(Earth Eats theme music, composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey)
KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: There are so many of those hot sauces out there that are kinda gimmicky and it's all about the heat. Those are nothing to me. It's just like... you gotta get that good balance of flavor.
KAYTE YOUNG: This week on the show we join hot sauce aficionado Christopher Burris making a Puerto Rican style hot sauce called pique. And then later we sampled the hottest known Chili Pepper - the Carolina Reaper. Josephine McRobbie talks with a scientist at the wild sourdough project about harnessing the power of homebakers and their starters. That's all coming up in the next hour here on Earth Eats, after this.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: This is Kayte Young, I'm here with Christopher Burrus. Do you prefer to go by Christopher?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I go by either one.
KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, you're not like offended by...
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: No whatever is more efficient at the time or whatever.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: That's Chris Burrus for you. He's a pretty easy-going guy. And he likes hot peppers a lot. That's why this summer when a farmer handed me a Carolina Reaper pepper I wanted to ask Chris to try it with me. Carolina Reapers belong to a class of peppers known as the super hots, and they are currently as the hottest pepper available, testing at around 2 million Scoville units, which is how the hotness of a chili pepper is generally measured. But before I get too far into the reaper testing, I want to take you back to last fall. You may recall a story with Christopher Burrus learning how to make pique. It's a Puerto Rican style vinegar based hot sauce. We'll start here.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: My name is Christopher Burrus. I’m an employee of the WFIU and a lover of hot sauce.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: The word amateur has its roots in the French word for love. An amateur does something not for pay, but because they enjoy doing it. Christopher Burrus is an amateur hot sauce maker. In fact, you might say he's a novice.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I’m going on my first journey today of starting to make my own hot sauce. And I’m starting with a kind of hot sauce called pique, which is a really simple hot sauce to make that comes from Puerto Rico and at its most basic form its infusing vinegar with chilies. It’s really the kind of hot sauce that is homemade that you mostly see on the table and in people’s kitchens, and everybody has their own version of it. And so that’s what I wanted to start with, because it’s so simple and there’ s a lot of different things you can do.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: Wait, so you say you're seeing it on everybody's table. I never see it.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, yeah, I guess hot sauce lover’s tables, yeah. I do have kinda of a story that I know that my great grandfather loved pique. And when I told my mom that I was gonna make this stuff she said, “Oh yeah he used to have a bottle of that stuff, all the time, he took it around with him everywhere, put it on everything” and so kind of continuing a little bit of a family tradition here as well.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: Alright so what are we starting with in terms of the chilies?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Sure, so I’m gonna make two different kinds of pique. The first one, and the one I’m honestly looking forward to the most uses habaneros. I love the habanero pepper. It’s my favorite pepper, I love the flavor of it, I love the heat level of it, I love the color of it, just everything about it and so the most traditional pique that I’m gonna make which is white vinegar with some herbs and then the habanero, that’s gonna be my first one.
And the second one is going to be a little bit more of a mystery, I’m going to do a sherry based one instead of white vinegar. And then I’m using some aji chilis because they have a great fruity flavor.
The aji chilis are a kind of long. They’re about... between 3 inches and 4 inches. They’re red and orange, a couple of green ones and yellow ones. They have a little bit of a wrinkly texture. They get used in a lot of piques because they’re really easy to shove down the neck of a bottle. You know, you don’t have to prepare them that much.
I think I’m gonna get some good heat with... I only have two ghost peppers in here as well, and then these kind of milder ones I think will add a lot more of that fruity flavor I’m looking for. I knew that this was gonna come down to the flavor of the peppers more than anything else and so I wanted to try to source something good.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: Christopher doesn't have a garden of his own, but he wanted something fresh and homegrown, so he headed to the farmer’s market one Saturday morning in October.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I had a really fun morning just going around to all these different vendors and talking to them about their peppers and about… it’s not just heat level, it’s like... you know, fruity tasting peppers versus grassy tasting peppers and whether or not you prefer one over the other.
And so I got a mixture here. You know the habaneros have a little bit more of that grassy-ness. There’s a little fruitiness there as well, but these aji are definitely on the fruity side of things. And so it was really fun just to kind of go around and you know, treat peppers in the same way that you talk about wines.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: Since it’s not cooked, you can make pique directly in the bottle that you plan to serve it in.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: It becomes kind of a table piece. You have it on your table. And when people talk about making pique, they often… its interesting, they also talk about the visual component of it. You want to make sure you get a lot of different colored chilis, so that... you know, when people look at the pique they like the way it looks. They see how vibrant the colors are. So there’s a taste aspect to it as well as a visual component too, I like that about it too.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: Christopher is using one-liter flip top, spring sealed glass bottles with airtight stoppers.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: And so we need to prepare the spice mixture that we’re gonna use first. I’ve got about nine to ten cloves of garlic here, and I’ve gotta get these peeled. You ever seen the two-bowl method for peeling garlic?
