Anatomy of a Hot Sauce

Hot sauce // Photo by Tj Turner

Photo by Tj Turner

When Craig Kaiser created the hot sauce that would become Minneapolis cult favorite Cry Baby Craig’s, he didn’t expend too much effort. In fact, he says, it was almost entirely accidental. Kaiser was working at Cafe Maude in South Minneapolis in 2011, and a supplier error stuck him with a pile of habanero chiles instead of jalapeños; the habaneros were too feisty for the restaurant’s Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. So he pickled them.

“I didn’t know what I was going to use them for, I just knew I wasn’t going to throw them away,” he says. “They sat in a mason jar for a couple of months and then on a slow Monday night service I was making sheet tray pizzas for all of us to have some staff chow and I came across that mason jar of pickled peppers. I just threw some stuff in a blender, and that was pretty much it.

“I didn’t really think much of it, but that half-gallon was gone in a week,” he continues. “And that got me thinking, ‘Holy shit, you know…’ For the staff alone to crush a half-gallon of hot sauce, I knew I was onto something.”

The company he opened for business in 2016 is now approaching 100,000 units sold per year. Cry Baby Craig’s is made by a process that Kaiser says is unique in the nation—the ingredients are never cooked, and the sauce isn’t hot-packed in bottles. Getting his pickled approach approved by the FDA and Department of Agriculture was an 18-month fight involving multiple university studies, but he says the result speaks for itself.

“[Other sauces] get mulled out by being cooked in kettles and hot-packed into a bottle at 190 degrees,” he says. “I take a fresh pepper, I take fresh garlic—it is cooked, but it’s cooked with acid. It’s acidified, that’s how I get it to be stable. Without heat, you still get a chance to taste the pepper, and because it’s pickled, it reels the heat in so it’s still hot but not necessarily melting your face off.”

Much like a good vintner, Kaiser embraces the variability of his fresh ingredients, which vary depending on place of origin and time of year. Every batch, he says, has its own personality and his customers embrace that. “The people who really pay attention to the product pay attention to the batch numbers,” he says. “I’ve had people send me pictures of their top five batches.”

Cry Baby Craig fans often make a pilgrimage to his storefront at 1222 Second St. NE, Minneapolis, to see if they can pick up one-off experimental hot sauces and other pepper products; you can try the location any time between 10am and 4pm Monday through Friday, and if Kaiser isn’t out doing deliveries, he’s happy to connect.

Kaiser will move from his production facility and storefront to a new location at the end of the summer—he needs loading docks, he says.

“The sheer volume of working with these peppers is insane,” says Kaiser, who has partnered up with HAFA (the Hmong American Farmers Association) and farmers in Cannon Falls to grow thousands of pounds of fruit for his company. “It’s my first time on the food side where I see 1,000 pounds of a singular type of produce come in,” he says. “That’s pretty insane. We usually process 500 pounds at a time. The sheer volume of 500 pounds of habaneros is insane—it’s like my entire walk-in cooler.”

How to Make a Basic Hot Sauce From Dried Chiles

Hot sauce // Photo by Tj Turner

Photo by Tj Turner

Recipe by John Garland

The Base Formula

  • 18 grams dried chiles, stems and seeds removed
  • ⅔ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup vinegar, white or cider

The Method

Weigh your dried chiles of choice after they’ve been deseeded. Place them in a non-reactive dry pan over medium heat and keep them moving. Once fragrant and warmed, about 45 seconds, add the vinegar and salt and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and allow chiles to reconstitute for 20–30 minutes. Pour the mixture along with any other ingredients into a blender and puree well. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and bottle. Keeps in the fridge for a few months.

The Chiles

A good blend of chiles for hot sauce will balance spice, smoke, earth, and fruit. Guajillo is the mild workhorse chile of Mexican cuisine—supplement them with the small, fiery chiles like pequin and arbol. Smoked chiles like chipotle and ancho are not as spicy and are classic base flavors to build around. Pasilla chiles are earthy like a raisin. Mulato chiles are mild and fruity. Don’t use old chiles—if they’ve been sitting in your pantry for months, and are pale, discolored, or brittle, get new ones.

Add-ins

The base formula gets you a thin, piquant hot sauce—a pure punch of acid and spice. Develop the flavor of your hot sauce by blending in a few key additions:

  • Roasted garlic: Really important for depth and balance. Blend in two or three cloves to back up the heat.
  • Sugar: Add a hefty pinch, even up to a tablespoon if your chiles are super hot, but not to make it sweet, just to take the sharp edge off the spice.
  • Spices: Cumin seeds and dried oregano are a classic combo; toast a half teaspoon of each in the pan and reserve, before you toast the chiles. A couple of allspice berries are great, too.
  • Seeds: Toast a couple tablespoons of pepitas or sesame seeds (beforehand in a dry pan, like the spices) and blend in for a richer, nutty sauce.

Suggested Combos

  • Guajillo, chipotle, pequin, cumin, oregano (classic)
  • Arbol, puya, lots of garlic, sesame seeds (funky and fiery)
  • Ancho, pasilla, garlic, allspice, pepitas (rich and smoky)