Q: Hi Dave,
How do commercial salsa (big names in particular) and hot-sauce producers ensure that their products’ heat levels maintain some degree of consistency? This arises from having purchased a major salsa from a supermarket in the "medium" degree, as to not burn out my coworkers. Some saw the jar and said, "No thanks, too hot" and some said it should be just right. (I’m apparently Goldilocks, since I was ready with the secret stash of Melinda’s.) It turned out to be terribly tepid, not even striking a sniffle in those who prematurely claimed it too hot. I’m pretty familiar with heat variability in peppers (I contacted that guy in NY who’d grown them hydroponically with good heat and flavor results) and I’m wondering, do the tourist salsa makers spring regularly for HPLC or GC analysis? Do they have a professional taster rate each vat "mild, medium or hot?"
By the way—working my way through the Adventures in the Taste of Pain, always fun to read "Dave D" and know to whom he refers.
A: Hello Sarah:
This is one of the best questions I’ve received. Most of the smaller manufacturers rely on human tasters who sample each batch and determine if it "seems right" based on prior experience. If it is too hot, more of the non-hot ingredients are added. If it is not hot enough, more chile is added in whatever form it is being used. Many of the larger salsa manufacturers use mild or nonpungent chiles, such as the newer jalapeños, for flavor. Then they add oleoresin capsicum in precisely measured amounts to insure a standardized heat level for every batch. They also monitor the heat of the batch, and of the oleoresin added, by using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) testing. The hot sauce manufacturers have a more difficult time, because typically for, say, Louisiana hot sauces, they are simply cayenne mash, spices, and vinegar. They require that the mash producers provide them with a standardized product, which they can adjust slightly by varying the amounts of vinegar added. It is easier to make a hot sauce hotter than to make it milder. Unfortunately for salsa, the larger manufacturers are appealing to the broadest common denominator when it comes to the heat level, so caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, and know that the "hot" salsas are medium and the "medium" salsas are mild.