We have a new interview posted at Hot Sauce Madness with Scott Zalkind of Lucky Dog Hot Sauce, a popular new sauce. Scott shared with us his experience in starting up his hot sauce company and what it takes to deliver your hot sauce vision to the world. Thanks, Scott!
An Interview with Lucky Dog Hot Sauce
For how long have you been making hot sauce?
I started as a hobby about 8 years ago. I spent the better part of the 1st year figuring out the science part – how to pasteurize, acidity/pH, safe bottling/food handling practices. Then the next couple of years were spent finding the “art” of it – how to get the flavor profiles I was seeking, what ingredients scaled well, what flavors/sensations were up front or finishing “notes”, etc. I made an awful lot of horrific things at first. Fortunately I have brutally honest friends and received great feedback.
What are your most popular products?
It’s hard to say – my 3 current flavors sell about equally. I can best judge from different farmer’s markets – each seems to favor different flavors of Lucky Dog Hot Sauce. The Green Label gets a lot of love across the board from the Golden Chile award, understandably, and from those who aren’t necessarily “chile heads”. It’s a very approachable sauce that runs just a tick above “mild” due to the Serrano peppers. The Orange Label tends to appeal to the heat seekers and those who want a good balance between hot & savory. My Red Label is most popular at my farmer’s markets with a larger Asian and East Indian population – there’s a sweetness up front to that one reminiscent of an Asian-style Chile/garlic sauce and I’ve been told it’s great on chicken tikka masala, Filipino foods, fried rice, and other Asiatic foods as the sweet notes come across well. I love the Red on sandwiches, burgers, pizza – things that already have bold flavor profiles.
How did you get started making hot sauce?
Hard to point to a watershed moment – I love to cook, and have always been a tinkerer. At the time I started tinkering with sauce, I had not yet had the pleasure of discovering the wealth of really flavorful sauces out there that have respectable heat, and I was getting weary of the nuclear hot sauces that were just too hot for me to consider food. Extracts were really popular at the time & I didn’t care for the taste. If there was a moment to point to, it was probably out at BBQ one night with friends when I grabbed a random bottle off the shelf at the restaurant & neglected to taste it first. “How hot can it be” right? Yeah – I ruined a $20 brisket plate with pure molten lava. Then a few weeks later, I had some of Cheech Marin’s “The Cheech” – it was so damn tasty, but had very little heat to my tastes. It was frustrating to me that I lived in a world of such extremes – either all heat or all flavor. After that I figured I’d try my hand at making a sauce for my own enjoyment, where I could get a rich savory flavor while still having a respectable but not overpowering heat level – and so I focused on the flavors I love, using roasted garlic & roasted peppers. From there it was just fun & experimentation. I did that for about 7 years as a hobby, making 2-3 X 50 bottle batches a month & giving it away to friends & family mostly. Now that all said, I’ve since discovered a couple of dozen sauces that are in that “hot & tasty” category – had I found some of them earlier I may never have started making my own.
When did you go commercial?
I launched Lucky Dog Hot Sauce in June, 2012. I went “full time” in February of 2013.
How many bottles of hot sauce do you produce a year?
Well, I’ve not been in business for a year yet, so it’s hard to say. I have a festival coming up this summer & may well have to produce more after that, but to date I believe I’ve produced around 24,000 bottles? More when you include test batches. About ½ of that is available, so please encourage people to order. A lot! lol!
Do you have a preferred chili pepper as an ingredient?
I love the fire-roasted Jalapeno. All of my recipes have it, because the flavor is off the charts. I consider it a “base” ingredient & I like to build a sauce around it. There are a lot of peppers I like though – Serranos are underrated in both heat & flavor, and somehow the Orange Habanero seems to have fallen out of favor with Chileheads but I still love it. The taste is great & the heat level is quite respectable. I’ve been getting into the superhots more and more lately and love the 7-pot Jonah, the Trinidad Scorpion “Moruga” and the yellow Brain Strain. Scotch bonnets are awesome too. Really if you give me a pile of any peppers I am pretty confident I can come up with a tasty recipe that highlights the flavor of that pepper.
Aside from chili peppers, what do you feel is the key ingredient(s) in making the perfect hot sauce?
Balance. I know that’s a vague answer, but I truly believe balance is the key to any good hot sauce. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 1-note sauce – some sauces play that one note beautifully. But whether it’s complex or simple, if the sauce isn’t balanced between acidity, heat & flavor then it won’t work. That said, every quality sauce out there has its own balance and if you give 20 sauce makers the same ingredients they’re all going to come up with something unique – so balance doesn’t necessarily equal uniformity.
Is there a special process you follow in making your hot sauces?
There are a few, but I prefer to keep a couple of things close to the vest.
Do you follow a particular philosophy to making hot sauces?
