The Cult of Crystal Hot Sauce

Culinary Foodways of the south have been on a massive upwards trajectory… and here’s why.

Things can get awkward fast for David Guas when some of his regulars walk through the door. Guas is a New Orleans native and owns and operates Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia. For the last seven years, he’s stood firm in his love for and commitment to Crystal hot sauce, a reddish-orange Louisiana sauce with just three ingredients: aged red cayenne peppers, vinegar, and salt. There are bottles on every table — right next to the salt shaker — and Guas sells it behind the counter, too. 

“I think this hot sauce is drinkable,” Guas says. “There’s just something about the blend and balance of vinegar to salt to heat. It’s perfect.”

But here’s where things get really weird. Some of Gaus’s most loyal customers are also New Orleans natives, and they hail from a long line of Louisiana hot sauce families. “I can tell you personally that I know people from other hot sauce families that live here, that eat here, and that bring their own sauce,” Guas says. “They have to accept that I’m a Crystal guy, and I’m not going to change.” Guas isn’t a paid spokesperson for Crystal. He’s simply one of the many chefs, consumers, and devotees who consider themselves fans. 


Touch down in New Orleans, and probably the first thing you’ll notice is the rows of Crystal hot sauce for sale in the airport gift shop. Crystal hot sauce has been in New Orleans for almost a century. It was once the official hot sauce of the New Orleans Saints NFL team. And if you venture into almost any New Orleans restaurant, whether it’s white-tablecloth or a po’ boy takeout, you’ll see that signature white-and-blue label with a green cap. Crystal’s parent company, Baumer Foods, processes more than 12 million gallons of cayenne pepper mash annually just outside New Orleans, resulting in 3 million gallons of Crystal hot sauce, shipped to more than 75 countries each year. Bottles pop up on tables everywhere from Miami (its largest U.S. market) to Dubai

Of course, every cult has a leader. For Crystal hot sauce, it’s a guy who goes by the name of Pepper. Alvin A. Baumer III, or Pepper, as he’s known by almost everyone, is the soon-to-be heir of the Crystal empire. His grandmother, Dottie Brennan, is one of the original proprietors of Commander’s Palace, a New Orleans institution in its own right, and she gave him the nickname while he still in the womb.

“It was predetermined,” Baumer III explains. “My dad and my grandfather are both named Alvin. So she thought it would be an easier way to tell us apart. The name just stuck.” 

But for the Crystal brand, consistency comes from a staff that’s been making hot sauce their whole life. And Crystal maintains exclusive rights to aged peppers shipped from Chihuahua, Mexico, one of the product’s key ingredients.


B.J. Lieberman used to work at Husk in Charleston and says there were just a few staple spices in the restaurant’s “seasoning portfolio,” including butter, salt, lemon juice, simple syrup, and fresh herbs — but there was only one that came in a prepackaged bottle: Crystal hot sauce. Lieberman, who’s now the head chef of Rose’s Luxury in Washington, D.C., says Crystal continues to be his go-to hot sauce for classic Southern dishes, like a pickle-brined fried chicken dish that’s served nightly at the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat rooftop garden.

“It’s actually not that hot,” he says. “It has a ton of vinegar, salt, and it is a great consistency — what the French call nappe. It is also a beautiful texture and perfectly smooth, so it lends itself well to adding to other sauces, or mounting with butter, or a host of other useful applications.”

As it turns out, many well-known chefs gravitate to the bottle, and not just because it’s a good side or condiment. TV personality and celebrity chef Jeff Henderson uses the sauce religiously in his demonstrational cooking as a way to add subtle heat and flavor. Andrew Zimmern has lauded its “very beautiful hot pepper flavor.” Chefs who are in the Crystal cult repeatedly cite it as a versatile hot sauce with a slightly acidic and vinegary edge.

“I use it on everything from eggs, red beans, fried chicken, anything really, just to elevate the flavor of the dish I’m making,” says Matt Floyd, executive chef at Bon Ton in Atlanta. 

For some chefs, the attachment to Crystal taps into childhood nostalgia. Ryan Rogers, who heads up Feast BBQ and Royals Hot Chicken in Louisville, Kentucky, is from Lafayette, Louisiana, and can remember passing the bottle of Crystal hot sauce as a kid at family meals that included gumbo, jambalaya, and stewed chicken.

“Culinary foodways of the South have been on a massive upwards trajectory,” Rogers says of many Southern staples’ recent rise to prominence. “Chefs have made it a point to celebrate the foods that they grew up on, or came to love, with the rest of the country. Part of celebrating those foods is looking at legacy brands that have been crafting food memories in the South for generations.”

Nowhere is the love for Crystal stronger than in New Orleans. Sandwich shop Turkey & the Wolf is located in the city’s Irish Channel neighborhood. If you step behind the sandwich counter and walk into chef-co-owner Mason Hereford’s kitchen, Hereford will reveal that he uses Crystal almost as an homage. In an Inception-like move, Hereford adds Crystal hot sauce to his house-made hot sauce that comes doused on deviled eggs and fried-chicken skins. He also uses it for po’ boys and sandwiches, like his collard green melt.

“I think a lot of people would be like, ‘You put hot sauce in your hot sauce? That’s really dumb,’” he says. “But our sauce comes out really well-rounded.”

Of course, Hereford is open to other hot sauce brands — he can easily rattle off some of his favorites, like Tabasco, Tiger Sauce, and Texas Pete. But according to him, Crystal is “next level.” “Our go-to has always been Crystal,” he says. “I think to me it’s the perfect representation of what an American hot sauce can and should be.”


Shopper’s Choice Featured Southern Recipe:

Pepper’s Smoked Chicken Wings!

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Difficulty: Intermediate | Prep Time: 15 mins | Cook Time: 1 hr 45 mins | Total Time: 2 hrs | Yields:  6 Servings

Some things are worth doing right, and these smoked buffalo wings are one of them. Tangy, smoky, spicy – baby, they’re worth it.

Ingredients:

  • 5 lbs chicken wings
  • 1 12oz bottle Crystal Hot Sauce, Crystal Garlic Hot Sauce or Crystal Extra Hot Wing Sauce
  • Hickory or mesquite wood chips
  • Bleu cheese dressing for dipping

Directions:

  • Heat grill between 200-225 degrees.
  •  Season wings generously with salt and pepper, or your seasoning of choice.
  • Add hickory or mesquite wood chips to your grill.
  • Place wings along grill grate for 45 to 60 minutes, flip, and cook for an additional 45 to 60 minutes.
  • Pour the entire bottle of Crystal into a large mixing bowl.
  • Add wings to the bowl and toss, generously coating the wings.
  • Return wings to the grill for 5 to 10 minutes more.
  • Place back in the mixing bowl and recoat.
  • Place on platter and serve with your favorite bleu cheese dressing.

Recipe Link:  https://crystalhotsauce.com/recipes/peppers-smoked-buffalo-wings/

Click on link below to purchase a bottle of Crystal Garlic Hot Sauce!