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: Yeah, let’s see it. What’s it involve?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: So you take two same sized mixing bowls, like good metal bowls... just classic. And then put all your garlic in it, and then you’re gonna put your two bowls on top of each other so that the garlic is fully enclosed. And then you’re just gonna shake it up and down for about 20 seconds. So I'll and do that.
(Sound of garlic shaking in a metal bowl)
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: How’d it work?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: You know, it did okay. Wow. You can really smell in. It definitely activated the garlic... pretty good.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: Yeah, it’s a really good method if you have a lot to do. It will really save you some time.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: And if nobody in your place is trying to take a nap or anything too. That's probably...
Okay, now it’s time to prepare the peppers. So we gotta get these softened so that they just kind of start releasing their flavors. So we're gonna boil up some water and get these going, and then we’ll chop them up.
While we’re waiting for the water to boil we can actually start chopping up our chilies. And I know you have to be very careful when you do this. I’m not really big on using gloves, a lot of people suggest that. I tend to feel like it's easy to cut your fingers with gloves, so I’ve just got some tongs and things so I’m just gonna try to be as careful as I can.
I can already tell I’m getting this all over my fingers. I knew that this was gonna be a little bit of an adventure because I’ve never done this before. And so I'm sure I’m gonna make some kind of stupid mistake that your listeners are gonna be laughing at me while I’m doing this.
I was kinda hoping to keep as much as the seeds in. I know... cause I like the heat. But I also know that the ribs of the pepper are where a lot of the heat is as well. So that's all staying in there. So we're gonna put these in the boiling water for about two minutes, just to get them soft, and then they’ll go into the bottle.
KAYTE YOUNG: That hot water robbed them of their color.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: You know you’re right it did. Oh man.
Some people don’t do this, some people just put them straight in. They don't do this - the boiling part here, first or anything. But I unders- wow that is (coughing) that is… some… raw coughing.
I am having second thoughts about putting these ghost peppers in it as well.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: The ghost pepper is one of the most well-known of the super-hot peppers. It’s no longer the hottest pepper, I believe the Carolina Reaper holds that title at the moment. But things change. There’s a scale for measuring the heat of a pepper. It’s called the Scoville scale. Named after its inventor, pharmacist Wilbur Scoville. An SHU is a Scoville heat unit, which is a way of quantifying how spicy a pepper is by measuring the concentration of capsaicinoids.
Capsin is the chemical that makes the chili pepper taste hot in your mouth. The ghost pepper clocks in at about one million SHU. For comparison, a jalapeno tops at about 10,000 SHU. The hottest of the hot these days measures around 2 million SHU.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: These ones are yellow with a... this one especially looks really good. It's yellow and it has this gradual greening on it. But you know... the most definable feature of a ghost pepper is their really wrinkly skin.
(Sound of peppers being chopped)
We’re gonna strain these now.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: Christopher is removing the peppers that he softened in the boiling water.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: So that’s it for the habaneros are strained. We’re gonna start...
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: Hey, they kinda brightened back up. That’s interesting.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, yeah. They’ll still look good in the bottle I think. I’m gonna wash my hands again, with salt.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: So I need to step in to warn you about handling super-hot peppers like ghost peppers. Even the habaneros can give you a painful burn. So do your best to keep the insides of the peppers away from your skin, and wash your hands frequently with either an oil-cutting soap like Dawn or with some salt to scrub off the oil from the pepper before it settles in. If you do experience a burning sensation - usually this happens a little bit later, try applying a dairy product like lean yogurt or sour cream. It's the only thing that’s ever helped me.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Put these in, these long skinny peppers, that I'm just gonna be able to slide right into the bottle. I think I just have to make a little slit in them so that the vinegar can get in and start extracting all that good flavor, but I’m not really gonna have to do anything else to them, so that’s nice.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: The air in the kitchen is starting to feel a bit toxic.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Clean out your sinuses. (laughs)
So now we can start getting out vinegar prepared. And the vinegar you actually want to heat a little bit as well. Again this is an optional step, I’m just gonna go ahead and do it, just because I... I think it makes sense that it... you know the heat would kind of allow the ingredients to start activating. So I’ve got white distilled vinegar and we’re just gonna warm it a little bit, not enough to boiling. While we're doing that, we'll go ahead and kind of pour our spices into the bottles.
For this recipe I kinda have an idea of this one being ready around the holidays. And so having it being... kind of like a sauce for some foods that you might have around at Christmas or Thanksgiving, and so turkey and ham and those kinds of flavors.
