In an extremist’s land, hot sauce is growing up and maturing like a fine wine. Our intrepid reporter risked flaying her taste buds at the NYC Hot Sauce Expo in order to get schooled on the latest hot sauce trends.
A range of Scoville heat levels is popular with most hot sauce companies, which strive to provide something for every consumer. Many booths even had a mild-as-milk sauce.
Like Tim “The Toolman” Taylor, for some hot sauce producers, more is still more. For those hot sauce fundamentalists, a must is a sauce featuring the Carolina Reaper, the top dog in Scoville hot units currently. The Trinidad moruga scorpion and the ghost chili pepper also made their hellfire-and-brimstone presences known at many booths.
Many of the exhibitors I spoke with at The NYC Hot Sauce Expo said that their mission was to bring about the best flavor instead of focusing on hot sauce that would flay your tastebuds. I found that so many sauces, from A&B to Queen Majesty, focused on excellent flavor rather than just burning you down with heat. In fact, Queen Majesty’s motto, instead of screaming about devils or hellfires like many of the labels, nonchalantly says, “Heat & Flavor.”
A short, five-ingredient, all-natural list graced the back of many bottles. Choosing to skip the xantham gum, the sugar, and even the vinegar was not an uncommon sight at the expo. These hot sauces would fit right in with Portland’s back-to-food-roots aesthetic.
More and more producers, like Home Sweet Home Grown and the Bronx Greenmarket Hot Sauce teams, are producing the product from start to finish, which gives total control over soil (dare I call it terroir?) conditions, shade and sun, watering, compost, age and size of harvesting, and the cooking process.
Surprisingly, city folks are growing enough peppers on rooftops to feed the hot sauce bottle. A&B’s NYC Rooftop Small-Batch Pepper Sauce is made from Red Fresno chilies that grow above busy Northern Boulevard at massive rooftop farm Brooklyn Grange. Brooklyn Grange produces its own hot sauce, as well.
The market is competitive and sometimes extremist, but friendly and full of jest, producers said.
All the hot sauce companies brought the spice, but some brought the fruit, too. The Chesterville Pepper Company had a fruity, fiery sauce called the Fistful of Pineapple, Dorset Naga Pepper Hot Sauce. When I tested in on friends afterwards, try as they might, they just couldn’t figure out what the fruity flavor was, but they loved it. Heartbreaking Dawns featured a 1498 Apricot & Scorpion Hot Sauce, which adds apricot, blueberry and carrot to the blazing, already-fruity Trinidad scorpion and a bouquet of Scotch bonnet peppers. Horseshoe Brand, meanwhile, makes a kiwi jalapeno that adds sweetness and tang perfect for tacos or marinades to the mix.
More and more vegetarians are getting in on the hot sauce action, and hot sauce producers easily doled out great recipes for tofu and tempeh to me. Even the carnivores at the expo had superior knowledge of how to make hot sauce-inflected veggie dishes. Home Sweet Home Grown uses all-vegan ingredients in its hot sauces, and even eliminated Guinness because it was not completely vegan.
Hot sauce is spicing up more liquors and entering more cocktails than the bloody mary and the michelada these days. Stoli and Jack Daniels had booths at the expo featuring hot sauce recipes for their liquors. Add some honey and a jalapeno slice or two to that vodka, please! Liquor brands are also increasingly creating spicy lines that cater to the hot sauce lover’s palate—Stoli featured a Hot Jalapeno Vodka and Jack Daniels sampled its cinnamony Tennessee Fire.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to go find some spicy hot sauce-infused ice cream. Or to pour my own supply of hot sauce into some coconut ice cream.
Dakota Kim is a food writer, gardener, mushroom hunter and burlesque producer living in Brooklyn. She likes to brew strange Korean medicinal teas and bake vegan desserts. She is currently working on a cookbook featuring burlesque performers called Bombshell Bakers. Tweet her at @dakotakim1.