Hot sauce heats up in southern Maine kitchens
Chefs and entrepreneurs are making and selling their own hot sauces, infusing them with flavor as well as heat.
The omnipresent bottles of Sriracha appeared first, sitting on restaurant tables where the Tabasco used to be. Then came bottles of Sriracha’s Mexican cousin, Cholula. Grocers started stocking gochujang from Korea, and sambal, an Indonesian red chili sauce.
Now, interest in hot sauce is soaring in Maine kitchens and chefs are playing around with peppers, making their own sauces to serve and sell – traditional vinegar-based hot sauces as well as fermented ones. And it’s not just a Portland craze; restaurants from Tao Yuan in Brunswick to Anju Noodle Bar in Kittery are impressing hot sauce-loving diners with their in-house creations. Local entrepreneurs who are part of the hot sauce subculture are developing new lines of sauces for the marketplace, and at least three Maine farms are growing peppers destined for bottles of hot sauce.
Like chefs and food entrepreneurs, a few Maine farmers are also trying their hand at homemade hot sauces. Billi Barker at Firefly Farm in St. Albans makes small batches of sriracha – 160 to 180 bottles this year – that she sells at farmers markets and off her food truck, the YumBus, where she makes tacos and crepes to order.
Simon Frost has been making hot sauce at Thirty Acre Farm in Alna for about three years. A longtime fan of hot sauce, Frost started making it, he said, because he was growing too many peppers and had to figure out what to do with them. He grows more than 30 varieties and, for now, makes four types of hot sauces, such as his Melon Head hot sauce with yellow peppers; and Earth Fire, with chili peppers.
“We’re always looking for new varieties and always trial a few new varieties every year,” he said.
Frost’s ferments all his sauces, which contain no vinegar or water, a process he says brings out the more complex flavors in the peppers.
“We celebrate the flavor,” he said. “We’re not just looking to knock someone’s socks off.”
The interest in Maine reflects a national trend – spicing up our food has gone mainstream. Even Heinz has come out with a Sriracha ketchup. Hot sauce sales are expected to be a $1.65 billion market by 2022, according to the Los Angeles-based market research firm IBISWorld.
“Traditionally Maine has not been a hotbed of hot sauce,” notes Dan Stevens, the founder of Captain Mowatt’s, which bills itself as “Maine’s original hot sauce” ($8.99 for an 8-ounce bottle). The 22-year-old company has grown every year it’s been in business, Stevens said – last year, around 18 percent – and sells both retail and in 20-30 restaurants in New England, Florida and California.
To make hot sauce, fresh chile peppers, vinegar and other ingredients – usually fruits and vegetables – are cooked together, pureed, strained and then bottled. Some sauces add the step of fermentation, which takes time but produces more flavor.
The Frog & Turtle restaurant in Westbrook knows the process well. It’s adding a production kitchen and working on label designs for its hot sauces, which it plans to start selling online in July. Chef/owner James Tranchemontagne sees the project as both an extra revenue stream and a way to nurture creativity in the hot sauce-loving young cooks who staff his kitchen. The restaurant’s newest sauce, a curry sauce, was developed by one of those young cooks, “and we can’t put the sauce out fast enough,” Tranchemontagne said. “It’s just blowing guests’ minds.”
The restaurant also makes a fiery tangerine sauce that it slathers on chicken wings. Its original hot sauce is called Ninja, Tranchemontagne says, because “at first it’s really, really flavorful, and then all of a sudden the heat just kind of sneaks up on you.”
Ninja is used on fish tacos, on chicken wings, in a spicy pork hash, and in eggs at brunch. During the holidays, it substituted for horseradish in cocktail sauce.
Habañero!, Original Leek, Back to the Roots and Spruced Up hot sauces from Resurgam are fermented – a spin on traditional vinegar-based sauces. Traditional or not, hot sauce is a hot condiment nationally – and not just among millennials. Staff photo by Gregory Rec
As diners get more exposure to the cuisines of other cultures, Tranchemontagne said, “things with spice and flavor and heat are more in the forefront of food. I never cooked anything hot or spicy for the bulk of my career, but in the last five years we really have seen a need to have spicier flavors on the menu.”
Justin Walker, chef/owner of Walkers Maine in Cape Neddick, agrees. Walker makes his hot sauce in old whiskey barrels, using chili peppers and goat’s milk whey from his family’s farm. “Chili or spicy used to be the kiss of death on a dish,” he said, “and now it’s totally changed.”
Like Tranchemontagne, Ryan Carey, owner of Noble BBQ in Portland, plans to bottle and sell his hot sauces on a larger scale later this year. He says he didn’t realize that hot sauce was “a big thing” until he started to sell bottles on a small scale and customers snapped them up for stocking stuffers. Noble makes a rotating series of hot sauces in flavors such as habanero peach, and a roasted poblano pepper sauce it uses on its “scrappy fries.” The latest is a Fresno chili hot sauce Carey named FresNo FX after a punk band he used to play in.
Pliny Reynolds, owner of Terlingua in Portland, says when he lived in Texas, “everybody had their own hot sauce.” Here in Portland, his kitchen puts out a habanero-based, Caribbean-style hot sauce that includes onions, carrots and lime juice. He says he’s toying with the idea of bottling and selling it because customers ask for it “all the time.”
Emil Rivera, executive chef at Sur Lie in Portland, says Mainers embraced the hot sauce surge because “it just made food more exciting.”
“The adding of that spice creates a whole new genre of appealing foods and exciting flavors that were missing from everyday life,” he said.
During Maine Restaurant Week (March 1-12), Rivera will offer a vegan noodle and vegetable dish that includes a Thai sauce he makes from fermented chili paste. The sauce, he says, is “a solid 7.5” out of 10 on the heat scale.