And so I thought about adding some clove, because I have seen a couple piques that have clove in them. I know you have to be pretty careful with the amount of clove that you put into something, because it's a pretty strong spice.
So sherry goes in next. I’m not using a particularly nice sherry; it's not cooking sherry. But it's a pretty inexpensive one because we're stuffing a bunch of peppers in it. So... (laughs)
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: So the sherry one is done. He’s got the peppers, a few cloves in there, and then he’s topped it off with sherry. For the habanero one he’s added garlic.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I’ve got some thyme here, that I also thought I would add. I really like the flavor of thyme. I think that’ll also look really good in the bottle afterwards.
KAYTE YOUNG [TO CHRIS]: Yeah. It's very attractive.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Vinegar and our sherry are both bottled. We've got all the spices we’re gonna put in except - I did almost forget, black pepper. Black and white peppercorn. Another one of my absolute favorite spices. I know it's simple but I'm one of those people that can never have enough pepper on anything, and this is just another one that I’m just gonna add to the vinegar. I’m not gonna add any of it to the sherry.
KAYTE YOUNG [TO CHRIS]: That looks really good.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah it does. I love the color of this already. You’ve got the black peppercorns and then its… you know, and the orange habaneros. It just looks really good.
KAYTE YOUNG [TO CRHIS]: That thyme, the green.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, it's like a little hot pepper terrarium. Or…
KAYTE YOUNG: I love the purity of the habanero too, I think you’re gonna like that flavor wise, but it also looks really good to just have the one color.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, yeah. I’m really happy with this so far. Give it a couple flips to start and then you’re good to go. So now this just sits out in the sun.
KAYTE YOUNG: I like that you have two... what are probably going to be completely different products.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Exactly, right, yeah. I mean there’s no sweetness really to this habanero one at all. And I think the cloves and the cherry clove pique, it’ll be better on things like, I'm hoping turkey, and ham, and mashed potatoes or whatever... any kind of Thanksgiving related... I put hot sauce on everything. I’m always thinking about that. So that’s my plan with these.
KAYTE YOUNG: Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with vinegar-ed things and hot things?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Sure. I have always loved those tastes like that tangy, vinegar taste, and then hot sauces, and ever since like elementary school, I loved it. And actually, when I was in elementary school, you know it’s that age where you’re still trying to figure out your personality and so you’re defining yourself by like your interests and a really extroverted way. And since I knew I loved hot sauce so much, and so I was like a Tabasco sauce poster child. I just bought or rather was gifted all their products.
I had a friend whose dad worked for the Tabasco Indy 500 car racing team. And so one birthday he gave me just like all of this Tabasco promotional stuff. So I had like a baseball cap, I had shirts, just all sorts of Tabasco stuff. I even had this... it was like a little cameo belt holder, so you could just like have your Tabasco bottle on your belt. I used to wear it to school.
KAYTE YOUNG: With the tabasco?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, yeah, because I was ready to go. The minute I'd have some food, you gotta put that hot sauce on it. And then you know, when you’re that age too, it's all about how much like, "how much Tobacco can you eat? Like how hot can you go?"
As I got older I really started to appreciate hot sauces that were a balance of heat and flavor. And that’s what's ended up being the most important to me. You know... there are so many of those hot sauces out there that are kinda gimmicky and it's all about the heat. Those are nothing to me. You gotta get that good balance of flavor. Which is why when I decided I was finally gonna start making my own, I was really concerned about internalizing the differences between different kinds of peppers and their flavors.
KAYTE YOUNG: Well thank you and I am excited to check back in with you. What did you say, two weeks?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I’ll probably check in two weeks and see how they're doing, yeah.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: After a quick break we’ll find out if Christopher’s hot sauce met his high standards of flavor and heat balance.
Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young, back with Christopher Burrus to give that hot sauce a taste.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: So I’ve got four bottles here of the piques. Two of them are first infusions, and two of them are second ones. About a week after I made it, I was sampling it, and I kinda decided that the garlic was wear I wanted it to be. I really didn't want it to get any stronger, and I just wanted to bring out the habanero a little bit more. We'll do the habanero garlic first, you should just give it a whiff, because...
KAYTE YOUNG [TO CHRIS]: Yeah, that has a really strong garlic.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, yup.
KAYTE YOUNG: I’m really tasting the other herbs too.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, mostly thyme and peppercorn.
KAYTE YOUNG: The vinegar really hits you pretty strong...
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, yeah.
KAYTE YOUNG: -once it gets to the back of your throat. It's really like... whew! But it’s... the heat is not killing me. It feels kinda... and it feels like the vinegar mellowed a little bit over time. It's not quite as like, straight out of the bottle vinegar.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Uh huh. This is infusion one of the sherry aji chili, and a little clove.
