This hot and tangy sauce won the Internet, and for a good reason. We explore why it tastes so good.
What gives sriracha sauce that tangy southeast Asian taste that makes it so irresistible? Why does sriracha, the hot sauce we all know and love, work on so many different foods?
Sriracha sauce is typically made up of 50% chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, salt, and sugar, but there’s more going on that gives sriracha its unique flavor and pleasurable experience. If you look a bit behind the chemistry of sriracha sauce, you can see there’s a lot for our bodies to like.
Sriracha Releases Endorphins
Red chili peppers are the most defining ingredient of sriracha sauce giving it most of its spice and its recognizable red color. Originally red jalapeños were used, but more recently, Fresno peppers are preferred as they’re much easier to find—despite this, they both have a similar effect on the body.
As Erin Brodwin of Insider explains, the peppers used in sriracha contain capsaicin (C18H27NO3) molecules which cause the burning sensation and trigger a protein called TRPV1 and tells our bodies to release endorphins to reduce the pain from hot temperatures. So, it’s not just the taste of sriracha sauce you like—you also enjoy the endorphins it releases in your body.
Brodwin also explains that the molecules in sriracha are heavier than those of wasabi or mustard, so its scent is less irritable to your nose and eyes. This can mean that consuming sriracha sauce is a more pleasurable experience than other spicy sauces as it stays within the mouth.
Fermentation Gives Sriracha Its Flavor and Texture
Aside from red chili peppers, a crucial step is often overlooked in the production of sriracha—fermentation. The fermentation process gives sriracha sauce much of its unique tangy-salty flavor and purée-like texture.
How Is Sriracha Fermented?
When the California-based Huy Fong Foods ferments their chilis, they first grind them down to purée that they then leave in vinegar and garlic to ferment, according to Jake Emen of Eater. Mike Hultquist of Chili Pepper Madness further explains that when you ferment peppers, it breaks down carbohydrates and converts them into acid and mellows the flavor.
In Hultquist’s recipe, he makes the peppers into a purée with a food processor, mixes it with water and sea salt, pops on a lid, and then leaves it for 1-2 weeks (occasionally ‘burping’ the jar by opening it to let out any gasses).
After this period has passed, he pours the peppers into a pot with vinegar, garlic, and sugar, brings it to a boil, and then lets it simmer for up to 10 minutes. When the sauce cools down, the sriracha is ready to use.
The fermentation process is also why sriracha has such a long shelf life, as the acid acts as a natural preservative.
How Does Fermentation Change the Taste of Sriracha?
Fermented foods typically have an ‘umami’ (or savory) taste that comes from glutamates, particularly monosodium glutamate. It is one of the five basic tastes we naturally enjoy from birth and seek out. In Japanese, umami means “essence of deliciousness”. Foods with an umami taste give you an appetite and can even make you salivate, leaving you craving for more.
In a discussion about fermented foods with Kevin Glidden of the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, Ole Mouritsen, professor of gastrophysics at Copenhagen University, explains that umami “gives you appetite, when you stick it in your mouth, the saliva starts running. It’s a very good way of getting [an] appetite.” This is one of the biggest reasons why sriracha is so moreish compared to other chili sauces you can find in the supermarket.
Fermentation also brings out hidden flavors. A blog post by eatCultured adds that during fermentation, microorganisms metabolize food into smaller molecules. This then amplifies existing flavors in less flavorsome compounds and creates new flavors.
Furthermore, fermented foods are common in the Far East and less common to westerners which could add to their appeal and explain why sriracha has such a unique taste that we love.
While other chili sauces also have capsaicin and release endorphins, only sriracha is fermented, giving it that additional factor that leaves you craving for more.
What Pairs Well with Sriracha Sauce?
Another reason sriracha tastes so good is that it’s incredibly practical. Not only does it last a long time, but you can add sriracha to a wide range of foods—it’s not just a dipping sauce.
In 2017, bon appétit published a list of the 31 best recipes for sriracha to nail in just how versatile the chili sauce is (that list would probably be longer today).
Sriracha is often added to or consumed with main courses for its extra punch. More recently, though, people have discovered that it works beautifully with vanilla, lime, or chocolate ice cream.
If you’re already a sriracha lover, this is likely not a surprise. But when you bear in mind the points mentioned above—its ability to give you appetite and release endorphins—the fact that you can add it to many dishes means you’re more likely to use it when you can and love it a little bit more.
What Are the Health Benefits of Sriracha Sauce?
It might not just be the taste of sriracha that you love. Sriracha sauce also has a variety of health benefits, though they may not be that obvious.
Rachel MacPherson explains that sriracha is a “low-calorie option for adding a lot of flavor to dishes”, though it is high in sodium. Furthermore, while it also contains vitamins A, C, and E, and iron, because it is usually consumed in small quantities, sriracha doesn’t have a massive impact, but this is not where the health benefits may lie—again, it’s all about the capsaicin.
MacPherson also explains that the capsaicin in sriracha—the same chemical compound that makes chili peppers spicy—could play a role in weight management, noting its association with lower rates of obesity, particularly in the abdomen.
Capsaicin may also play a role in preventing weight regain in people that have lost 5%-10% of their weight. This may be because consuming capsaicin can raise metabolic rates and prevent fatty build up on the liver. However, they note that more research is needed on the topic.
And finally, MacPherson also notes that research has suggested capsaicin may have anticancer effects, improve all-cause mortality, and could help you regulate blood sugar and pressure.
Obviously, though, don’t go consuming copious amounts of sriracha sauce! It won’t make you instantly a beaming example of health—more likely, it could make you very sick and even give you abdominal pains!
So Why Do I Like Sriracha Sauce So Much?
It’s all chemistry—you don’t just like sriracha for no reason. The science behind sriracha sauce makes it one of the most pleasurable chili sauces you can get. To summarize:
- You’re likely a fan of the endorphins sriracha releases when capsaicin molecules touch your tongue;
- Its umami (savory) taste which we naturally have a preference for and gives us an appetite, the complex flavors released from fermentation;
- How it doesn’t attack our other senses like other spicy sauces does—e.g., the nose and the eyes;
- Plus, you can add it to a versatile range of foods, and it may have some unique health benefits.
All this makes sriracha a must-have chili sauce for any kitchen.