Testing out some tastes

This week marked the kickoff for a new culinary experience at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. Our culinary director, Chef Robert Hall, has fielded many questions over the years about how various ingredients compare to one another.

“People want to know what the difference is between an ingredient from one place versus the same ingredient that’s from somewhere else,” he explains.

All those questions got Chef Hall to thinking, “maybe this would work as a culinary class.”

And so was born Taste Test, the newest addition to the Institute’s culinary lineup. These Thursday night classes only cost $15, and, true to its name, it’s all about testing out the tastes of one type of ingredient. But that ingredient might have a dozen or more iterations, divided by brand, geography or technique.

The opening class this week covered hot sauce. I’ve had the privilege of sitting through a number of Chef Hall’s other classes. I always learn something, and he’s usually kind enough to let me sample a bite of whatever he and/or the class is making.

But this time I got to go all in. He lined up 14 varieties of hot sauce, ranging from extremely mild (jalapeño-based) to slap-your-momma hot (ghost peppers). I’m not real adventurous when it comes to my palate. I certainly don’t eat things on a dare. But I decided to tough this one out. I tasted each variety, and of the first 12, only the red Tabasco made me reach for the sugar cubes Chef Hall had provided as a fire extinguisher.

We tried a chipotle sauce that was reminiscent of a spicy barbecue sauce. Then there was Chef Hall’s own homemade concoction, for which he used Fresno chilies. This was the class favorite in terms of flavor. We also got to try aji amarillo, a Peruvian sauce made from the pepper of the same name. This was a gift from our creative director, Sasha Cerrato, whose mother is from Peru.

Between each tasting, Chef Hall explained the science behind measuring Scoville units, the standard measurement for heat in spicy food. A jalapeño, for example, is measured at 3,000-5,000 Scoville units. This means that it would take roughly 3,000-5,000 cups of sugar dissolved in water to completely neutralize the heat in a jalapeño pepper.

Lucky No. 13 was a habanero-based sauce, and its heat clung to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter. It was uncomfortable enough that I determined I’d probably rather not reach for it the next time I wanted to give my food an extra kick, but my mouth recovered quickly, and I was no worse for the wear.

Then came the ghost pepper sauce. It was called Dave’s Gourmet Hot Sauce. Sounded harmless enough. I’m not sure who Dave is, but after one tiny taste of his sauce, I decided he’s not my friend.

It took about an hour – and lots of sugar cubes, plus some milk – for the heat to completely subside. That probably just means I have wimpy taste buds, as Chef Hall did point out that reactions to heat and spice in food are very subjective. I don’t mind admitting that. And I’ll be clear, while my sinuses were as open as they’ve been in a while, even the hottest sauce didn’t pose any real danger. Chef Hall made sure of that, and we all had plenty of fair warning. He explained before we dipped our spoons in Dave’s Gourmet Firestarter that ghost peppers measure at up to 800,000 Scoville units.

All in all, I learned a lot. Besides all the chemistry, I learned that there are a number of hot sauces that are quite tasty and add a welcome punch to various foods.

And then there’s Dave’s.

The next Taste Test class will be Feb. 16, and given it’s the week of Valentine’s Day, the star ingredient will be chocolate. Chef Hall gave me and a few co-workers a preview of the chocolate class earlier this week. Trust me when I say you’ll want to be there for that.

Other ingredients to be covered later in the year include olive oil (March 16), cheese (April 20) and bacon (Nov. 16).

Visit our culinary page for a full listing of Taste Test options. Just find Taste Test and then click the plus button to expand the list of individual classes.