KAYTE YOUNG: Smells totally different. Wow, okay, so... it starts out sherry.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah.
KAYTE YOUNG: Then it goes clove, and then it goes... heat! (laughs)
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: That's the ghost pepper, yeah.
KAYTE YOUNG: Ghost Pepper! (laughs)
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: That one…
KAYTE YOUNG: That's incredible.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: That one has ended up being my favorite. It is... I was completely unexpected, blown away by what it tasted like in the end. I love it personally. I think it's really interesting.
KAYTE YOUNG: I’ve never tasted anything like it. And yeah that heat is pure.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Okay let’s do the second infusions here because they're a little different. Okay. So… this is the habanero, the second infusion of habanero, you can already see the difference. It's a little lighter.
KAYTE YOUNG: I think you accomplished your goal.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah.
KAYTE YOUNG: The garlic is definitely diminished and you’re getting that fruity habanero thing going on.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah that's why I like this one more. I mean the other on is good, it's just that it's a different sauce. This is habanero, the other one is garlic.
KAYTE YOUNG: But how incredible to get two sauces out of one bottle.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, exactly. It’s the same bottle that we started out with. Not bad.
KAYTE YOUNG: This is the sherry, second infusion. It’s still working.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, that one... was kinda
KAYTE YOUNG: Softer.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, just a little softer. And you know the reason that I decided to give a second infusion to that one too, is because the heat level on the first one... I thought sapped... I didn't want to go any more. I thought it was getting to the point where it was a little...
KAYTE YOUNG: I don't know if it could go anymore.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, a ghost pepper is a scary thing. You just never know how far it's gonna go.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: Don’t worry, you don’t have to put ghost peppers in your pique. Make it how you like it. And if you need instructions or ideas for what to do with your pique, we have them at EarthEats.org.
Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats. The story we just heard about Chris Burrus and his pique hot sauce was from last fall. This summer I got in touch with him again for another hot pepper matter.
[INTERVIEWING] So what we're gonna do today is we have a Carolina Reaper pepper. What do you know about the Carolina Reaper?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I know that it's the Guinness World Book of Records Official Hottest Pepper in the world. With hot peppers and hot sauce that talk a lot about Scoville units, and I know that the Carolina Reaper is supposed to be something like 2 million which is a number that I just can't really even conceive of. I don't know what that really means.
KAYTE YOUNG: Currently I think right now it is the hottest pepper on the scale. The next level is like pepper spray. (both laugh) So I think that it is one of the hottest ones, but what we're gonna do today is we're gonna work our way up. So we're gonna start out with a really mild sweet pepper which is just a banana pepper. And then what I've done is just kind of mix it in with some salsa, but we could also taste it on its own. I was gonna do a banana pepper, an Anaheim pepper and then I got a habanero from my garden, and then we're gonna just kind of work our way up to the Carolina Reaper in terms of heat.
And we're in my backyard, we're well over six feet apart/ And we have separate bowls and everything so we're trying to do this in a COVID safe way but not so much safe for our taste buds. I don't know. (chuckles)
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Well I also kind of think that giving the Carolina Reaper a little social distance anyway seems like a good idea. (laughs)
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, yeah. Okay so this is just the banana pepper.
(Sound of pepper crunching)
I feel like I tasted more chip than pepper.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah to me that is... you know that grassiness. It's kind of...
KAYTE YOUNG: Oh yeah.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: It's that... it's like the standard grassy taste there with the banana pepper. You know a little heat, but that's what I taste at least.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: Next in line was an Anaheim pepper, or what I think was an Anaheim pepper. It's a green chili.
[TO CHRIS] There's... I'm not getting the heat at all. Like this is the kind that you could put into salsa that you're giving to kids, and they're going to taste peppers a little bit but they're not going to burn their mouths.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Sure.
KAYTE YOUNG: Would you call this on the grassy or fruity?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: This is still grassy to me a little bit, I think. The salsa that you made too Kayte is really excellent. Fresh salsa here in your backyard, the sun is shining, the salsa is fresh, I mean. We're in a pandemic but this is pretty nice (laughs).
KAYTE YOUNG [TO CHRIS]: Well I think that this salsa is working pretty well as a base which is what I intended. So yeah our next one is a habanero, and again this is definitely harvested on the early side. The peppers are fully formed but they're not turning color yet, so this is a green habanero. It should be a little bit hotter.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah. A habanero versus an Anaheim, yeah I think it'll be a little bit hotter.
KAYTE YOUNG: And I didn't remove the seeds from any of these peppers, because I just chopped them up.
