Even though producing fermented hot sauce is easy, there are a few tips to remember to ensure that each batch turns out perfectly. The flavor of your sauce can be greatly improved by paying attention to the quality and diversity of ingredients as well as using the right fermenting methods.
- If you prefer a milder hot sauce, remove the seeds from the hot peppers.
- Make use of several fresh peppers. The flavors of chilis differ. As a result, some have smokey overtones, while others are bitter or sweet. You’ll get the richest and most nuanced taste out of your sauce when you use a variety of peppers.
- Use ripe peppers. Unripe, green, spicy chilis have a harsh flavor that fermentation accentuates. By using ripe chilis, you can improve the flavor of your spicy sauce and get rid of the bitterness.
- Use dechlorinated or filtered water. Use a good water filter or dechlorinate your water by letting it sit for an entire night before adding it to your chilis to avoid interfering with the fermenting process.
- Your jar should be 1 inch from the top with brine. Leaving too much room will make mold growth more likely.
- Maintain brine submersion for your chilies. Glass fermentation weights assist in keeping your garlic and chilis submerged during the fermentation process, reducing the possibility of mold contamination in your hot sauce.
- Use a fermentation seal or airtight container. As your chilis ferment, an airtight container or fermentation seal will keep oxygen out, reducing the risk of mold growth in your spicy sauce.
- Keep an eye on the temperature. Foods ferment more quickly in warm conditions than they do in cool ones.
- Be mindful of flavor and scent. When the flavor and aroma of your fermented hot peppers appeal to you, they are ready. While some people favor aged ferments, others favor younger ferments.
- For a thin sauce, strain; for a thick sauce, do not strain. After combining the peppers, garlic, and brine, you can drain the mixture to get a thick pepper mash and a thin hot sauce. Instead, if you don’t strain, you’ll get a hot sauce that has thickened and is similar in consistency to Sriracha.
Step 1: Select A Style
Making your own fermented hot sauce from scratch involves a lot of subtle choices about ingredients and methods, which will ultimately affect the flavor and texture of the finished sauce. Therefore, having a general notion of the kind of hot sauce you want to make before you start is helpful. Consider the following broad categories:
- Louisiana-style Fermented Sauces: Often used interchangeably with American hot sauces, Louisiana-style fermented sauces are named for the state in which some of the first commercial hot sauce brands in the nation were created, including Tabasco, Crystal, Frank’s Red Hot, Texas Pete, and of course, Louisiana Hot Sauce. They are smooth and have a texture that might be thin and watery or slightly viscous.
- Mexican-style sauces: Mexican hot sauces are smooth and often comprised of a variety of pepper kinds, just like Louisiana-style sauces. Cholula, Valentina, Tapato, and Bfalo are a few well-known brands. Although none of these companies ferment the peppers, this does not mean that a fermented method cannot be inspired by them. They often have a thicker consistency than Louisiana-style sauces.
- Thick Commercial-Style Sauces: The sauces in this category tend to be thicker and contain less liquid overall. Consider fermented sauces like Sriracha or ketchup-like sauces in general.
- Other Styles: Lastly, you have access to an almost infinite variety of sauces that are not now in vogue commercially. These include chunky or unemulsified broken spicy sauces, as well as hot pepper mashes and pastes like sambal oelek, gochujang, yuzu kosho, and doubanjiang. Here, your creativity is your only true option.
Step 2: Choose Your Chile Peppers
The flavor and texture of your finished sauce will be greatly influenced by the pepper(s) you use. Then again, who am I to tell you how to live your life? Sure, you could always toss a lot of Thai bird chiles in some brine and YOLO it with Scoville units. But occasionally it’s wonderful to take things a little slower.
