Chris Schlesinger Gets Saucy

Photo credit: iStockphoto

Sitting on chef Chris Schlesinger's desk is a framed picture (right) of a hastily scribbled, stained recipe for his Inner Beauty Hot Sauce: Five pounds of Scotch bonnet chilies, one gallon of yellow mustard (preferably the cheap stuff), plus molasses, brown sugar, honey and spices. The method: Throw it all in the blender, and serve: "I don't know why people buy hot sauce," Schlesinger says in a country drawl he should have lost after more than 20 years in New England. "It's ridiculous when it's so easy to make yourself."

I know why. Chilies are intimidating. You only need to screw up once—like the time I accidentally made a stir fry with an Indian Naga pepper, which clocks in at 1 million on the Scoville chili scale, making it one of the hottest chilies on earth—or perhaps twice, like the time I failed to notice that I had put extra hot chili powder in my Super Bowl chili, instead of the regular stuff, and almost blew the heads off all of my guests.

When something's bottled, I figure, someone knows what he's doing.

Or not. These days, a lot of hot sauces are geared for culinary daredevils rather than food lovers. Popular brands like Dave's Insanity and Mad Dog get their heat from chemical capsaicin, a synthetic that mimics the stuff that makes chiles hot. The result: They're all heat, no flavor, and have the capacity to obliterate your taste buds, if but for a short time.

Which is why I turned to Schlesinger, a hot-sauce addict and grilling guru who made his name by "channeling his pyromania into a socially constructive activity" at East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Schlesinger first discovered hot sauces on a surf trip to Barbados 20 years ago. (Growing up in Virginia, he says, the family had three spices: salt, Lawry's Seasoned Salt, and meat tenderizer.) After six weeks, Schlesinger and his friend ran out of money for the burgers and beer they'd been surviving on and were forced to go native. They bought fish at the market and watched how the guys whipped up hot sauces at the beachside palapas. Schlesinger's sweet-and-hot Inner Beauty is, he admits, a "rip-off" of one he had on that trip.

I pressed Schlesinger for rules, proportions—something—to give me confidence when making hot sauce at home. But with hot sauce, as with all kinds of obsessive foods, finding your way takes practice and a fair amount of research. (If you're that type, you can start at Schlesinger did, however, give me three hints.

  1. Start with Scotch bonnet, habaneros and Thai Bird chilies, which have floral, bright flavors and head-swelling heat. Jalapenos, in contrast, have way more heat than complexity.
  2. Forget subtlety: "This is not French food. You want a big clash of flavors," says Schlesinger. Classic combinations include hot and sweet (use mangos like they do in Inner Beauty or peaches as they do in Denzel's Peaches and Scream), hot and sour (use vinegar or fermented chilies as they do in Tabasco), hot and spicy (use spices like cumin and coriander with habanero, garlic and vinegar).
  3. Let the chilies rule: If you're experimenting at home, start with the heat, then "attack with other flavors to balance."

The only downside to making hot sauce at home? "You want to end up with one quart or one gallon, and it takes you till you have a full trash barrel until it tastes right."

Jane Black is the food editor at Boston Magazine. The one-gallon tub of Inner Beauty will probably last her a lifetime.

This is an adaptation of the recipe that sits framed on Chris Schlesinger's desk. The actual recipe calls for five times the quantity of all ingredients, as is fitting for a restaurant kitchen. The quantities below yield a more manageable amount of sauce.

Ingredients 1 pound bonnet peppers 12 ounces yellow mustard 2 ounces brown sugar 6 ounces white vinegar 2 ounces orange juice 2 ounces honey 2 ounces molasses 6 ounces papaya juice 6 ounces pineapple juice 6 ounces oil 1/3 ounces each cumin, chili powder, curry , turmeric, and allspice Salt and pepper to taste

Procedure Throw everything in a blender and puree. Sauce will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.