(Sound of pepper crunching)
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: And it's interesting with the habanero too because I feel like that the heat hits you faster. I think it just... there are some peppers where it can take a little while for it to kind of come on for the heat. The habanero it's right there. Course I may have gotten a seed in my bite here or something like that.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah cause I didn't get any heat in my bite.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah so I cut off a little piece of the pepper here and I made sure I got the rib material on it.
KAYTE YOUNG: I wonder if it's because it's not ripe. But I'm really... for some reason I am not getting heat.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: So I got a little more there. I took a pretty large chunk of it and, yeah that's interesting. That's interesting how much of a difference there is when you're eating one that's on the ripe side that's you know that is probably as mild as the Anaheim.
KAYTE YOUNG: I hope I didn't accidentally plant those heatless habaneros. I'm going to be having a discussion with a farmer if that happens (both laugh). Okay I'm getting it now.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: It's still mild for a habanero though.
KAYTE YOUNG: No I'm getting it now; I think it's because it's not ripe yet. It hasn't reached it's...
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah but for me it's also the flavor of the habanero. I just love the flavor.
KAYTE YOUNG: I do love the flavor, I love the smell, and the aroma and the flavor is great on the habanero. That's why I've always liked to grow them and make salsa out of them.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah. I think I said before I have no qualms about saying that it's the best. It is the best of the peppers in my opinion, I just think it's a great balance of flavor and heat. When they're ripe I think the color is very attractive. It's just a great pepper.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah they're really good looking.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Mhm. They grow well in Indiana. You know.
KAYTE YOUNG: So, are we ready?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: For the Carolina Reaper?
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Okay.
KAYTE YOUNG: Well this Carolina Reaper came from Sharrona Moore out at Lawrence Community Gardens up in Indy. And I think we should careful handling this one too because I think it can burn your hands. She was saying that even just being out in the field harvesting them she was coughing.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Wow.
KAYTE YOUNG: I'm gonna have my water ready. And I also have some plain yogurt.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah that's what I was just about to mention. For anybody who’s trying hot peppers, having something that has some fat in it like a dairy product of some kind, or some bread and butter, or some yogurt is a really good thing because capsaicin is fat soluble.
So sometimes when you drink water it can seem refreshing but what it's actually doing is just spreading the capsaicin in your mouth even more and (with) some peppers it can make it worse (laughs). I gotta just say I got a little bit on my arm and it is burning my arm. I am not kidding it is burning my arm a little bit (laughs).
KAYTE YOUNG: Okay I'm nervous now. Okay here we go.
(Sound of a bite, and chewing)
I'm not tasting...
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah I think I need a little bit more; I'm not really getting anything.
KAYTE YOUNG: (laughs) How can that be?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Okay I've cut myself a little bit more of this pepper, with rib and seed.
KAYTE YOUNG: And you're just gonna eat it plain?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I'm gonna try this. This is what some might consider to be an idiotic amount of this pepper, but maybe not. So that pepper has absolutely no heat.
I did get a little bit of irritation, as I said, on my arm when a little some fell on, but the piece that I just had was not... was not a hot pepper (laughs)
KAYTE YOUNG: What is happening? She must have been mistaken. She must have just grabbed me the wrong one. Oh man. Underwhelming. (both laugh).
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: It's just so funny because we're sitting at this table, there's water, there's yogurt. I brought like an iced coffee because I knew that it had fat in it. There's sparkling water...
KAYTE YOUNG: We're totally ready, just sitting here to experience this like... "Hm, not tasting much here"
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: That's so funny. I wonder if the ripeness or lack thereof has anything to do with it. I wonder if it's a pepper that heats up really late. I just don't know.
KAYTE YOUNG: I wonder too, and I would like to research that a little bit, because I do know that my habaneros are usually mu h hotter than this one. And this is an under ripe habanero for sure.
Well Chris I want to thank you for coming and trying this uneventful chili pepper with me.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: (laughs) I mean I'm never gonna turn down an opportunity to sit in a back garden, as I said, and enjoy some peppers, and the flavor is still good. It's not all disappointment to be sure. The salsa is excellent.
KAYTE YOUNG: I will definitely be on the lookout this summer to see if I can get ahold of one and have you come back, and we'll try it again.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah I think it kind of lifts up the intrigue of it even more. It's kind of slipped through our fingers this one time, but maybe next time. And then it'll just be all of this regret, like why did we pursue this pepper when it's burning a hole through our stomachs?
KAYTE YOUNG: (laughs) Exactly. Well, thank you Chris and let's just dig into the rest of this salsa.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Sounds good.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: It was disappointing but I set my sights on finding a Carolina Reaper before summer's end. I reached out to Susan Welsand, also known as the chili woman to see if she could hook me up. We'll get back to our quest to test the Carolina Reaper later on in the show.
