In the Lab

How do you hone in on that flavor you’ve been imagining and turn it into a delicious hot sauce? It ain’t easy. I consider myself an experienced home cook but it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that I’ve begun deviating from recipes, trusting my gut, getting comfy making mistakes, and eating them. 

For hot sauce, I start by imagining what I’d like to pour over something simple like rice and beans. They're a fantastic canvass to experiment with, and thinking up flavor combinations to accompany them is a fun way to daydream or get a good session in the kitchen going. Bringing those imaginings to life is a different story. How much heat, vinegary, and smoke? What color and consistency? There are many factors to consider! Not to mention that if you’re thinking about sharing and selling you have another world considerations in addition.

Everyone’s creative process differs. Mine usually starts with a couple of flavors that I know pair well or that I think would. It has also started simply by walking the aisles of the grocery store, eyeing something I haven’t used in a long time, and deciding it’s going into the sauce. Once the base flavors are decided, it’s onto the heat source! What kind of pepper brings the heat, color, and flavor you’re hoping for? Are you trying to have a mellow experience or cry from pain? Then come the supporting roles like garlic, spices, etc. How about the kind of vinegar to use? Each will add its own flavor and perhaps color. The nearly infinite variability is a huge asset - you can get as off the beaten path as you want or riff on the classics.

It might seem daunting or frustrating, but the creative process has proven to be the most fun part of making hot sauce. Figuring out how much of each ingredient to use to balance the flavors and heat, how much vinegar for that punch that cuts through salt and fat, and what kind of consistency to make it the right blend will vary by batch until you find that perfect mix. Then you have to replicate it! The best approach is to run headlong into it and embrace what comes.

Pro tip: underwhelming versions of your hot sauce can make for surprisingly decent marinades. I hate wasting food, so any salvage operation makes the write off feel less like a loss.

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