The food world's love for fine hot sauces has become an obsession. Not so long ago, eating hot sauce was like taking a dare due to the unbelievable, gimmicky, and often unenjoyable amount of heat and Scoville units – the measurement of how mouth-scorchingly hot a pepper is. Thankfully, hot sauce culture has matured into a true craft. While many sauces are still incredibly hot, they are made with culinary consideration towards balance of pepper flavor and heat mixed with other fruit, vegetable, vinegar and spice flavors. HEATONIST is a shop in New York City that specializes in top shelf hot sauces. Francis Lam put himself in the hot seat with the store’s founder Noah Chaimberg – the Chief Pepper Purveyor if you will – for a taste test and conversation about what makes a great hot sauce.
Francis Lam: It’s been a long time since I've actually walked into a hot sauce store. I think the first and maybe last time I did that was about 20 years ago. I remember I was in college, and it was just like row after row of bottles that were meant to scare me. They had names like Slap Your Momma and Insanity Sauce; it was clearly an arms race and it was about intimidation. But this store is not like that. It’s very beautiful. You have beautiful furniture, nice turntables, and the sauce labels don't seem to be about like macho aggressive masochism.
Noah Chaimberg: We definitely have taken a different approach to hot sauce, and from the start it was very much about flavor to us. We love hot, but it has to taste good. In the beginning I wouldn't even consider sauces that had devils and skulls on the label or any of that gimmicky stuff. Now that we're established as having good taste, we’re more open to have fun on the label. You know, do what you want, it should reflect the spirt of the maker. But we've definitely moved, as an industry, beyond just trying to scare people in some macho arms race.
Noah Chaimberg Photo: BAM Photography
FL: You have three sauces here that you're going to help me taste and walk my way through.
NC: I pulled out three that I thought would be a good demonstration of the types of different flavors you can have in hot sauce, but also looking at different heat levels and different ideas about what you might pair them with.
Let’s start with Pirate’s Lantern Pepper Sauce. This is a Bajan-style hot sauce that's made by two brothers who live here in Brooklyn, but they're from Barbados. In Barbados they always put mustard in the hot sauce. This family recipe also adds to it horseradish and a little bit of dark rum, and of course it's made with Scotch bonnet peppers, the traditional chili of the island.
FL: Scotch bonnets are really hot peppers.
NC: They're hot.
FL: I'm stalling now because I'm getting nervous.
NC: It’s a close cousin of the habanero. Keep in mind, it does have Scotch bonnets but it's all about how much is in there. When you read the label and you see hot peppers are the first ingredient, that's going to be a very hot sauce. But, if it's after the mustard and vinegar and things like that –
FL: Then they might be taking it a little easier on you?
NC: Yeah, the chili content's not too much, they want you to be able to use a lot.
FL: I'm smelling it first, again, because I'm mainly just stalling. It smells wonderful; you can definitely smell mustard. There's like an onion-y, garlic-y kind of smell. I don't catch the horseradish.
NC: The horseradish is more subtle in there, but I definitely get the turmeric and the onions.
FL: Oh wow. You know what that's like? That's like the greatest hot dog you've ever had in your entire life.
NC: That's the key word, and I like to think about hot sauce often with key words. What do you think about when you first taste this sauce? For this one, hot dog is definitely the word. It's a great sauce for this time of year when people think about their barbecues and sandwiches; it's really a great summertime sauce.
FL: That heat is definitely there, but it's a nice heat. There's a little tingle at first, but then my mouth feels warm. It doesn't feel like I'm punched.
NC: It's well-balanced and something that you can enjoy easily. It's not supposed to make you sweat. So, a good lunchtime sauce for that reason. We don't want anybody getting all sweaty at the office or studio.
Next up we have another medium heat sauce. This one's actually our newest sauce, Hot Ones Los Calientes. We wanted to make something totally unique, something that would be great on wings but also great on all food. We have smoked serrano peppers to give it a little bit of a smoky edge. There's apricot with a bit of culantro and lime for acidity, and apple cider vinegar. Let me know what you think.
NC: Yeah, right?
FL: It's a really vegetal flavor. Almost like a pumpkin-y, squash-y kind of flavor. And that smoke is great. I was nervous with the smoke because when people smoke things they go really hardcore with it. But this is just hanging out.
NC: Yeah, it's easy to overdo it.
FL: That's really delicious.
Noah Chaimberg and Francis Lam record at HEATONIST while sampling three sauces: Pirate's Lantern Pepper Sauce, Hot Ones Los Calientes, Dawson's Hot Sauce Heatonist #1. Photos: Erika Romero (left) | HEATONIST (right)
NC: The last sauce is Heatonist #1: Sichuan Ghost Pepper Ghost by Dawson’s Hot Sauce. It's made with ginger, lemon, and about 18 ghost peppers in each bottle.
FL: I have never tasted ghost pepper. Am I going to be on the floor?
NC: You'll be okay. You might get one tear. But eating a fresh ghost pepper is definitely a different ball game from eating it in this sauce.
FL: Let's talk about that for a second because I find myself more instinctively afraid of raw chilies than cooked chilies. I feel like they're hotter.
NC: They're much hotter. Anything that you do to the pepper is going to change the heat. Smoking, drying, cooking, these are all going to affect the molecules that create the heat reaction with the capsaicin that's in there. Once it's cooked into a sauce it's totally different from the heat that you're going to have on a fresh pepper.
FL: That encourages me. And here we go.
NC: This sauce is a flavor journey. The first thing that you taste is the floral notes of the Szechuan peppercorn.
NC: Those molecules float right up into your nose, so you taste them first. Ghost pepper is well-known for its delayed heat, so it's a slow rising heat as opposed to something that you feel instantly.
FL: It's coming.
NC: It's coming, yeah.
FL: It’s rolling up the driveway.
NC: Ghost pepper can take about a minute to get to its full heat sometimes.
FL: I definitely taste a lot of that lemon; that lemon rind and lemon zest flavor is really nice. But, yeah, it is definitely getting hotter.
NC: Even though the sauce has so much presence and flavor to it, because of the combination of those flavors – the peppercorns, lemon and ginger – it actually pairs really easily. You can imagine this many different types of dishes. We have to give Francis a minute here, folks.
FL: Tell me about the fact that I can't breathe right now. Is that normal? [laughs] Tell me about cooking with these hot sauces.
NC: Cooking with hot sauce can be a lot of fun. It's a great way to add a ton of flavor and to make the overall cooking process a lot easier. You take this sauce and use it to dress up whatever you're cooking. It's wonderful on a steak, but also one of my favorites is to just put it on asparagus and take them out to the grill. A favorite sauce here is a garlic and jalapeno hot sauce; it’s made with olive oil and loaded with garlic and jalapenos. What I suggest to people who want to make an impressive meal that's really simple, just do some boiled shrimp, some pasta and just dress it with this sauce. All of the sudden it looks like a gourmet meal even though you only added three ingredients.
FL: So, it's about taking the flavor components of that sauce, looking beyond the heat of it at what flavors are there, and then matching that with what you would often eat with those things.
NC: Absolutely. We say it’s food that goes on food.
FL: [sweating] And maybe the last meal you eat. Thank you so much, Noah. This is awesome in the most literal sense.
NC: Thanks a lot, Frances, I really appreciate you coming by.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.