Scientists are getting ordinary people to get them to understand, for the first time, what's up with the microbes that give each sour dough starter it's special funk. Producer Josephine McRobbie gets an update from the Wild Sourdough Project.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE [NARRATING]: Microbial ecologist Aaron Mckinney isn't afraid to tackle controversial research questions.
ERIN MCKENNEY: And this is a question on the minds of every San Franciscan, right? Is San Francisco sourdough starter reproducible anywhere in the world, or is it truly just in that region?
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE [NARRATING]: She and her colleagues at North Carolina State University have studied the science of sourdough bread for around four years. They say we know less about the microorganisms in our foods than we do about the creatures living in the deepest parts of the sea.
ERIN MCKENNEY: One of the overarching themes that we found in all of this work with sourdough is that for every question that we think we're getting toward an answer, it's like a hydra. Like 9 or 15 other questions pop up.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE [NARRATING]: A starter begins with flour and water. As you gradually refresh and stir your start it ferments, becoming inhabited by yeast and bacteria.
ERIN MCKENNEY: Bakers all over the world know that at 10-14 days old, after you've been growing your starter from scratch, by 10-14 days it has developed from glorified papier mache paste to something that's bubbly and alive and that will leaven your bread. Right? Like it won't make a rock cake. But nobody's ever really looked at is it really 10 days or do you have to wait a full 14 days, and what exactly are you waiting for?
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE [NARRATING]: A recent project, Global Sourdough worked with citizen scientists around the world to analyze the starters that people already had in their homes to see what role geography plays in composition. For instance it's commonly said that the fog and temperature in the bay area has a noticeable effect on local loaves, but Dr. McKenney says that they found no golden fingerprint of the yeasts in San Francisco’s starts.
ERIN MCKENNEY: And I think that that has to do with you know each person managing their sourdough starter separately. And we don't really live in our outdoor environments that might dry up the distribution of those yeasts or of those funguses right? We live in these glorious caves that we built ourselves. So we actually appear to have domesticated or surrounded ourselves with specific different bacterial and yeast species then we might find just outside our front doors.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE [NARRATING]: People around the world have starters that they've been cultivating for years. So the Global Sourdough Project was working with a data set that had a lot of uncontrolled variables. In April of this year during the onset of COVID in the U.S. the team decided to start fresh.
ERIN MCKENNEY: We saw that the entire world started growing starters and making sourdough bread once we were all at home. And we thought this could be a marvelous opportunity, one to engage folks who are already like playing with bread. To also gather some data, take pictures of their starter, and who doesn't love doing that anyway? But if we can leverage that information for scientific knowledge, that's an incredible opportunity. And two it gives us an opportunity to ask some questions and begin to address some of the questions that got opened up the last time we tried this study, a different aspect of sourdough.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE [NARRATING]: The wild sourdough project invites participants to begin a sourdough starter and to track how quickly it grows over 10 days. They also note the location, the flour brand, and if they use tap or bottled water. And they document the scent of the starter. How do you quantify smell? The project provides an aroma wheel. It's based on research conducted in a Danish lab.
ERIN MCKENNEY: Do I get like grass? Is it fresh grass? Is it fermented grass? Do I get fruits? What types of fruits does it smell like? Am I getting grain? What types of grain or is it more like porridge, or is it like toasty grain? And they grouped all those different smells into super categories.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE [NARRATING]: So far over 1700 people have made starters, each doing their part to contribute to the creation of knowledge.
ERIN MCKENNEY: When I'm developing citizen scientist projects, I'm considering them partners, and I get really really excited about sharing the story. And about hopefully empowering anyone in the world to do science and to not need a fancy lab or a degree or you know... to have taken that class.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE [NARRATING]: The team is doing a kind of slow science with wild sourdough. It's allowing the submissions to ferment into the fall without an official end date for the study. McKinney draws all kinds of connections between this kind of research and baking itself.
ERIN MCKENNEY: Baking was really intimidating to me for a long time. And there is a fair bit of chemistry to it, right? That's what underlies the transformation of a bread dough into a loaf.
But I think I have learned to trust myself and to trust the microbes. Right? If it's been humbling as a microbial ecologist to go from you know, "I will extract your DNA in the lab." and "I will analyze the DNA sequencing data with bio informatic analysis." and writing code and being specific and very exact. Going from to that a working practice of now just trusting these organisms I have studied and admired for so long to do what they do.