To begin with, choosing fresh peppers with the most microbiological potential is beneficial. Look for peppers that haven’t been waxed or oiled, irradiated, or surface-treated with pesticides to increase their shelf life, as all of these practices have the potential to limit the growth of lactic acid bacteria. Although organic labels aren’t a guarantee of this, organic peppers typically check these boxes. Your best option? Grow your own chiles, or if you’re unable to, seek for a friend who can. In the absence of a friend, try for a co-op or farmer’s market in your area. If neither of those are available, you should head to the grocery store and take a risk on commodity peppers (which will probably still function OK, but are not the best option when trying to maximize your odds of fermentation success).
Whether dried chile peppers alone are adequate for a dependable fermentation is a matter of some controversy. Some people assert that a salt brine provides the ideal medium for their fermentation: Any latent bacteria on the dried chile’s surface “wake up” as the brine hydrates it, claims Shockey. The fermentation process will start. To assure a new source of surface microorganisms, even Shockey advises adding some fresh material to the ferment, such as fresh garlic, honey, or possibly another fresh chili. Better better, you might include some whey from unpasteurized yogurt or any remaining brine from a prior fermentation (which is rich in lactic acid bacteria).
However, utilizing dried peppers brings up a whole new world of unique sensations. By concentrating flavor, drying produces earthy scents that are evocative of dried fruits. In some circumstances, modest, non-enzymatic browning via Maillard processes gives dried chiles a brown or deep red look. Additionally, chiles that have been smoke-dried, like chipotle morita chilies, have a potent flavor that permeates a completed fermented sauce.
Whatever peppers you decide to use, always taste them first. I can’t even count how many times I’ve rushed through creating jalapeo hot sauce without tasting the peppers first, only to discover the completed product to be either intolerably hot or bitter. Be different from me. By tasting the sauce, you can assess a number of factors and get suggestions for future processing methods. The level of spiciness, texture, and flavor in fresh peppers is extremely diverse. Listed below are some fundamental but significant factors:
When you bite into a chile pepper, one of the first things you’ll experience is the heat. Some chilies, such as Thai bird chiles or habanero chiles, have a strong kick. Others are milder, such as jalapeo or Anaheim chiles. Making a sauce solely out of more really hot peppers, like, say, the Carolina Reaper, will probably result in intolerable outcomes unless you’re a little masochistic. To reduce the extreme heat, it might be a good idea to combine an ingredient (such apples, berries, or carrots and onions) with extremely hot chilies. You’re generally better off selecting a milder chile if you want a hot sauce with a more authentic chile pepper flavor.
The thickness of the skin of a chili pepper is the second characteristic you could notice after heat. Habanero, Fresno, and jalapeo chiles, which have thin skins, frequently have walls that are simple to chew through. Contrarily, peppers with thick skin, like some varieties of cayenne or Anaheim chiles, have a hard exterior skin that can be more challenging to properly blend, resulting in an unpleasant final texture. Thin-skinned peppers typically yield a smoother sauce with less blending; they also work well for hot sauces that are chunkier and more in the broken-style. To obtain a comparable texture, thick-skinned peppers benefit from peeling, straining, or vigorous blending.
The amount of flesh beneath the epidermis relative to the membrane and seeds is referred to as the pepper wall. Jalapeo chilies often have thick walls that contain a lot of water. When thick-walled peppers are chopped or blended without any additional liquid, the resulting mixture tends to be juicy and watery. Thin-walled peppers like habaneros and ghost pepper chiles have less water and can be dry without any additional liquid if they are cooked into a mash. Contrary to popular belief, thick-walled, more watery peppers tend to produce blended spicy sauces that are a little bit thicker and more viscous than thin-walled peppers (assuming added liquid levels are equal in both cases). Why? Although thick-walled peppers contain more water, they also contain more pectin, which, when released during the puréeing process, binds water and thickens the sauce. The smooth, creamy texture of Mexican chile sauces like mole poblano is a result of the pectin found in chilies with thick walls. In contrast, a slightly looser sauce results from combining an equal amount of liquid with thin-walled peppers.
