Baltimore’s craft hot sauce makers are on fire

For The Baltimore Sun
Small-batch hot sauce is having a moment.

A few years ago, Station North resident Harrison Long found himself with piles of habanero peppers. A backyard plant had flourished, and he needed a use for his impressive harvest.

The peppers' extreme heat makes habaneros tough to eat raw, but Long discovered they make a great base for hot sauce.

After a couple years of making sauce for friends and family, he partnered up with entrepreneur Kedrick Smith, and in 2015 the Huckle's line of hot sauces was born. The small-batch brand is now for sale at almost 50 local restaurants and retailers, and it's not alone.

Here, and on a national level, craft hot sauce is having a moment. Baltimore-area makers are on the rise, joining what market research company IBISWorld calls a $1 billion industry. More than half of American households have at least one bottle of hot sauce on hand, according to a 2015 report by market research firm NPD Group.

Those numbers include big brands, like Tabasco and Sriricha, but small-batch sauces are increasingly making their way onto store shelves and restaurant tables.

At Modern Cook Shop, a restaurant and market in Fells Point, Huckle's hot sauce is a staple.

"We go through Huckle's like crazy," said Modern Cook Shop general manager Tom Hamrick. "On Saturday and Sunday, about 95 percent of the tables ask for hot sauce. It used to be ketchup, now it's all hot sauce."

Makers and eaters offer a few explanations for this phenomenon: The rise in ethnic cuisines that pair well with hot sauce is one; the relative healthiness of hot sauce compared to other condiments is another. A splash of hot sauce delivers flavor and heat with few calories, and with some potential health benefits, like a boost in metabolic rate from capsaicin, the chemical in peppers that makes them spicy.

There are also less tangible reasons for its rise in popularity.

"People who like hot sauce love hot sauce," said Robert Voss of John Brown General & Butchery, a Cockeysville shop that carries the locally made Corine's Cuisine brand as well as a housemade sauce. "It's one of those things that goes across the board and across food genres. It has a huge following."

Hot sauce enthusiasts often note that the increase in small-batch brands is tied to the overall rise in "craft" products.

"There's a whole new group of hot sauce lovers going alongside the craft, small-batch movement, making products at a local level, with an eye on quality," said Mike McAdams, the Los Angeles-based founder of Fuego Box, a hot sauce subscription service.

He noted that small-batch production allows for more experimentation and often results in better-tasting sauces than the ones available on every grocery store shelf across the country.

In Baltimore, makers set their sauces apart with different peppers — from Scotch Bonnet to ghost peppers to locally grown fish peppers — and cooking techniques. Some makers, including Huckle's, roast their peppers before cooking with onions, garlic and more ingredients. Others brine peppers in vinegar and salt. The exact method of production depends on the pepper and the desired flavor.

"The bottom line is a lot of these guys are coming up with better hot sauces, with really innovative flavors," McAdams said. "People like variety."

While the community is encouraging, local hot sauce makers run into challenges with sourcing.

Earlier this year, Long and Smith from Huckle's found themselves with a great recipe, but not enough peppers to make it. Fortunately, they said, industry colleagues are quick to collaborate and encourage one another.

Neil Bergenstein, another Baltimorean and the maker of Tree Frog Hot Sauce, came to their rescue with some extra lemon peppers.

"In Baltimore, a lot of people are willing to take risks, and they welcome entrepreneurial spirit," Long said. "They're willing to support a good idea."

Ray Parish and Corine Arslanian, owners of Corine's Cuisine hot sauces, have learned to make compromises since launching in December 2015. The couple lives in Sparks, but they produce their sauces in Florida.

"When you're looking for fresh Scotch Bonnets, you need to be closer to the tropics," said Parish. "You can grow them up north, but you won't get the same heat."

Chef Spike Gjerde noted this challenge nearly a decade ago when he began searching for a local hot sauce to serve at Woodberry Kitchen.

Though the restaurant initially used a nationally known brand, before too long, Gjerde sought out a regional alternative. After doing some research on the fish pepper, a chili pepper that was historically grown in the region, he asked local farmers to plant the pepper for Woodberry's use.

