Is it a coincidence they’re made in Portland, Oregon? We think not.
Hot sauce lovers, you’re in a golden age of plenty right now.
Secret Aardvark may be the leading hot sauce brand to come out of Portland so far, but several others have recently emerged from the local culinary scene. Leading us to ask: What is it about Portland that makes it such a hotbed for flavor experimentation?
In honor of National Women’s Day, we asked women leaders from three Portland-based hot sauce brands for their perspectives on the recent explosion of fascinating (and delicious) sauces from this region.
Spoiler alert: If you’re a flavor adventurer, you won’t want to miss out on these great sauces.
Why Hot Sauce…and Why Now?
The national market for hot sauces is expected to nearly double in the next five years. And those stats came out before the pandemic, which sent everybody into their home kitchens.
When it comes to cooking at home, a simple bottle of hot sauce can elevate even the simplest of dishes into restaurant-worthy fare.
“We’re all cooking at home more,” said Sarah Marshall of Portland’s Marshall’s Haute Sauce. “People want something easy that’s palatable for the whole family. Kids want less spicy. Parents want more spice. Hot sauce makes it possible for everyone to be happy.”
Bobbie Rosenberg of Bobbie’s Boat Sauce in Portland agrees: “Spicy sauces are a natural and accessible way to be creative with cooking. You can make something great with just the ingredients in your fridge.”
“Hot sauce has definitely made me a more adventurous cook,” she continues. “With all the variety there is in hot sauce, you can create so many flavorful dishes in your own kitchen.”
As any hot sauce lover knows, discovering new and fascinating flavors is often an end in itself. So, for these up-and-coming hot sauce brands, experimentation is where it’s at.
Sarah’s love of canning and preserving local ingredients led her and her husband Dirk to create Marshall’s Haute Sauce. Their focus is on flavors inspired by the seasonal produce from small farms in Oregon, what’s fresh and available.
“We make small batches…maybe 100 bottles of Strawberry/Rhubarb Ghost, for example,” she says. “Our hope is that through our sauces, people can experience the season in a new way.”
Bobbie says the inspiration for Bobbie’s Boat Sauce came to her on a sailing trip. She prepared a meal to go with some just-caught fish and concocted a hot sauce to go with it–with only the ingredients on hand.
“Within an hour of sitting down to eat, I realized I’d never had anything like it. I thought, ‘Making sauce is what I want to do from now on!’” She says a “tangy-umami-yumminess” is what defines Bobbie’s Boat Sauce.
And if you haven’t tried Secret Aardvark’s new hot sauce flavors, now’s the time.
- Smoky Aardvark combines the smokiness of chipotle peppers with the spicy sweetness of habaneros. Its great on tacos, add it to your eggs, or try it as an alternative to a traditional BBQ sauce.
- Red Scorpion Fiery Hot Sauce features roasted tomatoes, carrots, and fermented scorpion peppers for a table sauce ready for anything, from greens to wing sauce.
- Reaper Smoked Hot Sauce brings a smoky heat that’s a perfect complement for red beans, burrito, pizza, and more.
Why Are So Many Great Sauces Coming Out of Portland?
In October, WalletHub ranked 182 U.S. cities on dining quality, diversity, and affordability and declared that Portland wears America’s foodie city crown. Forbes recently offered a similar assessment: “Year after year, Portland is consistently ranked as one of the top food cities in America–and for good reason. Accessibility to farm-fresh produce makes it easy for area restaurants to source quality ingredients no matter the time of year.”
Bobbie says this foodie-friendly culture has created an environment ripe for hot sauce development.
“Portland’s this uniquely livable place, so that’s attracted a lot of non-conventional, creative craftspeople. You’ve got great food markets and access to great ingredients. People have backyards where they grow their own peppers. You can have a comprehensive culinary life here without being wealthy. It’s not necessarily the same in other places,” she says.
“Portland is open to new food and flavor adventures, and there’s support for women entrepreneurs,” adds Secret Aardvark’s Stacy Moritz. “It’s the perfect storm.”
A Potluck Dinner Leads to Flavorful Collaboration
The women also point to one “extra” in this extra-special flavor scene: a sense of camaraderie among hot sauce makers that you just don’t see in other places.
Ask this group, and they’ll tell you it all started with a potluck dinner at Sarah Marshall’s house four years ago. Bobbie and Stacy were both there. “Everyone brought dishes made with other makers’ sauces,” Bobbie says.
That simple social gathering quickly became an ongoing group to share ideas, resources, and inspiration.
“Secret Aardvark has been around a long time, and they’re such an inspiration. The city is small enough that people know each other. It’s nice to support each other and to see what everybody is doing,” Sarah says.
Stacy says the admiration is mutual. “Both Marshall’s and Bobbie’s are run by lovely people who are open to helping others. As a result, they’re making interesting things happen.”
Flavors For Every Palate
For these sauce makers, it’s about going beyond simply creating the hottest sauce out there.
“It’s not just about heat. We’re bringing a bit of creativity to our cuisines. Our sauces are different from each other. We’re all playing with flavors in new and interesting ways,” Bobbie says.
Sarah adds, “We try to make sauces so that people enjoy them and want to come back for more. So, we offer a range, from mild to spicy.”
What’s Next for These Hot Sauce Heroes?
While many small companies may think about how to become huge brands, how you get there counts.
For Marshall’s Haute Sauce, the emphasis will continue to be on small batch. “We’re going to continue to keep it local,” Sarah says. “I make the sauces myself by hand. The kitchen is in our house. For us, it’s less about growth and more about continuing to provide something that people enjoy…and supporting our local farms.”
Bobbie says her sights are bigger: “I want Boat Sauce to become a household name, but also stay a niche brand. A cult brand, kind of like Secret Aardvark. They’re a huge role model for the rest of us.”