Chipotle peppers can vary greatly in terms of how many seeds and white pithy membranes they contain. The seeds of the pepper do not provide much heat at all, whereas the membrane of the pepper holds the majority of the heat. However, when used in large enough numbers, chili seeds can be acrid and give a finished hot sauce a gritty texture. A sauce might also taste harsh if the peppers have a lot of white pith. It may be beneficial to remove the seeds and pith before fermenting in order to get rid of this bitterness. If not, subsequent straining of the sauce may be required to remove some of the seedy grit.
In relation to bitterness, it’s important to distinguish the peppers’ true flavor from their heat. Green or unripe peppers typically have a more overall harsh and grassy flavor. Ripe peppers that are red, yellow, or orange are typically sweeter and fruitier. The majority of people mistakenly believe that chile peppers just contain heat, yet like any fruit, chile peppers come in a variety of flavors and aromas that actually distinguish a genuine hot sauce.
Step 3: Prep Them Right
You’ve chosen your peppers—possibly one type or a mix. The preparation and processing of them comes next. It’s best to at least rinse and dry your peppers in order to get rid of any potential wax residue or other debris. After that, cut off any woody stems because they have a terrible texture and little to no flavor (at best, a bitter one). Use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to peel and de-seed peppers if their skin is very thick or they have a lot of seeds.
What if you used heat? Natural sweetness is enhanced by methods like roasting or charring that concentrate tastes and natural sugars. In particular, charring imparts a smoky flavor to sauces that endures long after fermentation and is reminiscent of chipotle pepper smokiness. It’s vital to keep in mind that heat destroys the bacteria on the chile, so charred peppers might not be able to start fermentation on their own if you decide to sear your peppers before fermenting. It’s preferable to reserve some fresh peppers (or other fresh produce, as we’ll see later) to add to the ferment in order to get around this issue. The use of fresh peppers increases the likelihood that lacto-fermentation will be successful. Last but not least, it’s best to let cooked peppers cool before mixing them with fresh peppers because the latent heat can harm surface bacteria.
Step 4: Consider Some Support Players
Some fermented hot sauces begin the fermenting process with additional ingredients. Almost any item can be added, from sour fruits like berries and melons to vegetables and aromatics like onions, garlic, and carrots. These additives frequently aim to balance the sauce’s flavor and intensity. Here is a brief summary:
Fruits and vegetables can help to balance off strong heat by adding sweetness or vegetal qualities. Great examples are berries, citrus, and carrots. These materials are loaded with natural sugar, which accelerates fermentation, and they are swarming with surface lactic acid bacteria.
Spices or ingredients like garlic can give your spicy sauce greater complexity. Because it has a high surface lactic acid bacterial population, fresh garlic also aids in fermentation. Great alternatives include cumin, cinnamon, or coriander since fermentation softens their raw, sharp flavors over time.
Let’s be clear for those worried about garlic and botulism: we’ll ferment the hot sauces using airlocks. As a result, carbon dioxide will progressively replace the oxygen that is already present. There is no need to be concerned about contamination or food safety because high carbon dioxide concentrations are inhibitory to Clostridium botulinum (which only thrives in an anaerobic environment anyway).
A welcome savory foundation can be provided by umami-rich products like soy sauce, miso, and fish sauce. They are already mostly finished fermenting by the time you use them, despite the fact that they have been fermented. If you do utilize these items, you should take into account the salt content of your ferment as a whole. You should also take timing into account. Rich Shih, a Massachusetts-based fermentation specialist and co-author of Koji Alchemy at Amazon, issues the following warning: “Don’t just toss in fish sauce or some garum at the beginning of [pepper] fermentation because it sounds cool.” To get a stronger umami flavor, you might be better off combining those components in after fermentation.
Step 5: Brine or Mash?
The choice between a salt brine and a mash while fermenting peppers may be the most important one. In order to promote LAB fermentation, an anaerobic environment must be created.
