Hot sauce is many things to many people. Whether it’s used to elevate your cooking, add heat after the fact, or doused onto your food to mask other flavors, it seems like there’s nothing a good hot sauce can’t do. And with Sriracha making keychain sized bottles and Tabasco dropping a flavor 20-times hotter than its standard offering, hot sauce appreciation is clearly on the rise.
Last weekend in Austin, TX, dozens of vendors offered up hundreds of different hot sauces at the 27th Annual Austin Hot Sauce Festival. Options ranged from salsas to dry rubs and BBQ marinades to ass-kicking stunt brands. After a day spent sampling and taking notes, I feel like I left with a solid grasp of the state of hot sauce in 2017.
Sauces Made With A Purpose
When approaching each new vendor, it was important to get a layout of not just what they were offering, but how. Sometimes it was a free-for-all, with the samples laid out next to bowls of tortilla chips. More often than not, there was someone there to help dole out tastes, while carefully explaining the severity and spice of each sauce. Most even specified what the best application in the kitchen would be. Certain sauces were better suited to marinades, others were better to cook with, while others still were just good all-around dips.
The more nuanced the sauce, the more specific the suggestions would be — sauce staff explained which of their flavors went better with red or white meat, and even passed out recipe cards paired with certain sauces. Others offered full tours of their entire line ups (think tasting flight, but for hot sauce). They’d typically started on the mild end of the spectrum, then gradually ratcheted up the heat with each new sampling. One of the most memorable presentations came from Haitian Heat Spice, which took participants on a journey through sauces with names like Sexy Sauce and Nap Boule before ending with the brand’s classic creation, Fire Sauce.
Creative Flavor Combinations Aplenty
While there was definitely no lack of Scoville-blasting options, some of the more creative chefs found ways to mix their spice with savory, and even sweet combinations. When most people hear the words ‘ghost pepper,’ there are usually one of two reactions: an immediate reluctance to touch a pepper so hot that the Indian government once made military-grade smoke bombs with it, or unwavering enthusiasm. Now, imagine being offered a ghost pepper and blueberry hot sauce, which puts the tart-fruit flavor up front, with the spice dancing across your tastebuds as an afterthought. Exciting, right? Certainly an easier entry point into the ghost pepper game.
There was no shortage of sauces like Bravado Spice Company’s Jalapeno and Green Apple, and Klown on Fire’s Mango Reaper BBQ. Granted, if you’re the type that leans toward bell peppers and thinks a poblano is too spicy, it may not have been enough to mask the heat, but did take away the stigma of the more foreboding options out there.
Novelty Takes A Backseat To Flavor
Keeping in line with more creative approach, most vendors offered sauces that you’d want to savor, rather than just offering generic red liquid hot enough to impress your friends with. That’s not to say there weren’t some flavors that caused me to flinch — including a straight-up ghost pepper sauce that forced me to take a hiatus while I nursed the inside of my mouth with a generous helping of ice cream.
A few tongue-scorching options aside, most chefs seemed to go for a rich flavor profile instead of a ‘so spicy you’ll see through time’ taste. Instead of catering to sauce masochists (which I’m one of), most vendors went for a variation between sweet and savory that still had a kick to it, but also appealed to a wider audience. Even some of the more foreboding-sounding options, like Big Daddy’s Ass Burn, which included flavors like Three Drops of Death and Goat Whore Blood for the Master revealed a surprising amount of nuance — and provided a satisfying amount of heat without scorching the insides of your mouth.
Mild Salsa Finds Its Place
Finally, my biggest takeaway was finding a new appreciation for some of the more timid flavors. Prior to the expo, I’d regarded mild and medium sauces as just shelf-fillers. But after sampling some of the spicy/citrus combinations, I started to better realize the value of milder flavors.
Festival favorite Mom’s Family Kitchen offered some of the most straightforward options with their Mild and Medium options, while Kent’s Sauce relied on clover honey to create a sweet and rich combination, with just a little bit of cayenne pepper spice in the background. Others, like Jackal Sauce, had a Cilantro Jalapeno flavor that managed to offer up the full flavor of the pepper, but only a hint of its spice. Even Salsa Maya’s Habanero Aioli might sound daunting, but was a pleasant none-too spicy option that puts its flavor first.
So, while heat was still present, and appreciated, most sauces wanted to do more than simply light your taste buds. Rather than going with the straight-up novelty of heat for heat’s sake, sauces were carefully crafted to not only bring out more complex and challenging flavors, but push the limits of what you’d imagine a hot sauce could do.
If you’re so inclined, you can check out the full list of winners here.