“Food’s Best Friend” – it’s my slogan, but it’s really my company mantra and my philosophy for making hot sauce. My goal is that every product I produce will be a food item, to compliment your meal. I love to cook, and I want my sauces to enhance/compliment rather than overpower food. With my upcoming Black Label I’m pushing that envelope a bit as it will be a very hot sauce, but hopefully it’s flavorful enough to be worth the pain to those for whom the lowly Jalapeno pepper is hot.
Do you have any other favorite spicy foods?
I love Asian foods, Thai food, Vietnamese, African, Middle Eastern, and Indian/Sri Lankan foods – the heat that they achieve with their curries is outstanding. With the Indian food it’s the great heat/sweet balance of the chutneys that impresses me. I grew up in the SF Bay Area and my parents were extremely diverse culturally – I feel very fortunate that they shared that trait and encouraged their children to be adventurous eaters.
Do you have any advice for would-be hot sauce makers making sauces at home?
“Practice makes perfect” and “keep it simple” are two excellent pieces of advice for anything. For up & coming sauce makers I’d suggest taking a food handling course to learn food safety right off the bat.
Invest in a quality pH meter and learn how to safely make whatever it is you intend on making.
But most importantly, people should develop recipes that they want to eat. Do it because you love it – that is the only reason to do anything. I had zero ambition to become a hot sauce company owner. My only goal was to make something delicious for myself and my friends to enjoy. Be a little bit selfish – make what you like. If, after some time, you develop a quality product, then maybe think about branding, or marketing or label art or whatever.
But first make a food product and enjoy it. The passion is in the invention. Be inspired. The sauce should come first. And second, too. And maybe third for good measure. And then once you have a product, and you decide to take it to the next level, be prepared to work – a lot. And be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day and I’m reasonably sure there are few overnight sensations in the hot sauce world. It takes years to build a real following & most folks will never be the next Tobasco.
I aim a bit lower – I’ll settle for the next “that guy who can pay his mortgage & feed his dog”. heh
Do you have any basic/favorite hot sauce recipes to share?
Just as it’s up to every musician to find their sound, I believe it’s up to every sauce maker to find their own flavor/style. When I set out to make sauce, I learned about food safety & pasteurization, but did not look up any recipes or processes. If I had I probably wouldn’t have come up with Lucky Dog Hot Sauce, as my sauces are somewhat unique in composition and flavor. Instead I tinkered. I tweaked & honed recipes until they worked for the flavors I was trying to achieve. As mentioned, I made a lot of crappy sauce those first few years. Some of it was downright awful. But eventually I started to find my style. My chef friends would try it & say “needs XYZ” or “too much X” or “not enough Z” or “ew, what the hell is that supposed to be?!?” – only after about 3 years did they start to say “hey, can I get some more of that?”.
So I encourage everyone interested in sauce making to tinker – think about the flavors and heat levels they like the most. Buy small flat rate boxes of peppers from the many terrific growers out there and make micro batches (12-20 bottles) and decide what works best for what they’re trying to achieve and armed with that, to find their own style, and develop their own recipes. Maybe play with fermentation if that’s the style of sauce they prefer, or experiment with different types of vinegar, fruits and vegetables if those are more in their wheelhouse.
There are a bunch of basic sauce recipes online and Google will do those folks more good than I would – but they should take caution that if they do use someone else’s recipe, they’re playing someone else’s song, not creating a song of their own.
Imagine this sad reality: If you could have only one chili pepper the rest of your life, which would you choose?
Wow, that’s impossible to answer. Possibly the 7-pot Jonah – it has enough heat that I could get a broad range of heat profiles, and it has a brilliant citrusy flavor that I can either mute or compliment depending on the makeup of the sauce. That said, it would be a nightmare to be that limited.
If your life could be turned into a movie, who would you like to have play YOU on the big screen? What might the movie TITLE be? (NOTE: I’m a produced screenwriter, so this could really happen!)
Hmm…funny question. Maybe Robert Downey Jr could play me – always liked that dude, and he seems to have a similar wit to mine. I guess the movie title would be “Lucky Me!” – but now we’re just getting silly.
Any other parting thoughts?
If I can take a moment to plug a cause, I encourage everyone to supportwww.anysoldier.com – a care package will make a soldiers day. No matter how you feel about war or politics, soldiers are just young American men & women working hard in a crummy place with few creature comforts and no convenience store nearby. APOs are us addresses & you can stuff a medium flat-rate box full for about $11 & send gum, hot sauce, paperback books, etc. Or maybe just send a letter to say hi & let them know that folks here are thinking about them.
Also, I know it sounds cliché, but I truly appreciate every single one of my customers – I have said it before but I know how much pride people take in their cooking, and how much people appreciate a well cooked meal – as such I am deeply honored that people would choose to use my hot sauces on their food. I love that when people post on my Facebook page, it’s nearly always in reference to using Lucky Dog Hot Sauce on food.
Learn More About Lucky Dog Hot Sauce:
Can I also get your preferred contact information to list on the site?
Originally Posted at Hot Sauce Madness: http://hotsaucemadness.com/hot-sauce-maker-interview-lucky-dog-hot-sauce.html