A couple of weekends ago, I went Austin way to help judge the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, one of the largest in the country. I went at the invitation of Robb Walsh, the dean of Texas food journalists and one of America's great advocates and historians of Tex-Mex cuisine (ask him what he thinks of Rick Bayless!). The blow-by-blow will have to wait until my book, but what I can share right now is five tips I learned from judging alongside Mexis, food lovers, sommeliers, and a whole bunch of great people. Follow these tips, and anyone who enters a hot sauce contest has a better chance of winning.
By the way, the Weekly is thinking of sponsoring our own hot sauce contest and festival 'round Cinco de Mayo. Think it'll work here, or will too many Know Nothings show up?
Anyhoo, the tips, in no real order:
*Do not use liquid smoke. Not in a million years, not ever: Walsh had about 30 of us serve as preliminary judges. We tasted the good, the bad, and the horrid. What universally disgusted the esteemed panel was the use of liquid smoke for seasoning. The faces of judges turned to grimaces, squints, or near-gagging when tasting the stuff. Liquid smoke in salsa tastes like ash-tinted water, and the difference between the liquid variety and naturally adding smokiness to your salsa (like, say, adding torched pepper skin) is like the difference between Barbara Coe and Jesus.
*Enter a green salsa; ignore the red: Hundreds of folks entered the Chronicle's contest, but nearly 70 percent of the entries were red salsas. Few people bothered to enter the green, however, which allowed the judges to pay closer attention instead of drowning in a sea of red. For salsa contests, you do want to be the big fish in the small pond.
*Put your entry in a small container, not a moat: Whenever we'd get entries in massive tubs, snickers would inevitably arise about the big ego of the entrant (and remember: everyone in the room was a Texan). We still judged on the merits of the salsa, but you want the judges' attention solely on the salsa–anything else is a distraction, and you can't afford to suffer one when they have 300 more salsas to go.
*Remember that “hot sauce” doesn't necessarily mean “Mexican”: Walsh told me that previous grand prize winners have been Malay sambals and Indian chutneys. Hot sauce contests have special categories for non-Mexican entries, but those usually don't get more than a few token entries. Want a better shot? Perfect that ají!
*Moderation, amigo: moderation: Some of the better salsa we tasted were milder than vanilla, yet exhibited a great balance between heat, citrus, and other flavors. Some of the hottest salsas were the most loathed, not because we can't weather scorchers but because they only offered it. Hot sauce contests are about flavor, not nuking.
Now, start prepping for the Fifth of May!