You know? What do bacteria need? They need food, they need water, they need warmth, they need space. Right? So if you give them time and you give them food, you just wait, and they'll do their thing. It turns out, because everything that we studied about them we learned because it is true, it is what they do.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: That story comes to us from producer Josephine McRobbie. This spring I participated in the Wild Sourdough Project from my kitchen and submitted my data to their citizen scientist website. Their instructions are simple and straightforward, and I ended up with a strong new sourdough starter. Find out more on our website, EarthEats.org
And now back to my quest with Christopher Burrus for a taste of the infamous Carolina Reaper pepper. After our July pepper tasting session ended on a zero on the Scoville scale, I asked Susan Welsand if she was growing any of the super hots. She's known as the Chili woman, and she sells many varieties of pepper plants, ships them all over the country, and she sells the chilis themselves from the plants she raises in her own chili field. Susan isn't a fan of the super-hot trend. She values flavor over extreme heat.
SUSAN WELSAND: To me they've crossed a line from being a food source to being a chemical. And when you cut open a habanero there's that wonderful aroma and mmm you just kinda breathe it in. And when I cut open these super-hot peppers like a ghost pepper, scorpion or a reaper, I get a chemical smell. I grow some because people do want them and I sell the plants in spring, and they're really popular.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: When I contacted her in July she told me she should have some reapers ready in the fall. In late August I got a message that she had some ground hog troubles, and the reaper plants were damaged. She hoped to salvage some peppers and she would let me know.
Farming is always unpredictable. And this year seemed to be the year of animal trouble out at Susan's farm. A hawk got to several of their chickens...
SUSAN WELSAND: We've trapped raccoons, we've trapped ground hogs, we've trapped the white skunk the other day. And I went to pick in the chili field and the electric fence had gone off and the deer had done a lot of damage in there. And when I went out to see the damage I realize there was a lot of down below damage too that was from a groundhog. And we have electric fence around there, and we have chicken wire wrapped around the sides of the fence to keep rabbits and stuff out.
So we figured something was digging underneath. And there's a toolshed out the side of the chili field and it had dug all the way tunneled all the way under the toolshed and come up in the chili fields. So we got a ground hog right away, we trapped. And I still had damage, so Terry put trap right back on the tunnel. And came back out and had the biggest groundhog I'd ever seen. He could even like move around in the trap. And he was mad, he was so mad. He rolled the trap over four time! And took out a whole bunch of plants while he was doing it. But we haven't had trouble in the chili field since them.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: But through all the trials and tribulations, Susan managed to rescue a single Carolina Reaper chili pepper and she saved it for me. I told her about our experience in July with the reaper that had no heat to it. And I asked her about the conditions that could affect the heat level of chili peppers.
SUSAN WELSAND: In general when it's drier you get a lot more capsaicin in the plants and some growers even stress their plants, they deliberately let them go to the point of wilting and then water them to try to increase the amount of spiciness that's in the pepper. And this is Indiana I don't have to do that, there's always a drought at some point (laughs). So sometimes even like your jalapenos will be really hot.
KAYTE YOUNG [TO SUSAN]: So that's why it's hard to know or to control or to be able to predict completely what your peppers are gonna taste like.
SUSAN WELSAND: Mhm, but that's also kind of the fun of it too.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: Susan also grows some of the heatless habanero varieties.
SUSAN WELSAND: So they look hot but they're not. I did have a prankster at market one time, it was a little kid. And I saw her do it, and she switched my signs, at market.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: So what do you mean, she saw that you had hot habaneros and sweet habaneros?
SUSAN WELSAND: Yeah
KAYTE YOUNG: Wow, just as a prank?
SUSAN WELSAND: Well I assume so.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: Susan assures me there are ways to tell the difference.
SUSAN WELSAND: The super-hot ones tend to have that warty skin. So they look really evil. And reapers have that little tail on them.
KAYTE YOUNG [TO SUSAN]: Oh, that's how you can tell.
[NARRATING] I left the chili woman's farm with my solitary devil tailed Carolina Reaper. It was time to meet up with Chris again to give this Carolina Reaper tasting another try. Remember Chris Burrus has a history with hot sauce and hot peppers.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I talked about when I was doing the pique how my mom's grandfather used to make pique, but on my dad's side his dad was a huge gardener. And he used to grow hot peppers to show at the county and the state fair, but he didn't like to eat them he just liked to grow them.
But he had this thing called the red badge of courage club which is... he also had a hobby where he used to make badges and pins and things. And so he would make these red badge of courage pins and then give all of his habaneros to his friends, and the idea was that if you could eat a whole habanero you would get a red badge of courage and you'd be in the red badge of courage club. It was just an excuse to kind of make these badges and kind of get rid of these peppers, but it was definitely my first memory of having like a super-hot pepper.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: So you did it?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah I did it, I was probably like 8 or 9 years old. And at that point I was already like a Tabasco sauce poster child, but I hadn't really gone in on the peppers which is a whole 'nother level. You will never get the true experience of heat until you just eat a hot pepper raw. That's what the red badge of courage club was all about too.
KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: But Chris has never tried a Carolina Reaper, understood to be the hottest pepper currently available.
Today's the day. Like before we built up towards the super-hot, by tasting some sweet habaneros which have the habanero flavor but no heat. And then we tried one of my traditional habaneros from the garden. A ripe one this time. I might have taken too big of a bite of that one.
[TO CHRIS]: Okay I'm gonna... (muffled) You seem totally fine; I'm dying over here.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: (laughs) I mean it's spicy, you have to be totally relaxed when you do this because if you accidentally have a little hiccup or you swallow oddly, you're just going to regret it. I mean you can hear the intendance in my voice.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah I'm kinda dying over here.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah you took your glasses off. I've already got the hiccups, boy, if this is how it's gonna be with the habanero we're gonna be in trouble.
KAYTE YOUNG: I'm crying, I have tears running down my face.
(NARRATING) After I calmed down and cleared my palette, it was time to finally sample the star of the show - a ripened Carolina Reaper. Slicing into it I noticed the beautiful coloring.
[TO CHRIS] It's gorgeous.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah. That smells hot. It smells like a ghost pepper to me.
KAYTE YOUNG: I'm so scared right now.
[NARRATING] I decided to start with a cautious bite from the tip of the pepper which doesn't have as much heat. I felt a slight numbing sensation and then we moved into the fully body of the pepper.
[TO CRHIS] Mm there's this sweetness on the edge.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: There is. Wow what a flavor. Wow.
KAYTE YOUNG: Oh that's so strange. I'm still getting that numbing and it's almost more complete like it's numbing my whole tongue. It tastes...
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I mean...
KAYTE YOUNG: Oh! As it's reaching other parts of my...
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Okay that's... that's spicy. I don't think we got the full effect.
KAYTE YOUNG: No.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Because that is not as... (gasps) okay.
KAYTE YOUNG: (Laughs) It's coming on slow. I mean every place that it has touched in my mouth is... it's burning in a way that it wasn't even for the... I didn't... oh (deep breaths)
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Nope. It's a different heat than the habanero to me. It's like...
KAYTE YOUNG: It's very different for me. But it's also the way I'm ingesting it, because the other one I kinda started chewing on it, it was in the back of my throat immediately.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: It's getting worse.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah (laughs)
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: It's like, it's white hot for me right now. Like that is the image in my mind. And it's rough. Oh man. White hot. It's... it's like giving me butterflies like a little bit. Wow.
KAYTE YOUNG: I don't think I was bold enough, so I probably need to take a little more. The places like I said where it has touched, are numb. So now you have streams of... tears coming down.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I have tears coming down my face. I definitely have stomach cramps coming on now.
KAYTE YOUNG: Really?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah. But it's unlike any pepper I've ever had. I'm not exaggerating.
KAYTE YOUNG: Okay I went for it.... oh. (deep breathing) (both laugh)
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: It's like if you try to breathe it's like flame coming in out of your mouth.
KAYTE YOUNG: It's like the back of my jaw too is just like, you know how... when you have like a sourdough or something?
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah
KAYTE YOUNG: Okay yeah, that was uh... full on. It really does... it puts you in the moment. There's no place else to go.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah like all your senses are completely engaged with this pepper. All of them because I was streaming tears, running nose, it's like it's, yeah the heat... it's exactly right. You're just completely focused on it. It's like your body goes to it in the full arm mode.
KAYTE YOUNG: You can't think about other things.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah, and I do actually feel like very relaxed.
KAYTE YOUNG: I'm starting to feel a little bit of the euphoria that comes with pepper eating.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah exactly.
KAYTE YOUNG: I mean it's not; it's coupled with the pain that's still present. But there is that kind of wave of like...
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: Yeah like a relief of some kind that makes you feel pretty good.
KAYTE YOUNG: Alright well thank you so much Chris, I'm so glad we finally got to have our Carolina Reaper experience.
CHRISTOPHER BURRUS: I know. This is the real deal, for sure this is great. As a person who talks about peppers a lot, like I feel very legitimate now as like a heat seeker.
KAYTE YOUNG: That concludes our pepper tasting adventure and this episode of Earth Eats. Thanks for tuning in, we'll see you next week.
(Earth Eats theme music, composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey)
RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Chad Bouchard, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Josephine McRobbie, the IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.
KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Christopher Burrus, Susan Welsand and Erin McKenney.
RENEE REED: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artist at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.