If you know and love chile peppers on a level more than casual, you know the name “Smokin’” Ed Curry. A pepper grower, a pepper breeder, a divisive figure who claims superhots have wondrous medical properties, Curry is the visionary who crossed a Red Savina with a ghost pepper, creating the Carolina Reaper. Until late last year, the Carolina Reaper was the hottest pepper on earth.
Ed Curry sells Reapers grown on his South Carolina farm to hot sauce makers all over the world. He even makes his own hot sauces. They have won high accolades.
But late this past summer, Curry was whopped in competition by a Phoenix hot sauce maker — Big Red’s Hot Sauce.
This year’s California Hot Sauce Expo marked the third time Big Red’s has beaten Ed Curry in competition. In fact, Big Red’s beat everybody, earning the top spot in the overall hot sauce category, awarded to the hot sauce line that is the best across all of its bottles. Big Red’s makes eight, ranging from mango-mustard to smoky bacon jalapeño, from mild to molten. Paul and Tasia Ford, the husband-and-wife team behind Big Red’s, have crafted “Arizona-style” hot sauces for seven years.
They have won best overall in all three competitions they've entered.
Paul is the sauce maestro. In a few of his, he uses superhots — a category of pepper that starts with ghost and includes everything hotter (scorpion, Moruga scorpion, Carolina Reaper, Trinidad 7-Pot, etc.). Given the blazing heat of these esoteric nightshades, flavor beyond painful heat would seem impossible.
“We didn’t get into the hot sauce industry because we wanted to set people ablaze,” says Tasia. “We got into it because we wanted something flavorful that would be a nice addition to whatever you’re eating.”
You can have a mild hot sauce made from Carolina Reapers. How? By packing the bottle not with 100 percent Reaper, but a far smaller percentage. By cutting the Reaper’s heat with other peppers. By shaping it with aromatics and sweetness and acid and ginger and citrus and piney herbs and a world of other ingredients.
This is how the best hot sauce makers roll. They have tricks for sculpting heat, for hammering something ugly into something beautiful.
“Layers of complex flavor,” is how Paul describes his approach. “With the ghost pepper sauce,” he says, “you taste a little hint of rosemary in there. Plus, you taste sweet from tomato paste, smoke from the ghost.”
His ghost pepper sauce is his most acclaimed. Though crafted from the pepper that was once the world’s hottest, the sauce isn’t all that hot. There are fruity notes, some tang, some smoke, all enough to curb the heat. “On a scale of 1 to 10, [for] a person who can’t usually handle more than a three or five, they can handle this sauce,” he says.
“This sauce is more of a six or seven,” he adds. ““I mild the ghost pepper down with habanero.”
If you bump into Paul at a farmers market, he may tour you through his eight sauces. They get hotter as the tour goes. You don’t reach superhots until the very end.
The first in the tour is Big Red’s Original, blended from 17 ingredients. The base is carrots and radishes; the peppers are chipotle (smoked jalapeño) and habanero. The second sauce is a mildly fruity, grassy sauce made from avocado and Hatch or Anaheim chiles, depending on the season. Sauce number three is a honey-mustard-inspired condiment alive with habanero and cooled with a tropical gale of ripe mango.
Big Red’s sauces require a shake to be coaxed out of the bottle. “They’re different,” Ford says. “They’re thicker. They’re more Southwestern.” He uses mashes of pepper and salt aged for 90 days as the base for his sauces. When it comes to combining the ingredients and cooking them, Ford deploys — to accent his 50- or 100-gallon batches — just a little bit of apple cider vinegar. His restrained use of vinegar keeps sauces chunky. They don’t have the quick red body or fermented tang of Louisiana-style hot sauces (like Tabasco) or the smooth caress of Mexican-style sauces like Cholula or Tapatio.
“We make what we call an Arizona-style hot sauce,” Ford says.
Ford smokes some of his own peppers on a giant Traeger. He has “eight or nine” grills and smokers in his backyard and plans to buy another. “When I do a barbecue,” he says, “I probably have five or six grills going at once.”
Though he has always enjoyed grilling and barbecues, he didn’t really like hot sauce growing up. That changed as he got older, especially when, one day while grilling, his neighbor invited him over. His neighbor proved to be a chile head. “When we went to visit,” Tasia says, “where furniture should have been, hot sauce was.”
Paul and his neighbor partnered and formed Big Red’s. Their partnership swiftly dissolved. (“It just wasn’t a good fit,” Paul says.) Paul left his job as a driller, bought a new truck, and invested his life savings in Big Red’s.
Spreading the gospel of liquid heat, he put 175,000 miles on his truck in two years.
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Though Big Red’s has won some serious awards, Paul’s sauces are vastly underrated in Phoenix. The smoke, arboreal sweetness, and full-throated heat of his maple-bacon sauce mingle nicely, melding into an assertive sauce.
God’s Wrath, the ghost pepper sauce, brings a clean, strong heat that, though tempered with acid and aromatics, manages to keep the sauce at once jammed with flavor and impressively neutral. His hottest sauce combines ghost peppers, scorpion peppers, and Reapers. It can sear the cilia from your throat, sure, but for a sauce made from superhots, it has a sturdy balance.
Today, Paul and Tasia are looking to grow their own peppers rather than sourcing from Arizona (habaneros) and North Carolina (superhots). Today, they are preparing to enter their sauces in the Brooklyn Hot Sauce Expo in April — to try “Smokin’” Ed Curry and the other great chile heads again, to take a shot at the biggest hot sauce competition in the world.
Big Red’s Hot Sauces.
Available at farmers’ markets including Gilbert, Old Town, Pinnacle Peak, Ahwatukee. Also available online and at some mom-and-pop shops, such as Palm and Pantry in Old Town.