Tabasco is a hot pepper sauce that is common on grocery shelves on both sides of the Atlantic. It is made from Tabasco peppers, vinegar and salt.
When the peppers turn red, they are harvested, mashed, mixed with “Avery Island” salt, and let ferment and age in wood barrels for three years. When ready, the pepper mash is blended with grain vinegar, then filtered and bottled.
The salt used, Avery Island salt, comes rock salt deposits on a point of land along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. The peppers used were originally grown as well on Avery Island in Louisiana, but eventually the local supply of the peppers was unable to keep up with the worldwide demand for the sauce. The peppers are now grown and brought in from places such as Columbia and Central America. There are still Tabasco peppers grown on Avery Island, but those are used for research purposes to develop better crops.
The perception that Tabasco is a “really hot sauce” is largely the combination of marketing and Anglo-American taste buds. It’s probably as hot as your average North American or Brit wants to eat. But there are far hotter sauces; and ones that manage to bring through more of the pepper taste, as well. The chile peppers used for Tabasco are members of the “capsicum frutescens” branch of the chile family, which are chiles that can be hot, but that have hardly any flavour: thus they don’t really feature much in cooking on their own. Any taste that Tabasco has is owing more to its fermentation and aging. Many find Tabasco mostly tastes like vinegar with a hot sensation to it, and so use it in cooking for a bit of zing, rather than as a condiment splashed about the plate for the taste of it.
Tabasco is an essential part of the cocktail drink known as the “Bloody Mary.”
Tabasco peppers have a heat range of 15,000 – 30,000 Scoville units. The sauce ends up with a heat range of only 1,500 – 2,500 Scoville units.
Edmund McIlhenny (1815-1890) was a New Orleans banker, who with his wife also owned a mansion and a plantation out on Avery Island (actually a point of land) in addition to a house in New Orleans. He was given some peppers to try with his food in the late 1840s. He saved the seeds, and planted them out at the Avery Island estate. Though the plantation and mansion was looted during occupation by the Union Army during the American Civil war in the 1860s, his pepper garden survived. After the war, with the Southern economy shattered, the family needed income, so they devised a sauce using the peppers. By 1868 he had enough orders for his sauce to begin commercial production. By 1872, he had a London office for European orders.
In 1932, in their effort to fight the depression, the British parliament launched a “Buy British” campaign, and so banned the purchase of Tabasco pepper sauce for the House of Commons dining room. There was such an outcry from members of Parliament that it became known as “The Tabasco Tempest” and the leaders backed down, allowing Tabasco back on the parliamentary dining tables next to the HP sauce.
The McIlhenny family still owns and produces Tabasco sauce.
Literature & Lore
The name “Tabasco” is a Central American Indian word. The McIlhenny family used it for the sauce because they thought that it described where they grew the peppers, thinking it meant “land where the soil is hot and humid.” While some historians agree with them, some say it means instead “place of coral or oyster shell.” In any event, Tabasco now means — well, Tabasco.