Ten years ago, most Illinoisans blew up their taste buds with hot sauce imported from other states and countries.
Today, the spicy stuff is exploding as a small business trend in the Land of Lincoln — with more than a dozen companies popping up statewide.
Steve Seabury, who founded the Hot Sauce Expo in 2011, said he decided to include Chicago in his tour last year because of some impressive blends coming from Illinois makers. “We’re definitely going to come back in 2019,” said Seabury, who also hosts expos in Portland, Anaheim, New York and Edison, New Jersey.
Hot sauce entrepreneur Mike Bancroft was ahead of the curve. He founded Co-op Sauce in Chicago back in 2003. “I think hot sauce started off as a way to make food less boring, as a repair, but then people started taking it more seriously,” he said. “I started my sauce as a way to raise money for my arts center at the Humboldt Park Farmers’ Market and it got so popular, we thought, ‘Wow, we might just have something here.'”
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The boom of hot sauces is often compared to craft beer, another industry where makers can get creative by region and recipe. Jeremy Walsh of BigFat’s in Niles said his sauces were born from a passion for food and dabbling in the kitchen.
“Our most popular sauce (708 7 Pot Citrus) is an orange-based sauce with cinnamon, cumin and hot peppers,” he said. “Fruit with heat is something we see a lot of now.”
Using fresh, all natural ingredients used to be a luxury, but now it seems to be the standard for Illinois hot sauce companies.
“We hand make all of our sauces and use all natural ingredients,” said Mary Ginder of Gindo’s Hot Sauce. Her husband Chris creates a new experimental sauce for the Batavia company’s small batch releases almost weekly. “The farmers’ markets are a great way for us to get the word out about our products, and we are lucky to have a pretty long season from April to November.”
The secret weapon of local hot sauce makers? Illinois soil.
“The nice thing about Illinois is that our soil is usually better than other places. We do definitely have a shorter growing season, but the soil is so rich in nutrients,” says James Walsh of Jimmy Stick’s Hot Sauce, whose peppers are farmed in Cantrall, a village just outside of Springfield.
Likewise, Premiere Sauces owner Stan Krasnodebski grows all his peppers outdoors on a farm just outside Morris. Their first batch, called Ghost Pepper Sauce, gained popularity for being carrot-based. “As a foodie, I’m always looking for the next better thing to cook,” said Krasnodebski.
In terms of taste, hotter doesn’t necessarily mean better, but there will always be thrill-seekers hungry to push the envelope. That was certainly the case at the Hot Sauce Expo last year, where the organizers held a contest to see how many flaming hot peppers could be eaten in 60 seconds.
“Last year we had to take a couple people to the hospital because they got a little overanxious,” Seabury said.