Are generational factors also responsible for the increased interest in hot sauce? Nearly everyone interviewed for this story said no, despite the stereotype of a millennial carrying around a bottle of sriracha in her purse.
“It’s everybody,” says Mike Burns of Oxford, who travels to Portland at least once a week to make his Monty’s Batch No. 1 at Amigos in the Old Port. (His other job is in sales.) “I have folks that are retirement age buying it. I have middle-aged folks buying it. I have one gentleman who buys it for his son, who’s 8 years old.”
Monty’s ($5 for a 5-ounce bottle) is a traditional vinegar-based hot sauce that can be found at restaurants such as Hot Suppa, Taco Escobarr, Amigos, Pizza Villa, all in Portland, and Frontier Cafe in Brunswick.
Stevens says the only generational difference he’s noticed is that younger hot sauce fans “are not interested in the flavors. They’re just interested in the hottest thing you’ve got.”
Many Maine hot sauce makers draw parallels between the growth of hot sauce and the explosion of craft beer in recent years. Both sets of fans prefer locally made products, and like to sample new flavors.
“They both have this kind of cult following,” said Henry Ginsberg, who makes Resurgam hot sauces ($7 for a 5-ounce bottle) with two friends, Thomas Tutor and Morgan Kerr, when they are not working their day jobs. “Everyone knows someone who’s obsessed with hot sauce.”
Part of the allure, and not just for the young folks, is the heat – how much can you handle? The hot sauce subculture communicates in the language of Scoville units, a measurement of the amount of heat packed into a poblano pepper (1,250 units), say, versus a cayenne pepper (50,000). They religiously watch the web series Hot Ones, in which a series of A-list celebrities are interviewed as they eat increasingly hot chicken wings. (“This program’s not normal,” persnickety chef Gordon Ramsay complained as he sweated through his recent interview/eating session. “Have you ever killed anybody?”)
Morgan Kerr, one of the founders of Resurgam Hot Sauce Company, pours jalapeño peppers into an industrial food processor while making the company’s Spruced Up hot sauce at Fork Food Lab in Portland on Feb. 13. Staff photo by Gregory Rec
As the popularity of hot sauce has grown, so has the desire to develop increasingly hot peppers, such as the Carolina Reaper, the hottest pepper in the world. Some who’ve tasted it have compared it to eating molten lava.
“Now they’ve got something called Pepper X,” Stevens said. “I don’t even know what that is.”
The man who bred Pepper X (who owns the hilariously named PuckerButt Pepper Company in South Carolina) claims it is two times hotter than the Carolina Reaper, which he also developed.
More discerning fans, our chefs among them, value flavor over heat.
“I put up with the heat for the flavor,” said Ginsberg, who confesses he’s never tried Carolina Reaper or even Ghost Pepper, which is 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.
Nick Kafer, who is developing a new line of hot sauces in the kitchen of High Roller Lobster Co. in Portland, says he doesn’t like it when the heat from a pepper moves below his neck.
“If it hurts my gut or my butt, then I’m not happy about it,” he said.
While vinegar-based hot sauces remain the most common, the hot sauce trend is now blending together with the hugely popular fermentation trend. Both Ginsberg and Kafer – as well as a growing number of chefs – have taken their love of hot sauce a step further by using the process of lacto fermentation, which they say enhances flavors. Fermented hot sauces are typically made using a salt brine and sit in an airtight container for a few weeks.
“It takes us two months instead of two hours,” Ginsberg said. “We think it just adds a completely different level of flavor.”
Tomatillos are one of the ingredients in Resurgam’s Spruced Up hot sauce. Resurgam makes four types of sauces – Habañero!, Original Leek, Back to the Roots and Spruced Up. Staff photo by Gregory Rec
A habanero pepper, for example, is hot, but it’s also “super fruity and really sweet,” he said. Fermentation helps bring out those flavors.
Ginsberg said when he and his partners founded Resurgam in 2015, only three or four fermented hot sauces in the country were sold online. “Now there’s tons – in the Northeast, probably 10 now,” he said.
Resurgam’s four hot sauces are fermented in a climate-controlled room at Maine Mead Works in Portland. It’s still a small business, but sales have doubled every year, Ginsberg said. The company buys 80 percent of its chili peppers from Cultivating Community’s Fresh Start Farms.
Resurgam sauces are sold at the Portland and Belfast food co-ops, Union Restaurant and Omi’s in Portland, and elsewhere in Maine. Ginsberg uses tomatillos and all the sauces contain a touch of maple syrup. Original Leek is the most popular, a reddish-orange sauce that allows you to taste a hint of the syrup, garlic, and the flavor of the chili peppers themselves before – boom – hitting you with heat. Spruced Up, Resurgam’s green sauce, “smells like Mexican food,” a colleague of mine observed.
Hot sauce comes naturally to Kafer, who has worked in kitchens half his life, including burrito shops and, now, High Roller. He views creating hot sauce as “dumping my whole personality into a product.”
Kafer’s line of fermented sauces, which he plans to launch this spring, includes a basic buffalo Fresno chili sauce – his version of Frank’s RedHot – and a blueberry-maple-jalapeno sauce sourced entirely in Maine and called “Dirty Love.” His “Tropic Gothic” is a pineapple-habanero sauce that Kafer plans to turn black by using activated charcoal. Kafer also plans to make a flagship hot sauce for High Roller, as a thank you to the restaurant for allowing him to use its kitchen.
His take on the popularity of these sauces? It’s “just the times,” he said.
“Stuff like craft beer is super popular,” he said. “Medical marijuana is legal. People just want to feel good, and hot sauce makes you feel good.”
Source: Central Maine