tart, or vegetal aura to your food, start with a pepper you can actually taste before moving up the scale. 

Red chile flavored pistachios at Eagle Ranch, Almadargo, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Hot Pepper Sauces

Chile-heads love to sample and collect hot sauces for the flavor and potency of the specific elixirs as well as for the opportunity to grab a portable pepper fix. For most, the hot sauce hobby has the makings of a lifelong obsession simply because there are so, so many different commercially produced sauces to try.

Related: 4 Things to Know Before Visiting New Mexico

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Market researchers quantify the U.S. hot pepper sauce market at around $1.2 billion as of 2018 with the spicy condiment snaring more than $2.3 globally. At any given time, more than 100 major brands are vying for a share of that pie.

Red chiles at Farmers and Crafts Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The invention of hot sauce is credited to the ancient Aztecs who cultivated chili peppers to add some flavor and nutritional value to their limited food choices. By the time the conquistadors arrived, the Aztecs were already mixing peppers, herbs, and water into sauces and serving them on ancient versions of the corn tortilla.

Fast forward several hundred years and hot sauces have spread from their birthplace in Central America to North America, Europe, Asia, and outer space. Walk into your average grocery store and you’ll be confronted with a dazzling array of hot sauce bottles filled with liquids in red, green, yellow, and orange. Different brands come with different types of peppers, ingredients, spice levels, and suggested food pairings—and not all are created equal.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Edmund McIlhenny, a banker from Avery Island, Louisiana, founded Tabasco in 1868. The recipe evolved over time. A soldier returning from Mexico in 1840 gave McIlhenny, a known gardener, seeds from wild peppers he had collected. McIlhenny planted the seeds and the peppers that grew became the basis for Tabasco sauce. McIlhenny named the unique Mexican pepper strain for the sauce which he had already named for a region in Mexico. 

Tabasco Country Store, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To this day, Tabasco is made from the McIlhenny family’s original recipe: Tabasco peppers, vinegar, and salt aged in oak barrels for up to three years. Tabasco peppers are handpicked when they turn a deep red, which apparently signifies optimal flavor and heat.

Related: Avery Island: Touring Tabasco & Jungle Gardens

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tabasco has many competitors including regional hot sauces, sauces with international pedigrees, and sauces created for different cooking techniques. I’ve tried many of them including:

  • Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce which was engineered in New Iberia
  • Tapatío, a popular Mexico hot sauce with a guy with a sombrero on it that’s not actually a Mexican hot sauce but made in California
  • Cholula (Choe-loo-la), named for a 2,500-year-old city in Mexico but actually manufactured in Chapala in the Mexican state of Jalisco—not Cholula—and instantly identifiable by its signature wooden bottle cap
  • Crystal Hot Sauce, the best-selling Louisiana hot sauce that has been in New Orleans since 1923 and popular around the world
  • Frank’s Hot Sauce, a Louisiana-born sauce made from Cayenne red peppers, distilled vinegar, water, salt, and garlic powder

Worth Pondering…

Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.

—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss

Avery Island: Touring Tabasco & Jungle Gardens

Louisiana’s Cajun Country is home to the world’s favorite hot sauce

Avery Island is the home of Louisiana’s iconic hot sauce: Tabasco. See how it’s made during a factory tour, pick up a few souvenirs at the Tabasco Country Store, and tour the island’s Jungle Gardens.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Touring food factories can be a hit or miss venture. Sometimes you get a really hands on tour that gets you up close and personal to the action which can be fun and tasty. Other times you’re stuck sitting in a room watching animated characters tell the company’s history circa 1987.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ve taken a tour of the Tabasco Factory and then explored Avery Island on two occasions; it is worth the drive and your time.

When planning your visit to tour the Tabasco factory be aware that there are three distinct attractions to check out. If you want to do everything, plan on a half day visit or longer.

Avery Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first part of our Tabasco Tour adventure began with the requisite factory tour. The tour is free and takes about 30 minutes. The tour guide takes you through a few different production areas, relating interesting facts and details about the operation and its history.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pepper sauce that Edmund McIlhenny created in 1868 on Avery Island is much the same that is produced today, on that very same site. The basic recipe, the process by which it’s made, and the ingredients remain virtually unchanged. And five generations of McIlhennys and employees have dedicated themselves to preserving its legacy.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Edmund McIlhenny was given seeds of Capsicum frutescens peppers that came from Central America, and he first planted them on Avery Island over 140 years ago. Today, just as then, when the peppers reach the perfect shade of deep red and are at their juiciest, they are carefully picked by hand. (Young peppers are green and then turn yellow, orange and, finally, deep red as they age.)

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When in doubt, pickers can gauge the color by comparing it to a small wooden dowel, “le petit bâton rouge,” painted the preferred hue of TABASCO red.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pepper mash is placed in white oak barrels, and the wooden tops of the barrels are then covered with more Avery Island salt, which acts as a natural barrier to protect the barrels’ contents. The mash is allowed to ferment and then aged for up to three years in the McIlhenny warehouse.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After going through the tour you finish up with a short video presentation that gives you history of the McIhenny Family and their five generations of Tabasco sauce making experience. The best part? They give you numerous mini-bottles of Tabasco at the end of the tour.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you aren’t into factory tours, you can skip it and head right over to the Tabasco Factory Store. Here you will find all the Tabasco merchandise that any shopper could desire. You can also sample every sauce flavor available here along with super delicious Tabasco Ice Cream.

Avery Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While touring the factory and wandering the store is cool, a favorite part of touring Avery Island is a visit to the Jungle Gardens.

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery Island is one of five salt dome islands rising above the flat Louisiana Gulf Coast. These islands formed over the eons when alluvial sediment covered a vast plain of salt left behind by an ancient saltwater ocean. Surrounded by low-lying swamps and marshes, Avery Island stands 163 feet above mean sea level. The Tabasco Factory was built on one such salt dome island that is home to North America’s first ever salt rock mine in 1862.

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jungle Gardens is a 170-acre garden with semitropical foliage, abundant wildlife, and a centuries-old Buddha statue. The garden’s rolling landscape stretches along Bayou Petite Anse on the northwest side of the Island.

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jungle Gardens is home to a large collection of camellias. Thousands of plants represent some 600 varieties, including imports from Japan and France as well as varieties that McIlhenny developed on Avery Island.

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You might even spy some alligators, deer, and raccoons that live in the hills and marshes around the gardens. And then there are thousands of snowy egrets that nest on the island each spring on specially built, pier-like structures in a pond nicknamed “Bird City.”

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can stroll the gardens along a path covered by gnarled oaks laced with Spanish moss and stand at the shrine that houses a centuries-old Buddha—a gift to E. A. McIlhenny in 1936.

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and-a fillet gumbo
Cause tonight Im gonna see my machez a mio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh
Son of a gun, well have big fun on the bayou.
Son of a gun, well have big fun on the bayou.
Son of a gun, well have big fun on the bayou.

—Hank Williams, Sr.