There used to be a hot sauce maker called “Bustelo’s” which aged their sauce in oak barrels. It was different from anything else, in a good way. The oak gave the sauce depth just like it gives depth to wine or whiskey.

At some point, the company disappeared. The company was basically one guy, and he was doing it as a sideline, and this was around the time when hot sauce makers were more common than dirt so I imagine that it was tough to keep it going.

Every so often, consuming some inferior hot sauce (by the way I eat a lot of hot sauce) I would wonder how hard it would be to get a small barrel made that would be suitable for aging hot sauce in, so that I might try to recreate Buestelo’s. But that’s as far as I got with that. Even a small barrel holds a lot of hot sauce.

In the past few years I started making wine, and doing other experiments involving the aging of hard liquor. Both of those efforts end up using toasted oak chips. I’ll spare you the details about toasted oak chips and their many varieties, but you can get these chips easily at winemaker supply shops. So finally it hit me that I could make some hot sauce and put in some of these oak chips and I might be able to capture some of the deliciousness of my long lost favorite hot sauce.

To put it briefly, my first experiment was a stunning success.

Making hot sauce is pretty easy and relatively insensitive to exact quantities of ingredients. I’ll give you a brief rundown on how to make this one. It’s good even if you don’t have any oak chips handy (but much better if you do). If you ask nicely, I’d probably be happy to give you some of mine; I have enough to spare.

This recipe is for a liter of sauce. You can scale it down or share it with your friends, or set it aside for a while to age and decide later.

Ingredients

  • 15 habanero peppers
  • one large white onion
  • 1 liter vinegar (distilled is fine. apple cider will be a bit better)
  • two tablespoons salt
  • one lime
  • two cups heavy-toast oak chips

Preparation

Remove stems from the habaneros and put them in a bowl and put the bowl in the microwave. Microwave them on high for a few minutes, until they are steamy and soft, but before they have started to burn. It’ll probably be about a minute and a half.

When you open the microwave, do not breathe the steam or get it in your eyes or you will become sad.

Using a kitchen knife and a fork, remove each pepper from the bowl and cut it lengthwise in two. Use the knife to scrape away the seeds (which are hot but with minimal flavor) and use the fork to hold the flesh in place. Don’t touch this stuff with your hands or you will regret it.

Roughly chop the onion. Put the onion into a blender with the peppers, vinegar, and salt. Squeeze the lime into the blender. Run the blender for a really long time, until it’s not getting any smoother.

Put the oak chips into a large glass jar. Carefully pour the hot sauce in. Close the jar and set it aside in a cool dark place and wait for as long as you like. Bustelo’s aged their sauce for a year. Strain out the chips before you bottle the sauce for distribution and consumption.

Variations

If you add two or three small carrots, the hot sauce will become bright orange and it will have a nice sweet flavor.

I have purple shiso growing in my garden. It’s the herb which gives umeboshi their distinctive flavor. I just now discovered that adding it to the hot sauce (about 15 medium sized leaves to a liter) produces an amazing flavor--the bitterness of the leaves perfectly complements the spicy pepper. It also works great with carrot. The picture on the top has the regular stuff on the left, and the carrot-shiso version on the right.

Have fun and let me know if you try this!