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Meet Kate Howell Maker of Basketcase Hot Sauces

When I was seven years old, Mum started making Indian and Mexican food (she was a very adventurous cook!), and there began my lifelong addiction to chilli. That exhilarating feeling after the burn, and the numbness and the tingling lips and mouth have subsided is incredible, and even at that tender age, I was hooked. As an ex-professional chef, I've always loved to keep up with food trends and experiment with different flavours. I've always grown chillies at home, but one year I was given a massive load of fresh chillies by a friend and thought I'd try my hand at making my own hot sauce. It wasn't as easy as I thought and took a bit of trial and error. I did manage to figure out my personal preferences - lots of heat, good vinegar, clean tasting – and no sugar to be added under any circumstances!

Soon after, I was diagnosed as Coeliac, which forced me re-think my diet, and the ingredients I used in all of my cooking. Not only were bread and pasta banned but I discovered that many of my favourite sauces, including soy sauce, and the vinegars used in my favourite BBQ sauces were also on the blacklist. I started experimenting and came up with great substitutes for these banned ingredients. As a result, I was left with a surplus of lots of different condiments which I gave away to friends. In 2014, a Christmas gift to a friend sparked a demand for my sauces, and the Basketcase story began.

The name Basketcase came about because only a crazy person would set up a business while working full time, balancing a family and at Christmas of all times!

At 14, I read in a magazine that eating chilli increased your metabolic rate, and so I started eating chilli pretty much every day – win/win I thought back at the time – try and stay skinny and eat the thing I loved! It didn't quite work out that way, but it did help to fuel my addiction.

I first came to Australia from the UK on a holiday in 1995, friends used to laugh when I would whip out my little bottle of hot sauce when we were at restaurants, back then it was probably a West Indian Hot sauce like Encona or a Mexican one like Cholula. When I came to live here, I couldn't find any kind of decent hot sauce so got Mum to send me chilli sauce care packages from the UK.

Gradually things have improved, and the range and availability of hot sauces are mind-blowing. These days, I am more focused on the health-giving qualities of chillies rather than eating them to stay slim!

"I've always grown chillies at home, but one year I was given a massive load of fresh chillies by a friend and thought I'd try my hand at making my own hot sauce."

Where do you make your small batch Hot Sauces?

We make all of our small batch sauces in a commercial kitchen in South Melbourne. We call them 'small batch' because that means they're made by us and not in a production kitchen. There is no machine involved in optimising the process – it's just us making the sauces by hand in huge pans.

Whilst we follow our recipe for each batch, nature can be a little unpredictable at times, and depending on the season, ingredients can taste quite different. For example, chillies can be fruitier at various times of the year, and onions are sweeter at certain times etc, so we sometimes have to adjust our recipe slightly to ensure a consistent end product. We don't use preservatives of any kind, so our sauces are as close to nature as you can get.

Each batch generally produces about 200 bottles of sauce. So, when you purchase one of our hot sauces, you know it's unique.

What goes into the Basketcase Hot Sauce?

Of our thirty or so sauces, at least half of them use chilli, all with very different flavour profiles, some more complex than others.

I class five of those 15 as being 'Hot Sauce', without added sugar, but then there are another four that other people might call Hot Sauce, and I often make different heat levels of the same product, because although I personally like very hot chilli, not everyone has the same tolerance.

I use chillies from around the globe, often inspired by our travels, and love to come up with unusual flavour combinations, such as ginger and pineapple (with chilli of course) in our Golden Fire, and we have also been making our own Gochugang fermented chilli paste.

When I first started making hot sauces, I wanted to make something that was clean tasting, which is still the case. We don't use any sugar in any of our hot sauces; instead, we focus on using natural sweetness from other ingredients. In our Jalapeno sauce, we use onion for sweetness. In our Fireball we use tomatoes and then our Fire Starter, which is my favourite, uses capsicum. Sometimes chillies can be bitter depending on the type you're using, so this can be a bit of a balancing act, and lots of tasting involved – to the point when I have to have a rest to 'reset' my palate sometimes.

How many types of chilli go into your Hot Sauces?

Depending on availability we generally have to hand around 20 different chillies from quite mild ones to very hot chillies. Each one helps to create a unique tasting experience.

Our Firestarter Hot Sauce uses seven different chillies. You can taste each one as it progresses from your tongue down to the back of the throat. You get all of these different levels of heat, different levels of sweetness, but also a touch of bitterness, so it's quite the balancing act to make each sauce perfect.

What do you eat with your Hot Chilli Sauces?

In my view, hot chilli sauce can be added to everything! For breakfast, I might have a poached egg, or I'll have to avocado on toast with my Jalapeno sauce. With my lunch, I generally add the Fireball sauce, and with dinner, Fire Starter.

You can use hot sauces in so many different ways. Even a dash or two can add a little piquancy into a dish, that even chilli 'haters' can tolerate. It adds a different layer of flavour and an interesting back note to a meal.

You can use them to make a punchy glaze for hot chicken wings, or you can mix it through a little bit of mayo to make it spicy, Chipotle is excellent for doing that. Pumpkin soup is amazing with a drizzle of our Jamaican Fire sauce. Jalapeno has an affinity with potatoes of any description or fish tacos– I won't go on; I have multiple dishes for every single sauce we make!

However, it goes without saying that my primary use is as a condiment. You don't want to mask the flavour of the dish you are eating; it is a flavour enhancer. It can really elevate something into the next dimension - as well as providing that (still) addictive exhilaration once the burn has gone!

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