In Search Of The Next Sriracha: Is It Snake Oil?

With a California court recently halting Sriracha production — potentially disrupting the vital life-blood of countless capsaicin freaks across the country — now is a good time to get a new hot-sauce obsession. And here's one with a distinctive bite: Snake Oil, the kitschy-labeled small-batch elixir of Spike Gjerde, chef-owner of Baltimore's acclaimed Woodberry Kitchen.

Lots of chefs hawk their own signature hot sauces. But few go to such great lengths to procure the source of their sauce's heat. The not-so-secret ingredient in Gjerde's formula is fish pepper, an obscure heirloom spice of the Chesapeake region that's even older than Old Bay Seasoning. Its exact origins are unclear, but culinary historians have documented its popularity among the area's African-American cooks back in the 1800s. Since then, the fish pepper — which has been described as a sort of mutant Serrano, taking on multiple color changes and odd stripes that appear prior to ripening — practically disappeared.

Gjerde, who, like many of his farm-to-table contemporaries, is a history buff, has sought to rescue the ancient chili from near-extinction. "I like spicy food," he says. "I thought that if we can add that kind of heat, as it had been described, to our cooking, that was really exciting to me."

Partnering with a trio of organic farmers in the area, Gjerde has helped prop up a fragile fish-pepper renaissance, beginning with a very modest harvest in 2009 — "literally, a couple of handfuls," the chef says. After initially experiencing the elusive chili solely through books, Gjerde describes the first taste of fish pepper hot sauce drizzled atop a local oyster as "kind of revelation." He says, "It just made the oyster kind of pop in a way that I thought was really, really great."

In 2012, Gjerde netted his greatest haul to date, amounting to 14 full 30-gallon barrels of mashed fish peppers, good for some 5,000 bottles of Snake Oil. Despite a lighter harvest this past season, he expects to crank out another 4,000 bottles in 2014. (In addition to making hot sauce, Gjerde's Woodberry Kitchen crew also dries and grinds the peppers into a cayenne-style chili powder for use in a variety of dishes.)

Though primarily a local product, available at Gjerde's Baltimore restaurants and a single retail store, Salt & Sundry in Washington, D.C., Snake Oil made its national debut this past October at Martha Stewart's American Made market in New York's Grand Central Terminal.

Critics are beginning to take notice, for better or worse. A recent Washington Post review of Gjerde's newest Baltimore eatery, Shoo-Fly, where six-ounce bottles of Snake Oil appear on every table, preferred the house-made hot sauce to much of the menu.

Luckily, Gjerde has a good sense of humor, as reflected in the patent remedy-style name and "prescription strength" disclaimer on the bottle. "I love the fact that people make a lot of unsupportable claims about food these days, with sustainability and farm-to-table or whatever," he says with a laugh. "I felt we could play it up, make some very dubious claims about the efficacy of our fish pepper hot sauce. Why not?"

While the serpentine graphics on the label might seem a direct response to Sriracha's rooster logo, Gjerde says he was more inspired by Tabasco "to try to create a pepper sauce that could be identified with a region, the way Tabasco is intellectively connected with Louisiana."

The formula for Snake Oil is similarly Tabasco-esque. Gjerde says ripened fish peppers are ground with salt and aged for a year in oak barrels, then passed through a food mill and mixed with a locally made apple cider vinegar. "The hot sauce we end up with is a little hotter than Tabasco," he says, "but it's a little more intense and concentrated."

Somewhat adding to the fish pepper mystique, Gjerde says he has no idea where the heirloom chili rates on the Scoville scale. Anecdotally, anyway, he vaguely describes it as "hotter than a jalapeno, but not as hot as a habanero."

In a side-by-side comparison with Tabasco, I found the Snake Oil to be thicker and darker in color, with a fruitier nose. A dab on the finger tastes saltier and far less bracingly sour than the standard-bearer. (Neither sugarless sauce can compete with Sriracha in the sweetness department.)

Heat-wise, well, Snake Oil isn't going to win any face-melting contests. But that's not really its niche. Beyond the temporary numbing sensation might be something more profound: the survival of a species. "At this point, we're making friends, one bottle at a time," Gjerde says.

Interested in buying a bottle of Snake Oil? You can call Woodberry Kitchen and have it shipped to your home. Bottles are $15 each, plus shipping. Call 410-464-8000.