A salt brine is a mixture of dissolved salt and water. The convenience of a salt brine is its main benefit: Your components don’t need to be chopped too finely (you can even leave the stems on but otherwise leave them whole), and lacto-fermentation is practically certain as long as they remain submerged in the brine. Anything below the brine’s surface is devoid of oxygen. Some folks, like Mara Jane King, prefer to use a salt brine: “Usually, I’ll choose a brine. It isn’t very picky. I begin with entire, containerized chiles “she claims. I enjoy setting it up and then forgetting about it for a bit. Since there is less chance of mold contamination, salt brine fermentation is best suited for longer-term, set-it-and-forget-it storage. Others say that a salt brine can occasionally mask the flavor of a hot sauce because some of that flavor seeps out and into the brine over time, according to Kirsten Shockey (which later gets partially or fully discarded).
When fermenting, it’s recommended to use filtered or distilled water rather than tap water because it contains trace quantities of chlorine or chloramine, which can limit microbial activity. Another benefit of employing a mash instead of a salt brine is this.
A mash (or solid state, or “dry” brine) is essentially just salt and pepper that have been finely chopped or mashed. In comparison to fermenting whole vegetables, cutting or grinding increases the surface area exposed to bacteria, which is thought to hasten fermentation. To create an anaerobic atmosphere, the salt takes moisture out of the air, which should ideally fill the crevices between the pieces of mash. According to Shockey, a mash has a few benefits over a salt brine. When you age it, she adds, “I find the flavors are much much more powerful with a mash.” “Why dilute that flavor when peppers are typically juicy [and exude enough liquid]?” Due to their higher water content, thick-walled, meaty peppers work best in mashes. A mash, on the other hand, requires more effort.
People struggle with mashes because they are difficult to keep submerged [under the extracted water], according to Shockey. All that mash rises and has the potential to generate a raft that floats above the water when carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fermentation, builds up. Due to their high sugar content, peppers are prone to yeast growth when exposed to oxygen. You can control that growth by using an air lock, stirring or shaking frequently, and careful observation. Airlocks prevent oxygen from entering, protecting any raft that forms in an environment with lots of carbon dioxide. Stirring maintains the pepper mash’s equal distribution in the extracted brine and removes any air pockets.
A third choice is to mix a mash with a salt brine. In this instance, less brine is used, only enough to fill the mash’s empty spaces. When working with thin-walled, drier peppers that don’t release as much water, this method is helpful. Although you still need to make sure the mash is submerged and watch it for any yeast growth, the flavor is still rather potent and concentrated.
In some situations, salt concentrations might range from 2% to 10%. Through osmotic shock, which sucks water out of microbial cells via osmosis and essentially kills those germs, salt limits growth of many microorganisms in addition to seasoning the ferment. Lactic acid bacteria can flourish because they can tolerate salt. There appears to be a sweet spot for the majority of pepper fermentations between 2% and 4%. Fermentation moves more quickly at these slightly lower concentrations; it works best in cooler temperatures, when microbial activity is often slower. Warmer regions or longer-term fermentations benefit from higher salt concentrations (longer than four weeks). Mara Jane King advises concentrations around 5% for longer-term fermentations. “I think having a strong salt content is helpful to manage mold and yeast if you’re going to ask for something to be on the shelf for one to two years,” she says.
Step 6: Pack and Ferment
It’s beneficial to select a tall, narrow container with an airtight lid for effective fermentation. Glass, ceramic, or food-safe plastic are all good options. Wide containers typically have less use since there is more surface area that is exposed to the air at the top.
The vessel can be loaded by simply pouring everything inside if you’re using a salt brine. If a mash is what you’ve chosen, it’s advisable to pack the mash into the jar carefully to avoid creating any air spaces. The fermentation will perform better and more effectively the less oxygen there is at first. Leaving a little headroom in the jar is also beneficial. The mash swells and rises higher in the jar as it ferments, producing carbon dioxide as it does so.
