Spicing it up: hot sauces are finding flavour in the UK

Setting mouths on fire is not the aim of the game, but tapping into curiosity about global cuisines could be a tasty win in creating new products.

24 January 2018

Want to make hot sauce a hero? Then flavour is crucial for it to earn its cape. Forget blow-your-head off heat – consumers are looking for culinary credibility, sparked by the popularity of street food and barbecuing.

“People are more interested in spices, as they know chillies can enhance pretty much any meal. Any recipe you take, you can add 100 different chillies and it will be different, so chillies bring a lot to the game,” Stuart McAllister, who runs the online retail site Hot-Headz, explains to Food Spark.

He sells 900 hot sauces, which shows this condiment’s depth and range. But the scene is not without its controversy.

“When you get involved in this business, there is a lot of division between heat and flavour. The successful products have a balance of both and concentrate on flavour, while the really hot stuff is stupid,” McAllister says.

While iconic brands like Tabasco have been around forever and sriracha sauce is now available in supermarkets everywhere, McAllister says the interesting innovation is happening with the influence of other cultures.

So how has the hot sauce scene been, ahem, heating up?

Sneaky spices

Well firstly, sweep aside the assumption that the British can’t handle spicy food. As Jay Webley from The Chilli Alchemist tells Food Spark, the UK palate is becoming quite adventurous.

“Once upon a time it was fish and chips as the go-to takeaway meal; now it’s the tikka masala. I think the Brits do have a love of spice, and whilst there are things like Tabasco, people are starting to get more wise about the types of chillies available,” he says.

Spice may have even snuck up on Brits, according to McAllister. “People have become used to eating more spice in their diet without realising it in the UK. So Chinese food is slightly spicier, Thai food is fragrantly spiced, ready meals are being introduced with a bit more spice and people’s tolerances to spice are building up,” he explains.


A chilli guide

  • Scotch bonnet – a lantern-shaped chilli, which is usually yellow, green or red in colour
  • Chipotle - mild, dried smoked chilli commonly used in Mexican cooking
  • Habañero - blow-your-head-off hot, usually orange, with a slightly fruity flavour
  • Pasillas - long, very dark brown chillies, usually sold dried, then ground and added to sauces
  • Mulato Isleño - mildly hot chilli with a deep, sweet flavour
  • Bird's-eye – tiny, powerful green and red chillies, common in Thai and South-east Asian cooking

Variety is the spice of life

There’s a great diversity of chillies available these days, and the way different cultures use them is having an impact on condiments.

In the Caribbean, people cook with a type of chilli called Scotch bonnet. Islands like Barbados use it to make sauces with mustard, vinegar and salt.

“Tropical fruits are also big. A lot of sauce makers like to use papaya and mango to make cooking sauces for grilling, and they go well with fish. The fruits side is led by the Caribbean, rather than Mexican and Indian,” McAllister says.

“We have fantastic sauce we bring in from Antigua called Susie’s that has watermelon, papaya and mango in it, and it’s just slightly spicy, whereas the emphasis is on the fruit. You can put it on ice cream – it’s that good.”

Over in Mexico, they like more earthy flavours, so chillies like chipotle and smoked jalapeno, McAllister notes. “It adds fresh grassy flavours to the sauce when smoked and has a deep smoky flavour. The sauce can then be added to soups and stews and it will enhance the flavour of the meal, rather than overpower it.”

Webley agrees that Mexican-style sauces being brought over from America are inspiring change, as they have a lot more chilli content and flavour profile. “Small companies are exploding and leading the way in the industry,” he claims.

Chilli out

Creative combinations are part of the change with some hot sauce development.

McAllister has just masterminded a BBQ sauce with expresso. “So we’ve got a bit of chipotle chilli for smokiness and the coffee you can taste it right at the end of the sauce. It gives it a little bit of extra depth to keep flavours in the mouth and works well with chicken and pork,” he says.

“We’ve also got a honey mustard and added fresh habañero, which is quite a hot Mexican chilli, and it has lifted the whole thing and transformed the mustard. I think it’s going to be an epic product.”

It’s a muy caliente fiesta for Webley too, who started off making hot sauces at home, before he turned The Chilli Alchemist into a successful business. He makes thousands of sauces a week and has experimented with everything from matcha to vanilla in his creations.

“All of our sauces are built around flavour notes of chillies that we chose to use… So the matcha green tea and jalapeno are a brilliant pairing and help with natural colouring of the sauce as well,” he says.

“Our bestselling sauce is made with a ghost pepper that is smoked. We wanted to do a twist on a barbecue sauce, so we introduced Jack Daniel’s honey bourbon. It gives it a natural sweetness and a caramel finish.”

Separating himself from the pack is important to Webley, who sells some of his sauces in potion-like bottles, but he says the amount of chillies he uses is also a point of difference.

“For us, we use a high pepper content, so with more mainstream brands the pepper content is quite low. Some are as low as about less than half a percent. I think Tabasco is 15%. We are using around 50% or higher at times, which isn’t the usual commercial way, but we want the chilli to be the star of the show,” he says.


The heat scale

  • Developed in 1912 and known as The Scoville scale
  • Jalapeño and chipotle chillies score between 2,500 to 10,000
  • Habañero and Scotch bonnet score 80,000 to 300,000 plus
  • And the hottest? The Carolina Reaper, red and gnarled with a small pointed tail. It rates at 1,569,300 on the scale and is 500 times hotter than tabasco

It’s getting hot in here

Most of Britain seems to be covered with chilli creators too – from the brand Glasgow Mega Death to Liverpool’s Howl at the Moon, while South Devon has its own chilli farm.

In London, there is the Rib Man, who is best known for the sauces he created to cover the rib rolls he sells at Brick Lane Market, and Dalston Chillies seller Ben Kulchstein, who loves Scotch bonnets for the intense spicy flavour. Sisters Jugpreet and Jot Sandhu have set fire to the scene with Baj’s Blazin’ Dad’s Original, a Punjabi-style sauce that uses green-finger chillies, tomatoes and garlic.

And it seems hot sauces aren’t just condiments either, with McAllister seeing them used on everything from popcorn to popping candy. “I think people will always think of new ways to use hot sauces and chillies and the product development seems to be fairly limitless,” he says.

But does Sparkie feel the heat rising?


Sparkie says:

There were predictions of heat being a driving trend in food service last year, particularly in street food. This never really seemed to come to much, but this year brings with it a prediction for retailer-wide reform of our standard food products. Staples like the sriracha are never going to change much because their consumer base would hate them if they did, but the wider market is pretty saturated, so the new guys have to do something in order to stand out.

But there are limits to the scope of ‘how hot can we make it,’ and the hotter those products get, the more niche their market becomes. The solution to diversify into unique flavourings that can hold up against the heat seems logical. I would shy away from things like matcha if you want your product to be any more than a novelty, as that is predominantly identified as being a sweet flavour.

There are a whole world of things yet to be explored; follow the trends for authenticity, worldwide culinary curiosity and high-end innovation in order to develop your brands this year.

Perhaps it’s time to get rid of the British variants of these sauces and bring out true recipes to appeal to current consumer desires?


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