In 2009, the restaurant started producing Snake Oil, which is now a popular hot sauce on the table at Gjerde's restaurants and available to purchase to take home.

In the years since, fish pepper production has increased considerably; Woodberry now sources from five growers. The pepper's popularity has expanded, too; John Brown's hot sauce also includes fish peppers as its main ingredient.

The spiciness of hot sauce, which is measured in "heat units" on the Scoville Scale, is part of the draw, but local makers often say they care more about flavor than heat.

"There are two kinds of sauces out there," said Tree Frog's Bergenstein. "There are the ones that focus on the ego trippers — how hot can I make it? And there are the ones that actually make the effort."

"It's got to taste good," agrees Long, of Huckle's. "It's about pulling out flavor from exotic peppers. People freak out when I tell them I roast my ghost peppers, but it's finding a new approach."

Hot sauce makers also have differing opinions on where hot sauce fits into a meal. Some, like John Brown General and Snake Oil, make traditional hot sauces that have simple ingredient lists and straightforward flavor profiles. They are designed to sprinkle on food.

Others, including Huckle's and Corine's, incorporate a wider range of flavors and can play a significant role in the overall flavor of a dish.

Regardless, Baltimore makers agree that more hot sauce options are a good thing.

"It's become the great American condiment," said Modern Cook Shop's Hamrick. "I'm a hot sauce freak myself."

 

Recipe: Corine's Spicy Chicken Salad

This quick chicken salad recipe uses two or three sauces from Corine's Cuisine.

2 cups cooked chicken (skinless), diced
1/2 cup celery, chopped
2/3 cup Japanese Kewpie or other mayonnaise
3 tablespoons Corine's Cuisine Sauce 7
1 teaspoon Corine's Cuisine Sauce 3
1/2 teaspoon Corine's Cuisine Sauce 23 (skip this one for a milder taste)
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest

Mix it all up and try it on toast or in a salad.

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Baltimore-Bred Hot Sauces

Baltimoreans are no stranger to heat on the plate; this is, after all, Old Bay country. For a splash of something spicy, try a sauce (or two) from one of these local companies:

Captain Thom's: Available online and in a handful of local shops, these sauces are made in Baltimore but have roots from the Caribbean to Africa. Some labels include tales of Captain Thom's global adventures.

Corine's Cuisine: These sauces, which include a variety of combinations and flavors, are made in Florida but have a strong Maryland connection. Ray Parish and Corine Arslanian, the couple behind the sauce, used to live in the Caribbean, where they learned to love the Scotch Bonnet pepper, but now they live in Sparks and develop their flavors there, drawing inspiration from cuisines all over the world.

Huckle's: One of the newest hot sauce brands in Baltimore, Huckle's is available at almost 50 local restaurants and retailers. With the motto "flavor before fire," the makers roast the peppers to coax out the flavor before turning them into sauce.

John Brown: Made and sold at John Brown General & Butchery in Cockeysville, this is a traditional-style sauce made with just fish peppers, vinegar and salt.

Juan of a Kind: Juan of a Kind's Aji Amarillo hot sauce started as a condiment at farmers' markets, available to sprinkle on the company's popular grilled avocado dishes. The sauce, which is made with a yellow pepper common in Peru, earned so many fans that in 2015, the company started bottling and selling it online and at markets. They are also in the process of developing a vinegar-based sauce made with the rocoto, a Peruvian red pepper.

McCutcheon's: This Frederick-based company has been around for generations, and its products are available from many local retailers. McCutcheon's added hot sauce to its lineup well over a decade ago; today, they sell seven different flavors, including garlic and herb and Vidalia peach.

Snake Oil: Chef and restaurateur Spike Gjerde partnered with local farmers to reinvigorate the growth of the fish pepper, a chili that was grown historically in the Chesapeake region. This sauce, which is available at Woodberry Kitchen, Parts & Labor, Artifact Coffee and Bird in Hand, is a combination of fish peppers, vinegar and salt and is designed to pair especially well with Chesapeake Bay fish and shellfish.

Tree Frog: Sold locally at markets and shows, Tree Frog includes a wide variety of fruits and peppers for an intricate flavor profile.

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