When it comes to preventing the growth of yeast and mold, oxygen is the greatest adversary. There are several tactics used here: To keep the whole or chopped chiles submerged in a brine, use fermentation weights or a zipper lock bag filled with extra brine. For mashes, you can use fermentation weights and plastic wrap to weight down the surface, shake or mix the ferment every day to prevent undesirable development, or sprinkle salt on the top surface to prevent microbial growth. The use of an airlock, however, is the most secure strategy.
Any device that forces oxygen out of a one-way valve while keeping carbon dioxide produced by LAB fermentation in the jar is an airlock. The airloc simultaneously prevents oxygen from entering the jar from outside, creating an anaerobic condition. A small amount of headspace in the jar also enables carbon dioxide to accumulate there, protecting the surface and acting as an antibacterial. Airlocks are something Mara Jane King firmly believes in. “I’m going to use an airlock if I’m fermenting anything that the yeast is going to want to play with.”
The airlock comes in a variety of designs. I used these from Amazon, which fit well on wide-mouth quart mason jars, but you could also use this one from Amazon, which Daniel uses for his sauerkraut recipe.
Step 7: Monitor and Wait
You’re ready to go. Your jar is properly assembled and airtight. Simply wait for the microorganisms to finish their work. But how can you improve your chances of a productive fermentation? Observe the following warning signs:
The “optimal” fermentation temperature is a topic covered in a wealth of literature. However, in reality, that temperature is your countertop room temperature for the majority of people. Your counter is fantastic, is always my initial response, says Shockey. You have that, I said. However, a colder environment appears to be more beneficial. “Personally, I like ferments that are 60 degrees. I like ferments that are colder. Ideal temperature ranges between 55 and 60 degrees. But who has a space that is 55 degrees?” Fermentation accelerates at greater temperatures, but at a price. “Higher fermentation temperatures, in my opinion, result in flavors and acidity that are flatter. In extreme situations, the fermentation can finish in just one and a half days. The flavor won’t be as nuanced as one from a longer, cooler fermentation process.”
Fermentation usually takes seven to fourteen days to finish. That period of time is considerably shorter at higher temperatures. In the end, there are only two surefire techniques to determine whether the ferment is fit for consumption. First, you can purchase pH strips or a pH meter from Amazon to measure pH. Technically speaking, the FDA advises that foods that are acidified have a natural pH of 4.6 or lower. In reality, to be safe, the majority of commercial hot sauce producers aim for a pH level of 4.2 or lower. The accepted pH requirement for really shelf-stable homemade sauces is considerably lower—3.4 or lower.
To determine acidity, you can also taste your ferment. It’s beneficial to open the jar and take a tiny taste each day after a week. You’re usually fine after it tastes acidic, according to Shockey. “Never has my palate been wrong. Ferments frequently transition from this state of not tasting acidic at all to tasting acidic and sour. There’s no need to worry about that.”
Your ferment doesn’t have to be aged. You are prepared to manufacture spicy sauce once the lacto-fermentation process has finished. However, you can occasionally continue the fermentation in the jar for years. Aging is the process of waiting. According to Shockey, the majority of the first lacto-fermentation is finished after two to three weeks. “There is no longer any fermentation. However, compounds start to change after that. Esters and phenols both contribute their unique flavors. One of the few things you can age is peppers.” She quickly adds that getting older is not required. “The nerdy thing to do is become older. However, most people are not required to.” But it’s still good to know you can. Furthermore, aging doesn’t always take place at room temperature. Even in your refrigerator, esters and phenols continue to form at lower temperatures.
*The McIlhenny Company, the company that makes Tabasco, is well-known for maturing its mash in white oak barrels for up to eight years. Their commemorative Diamond Reserve hot sauce was aged 15 years to mark their 150th year in business.
According to King, if you work with anything that contains a lot of sugar, like peppers, you’re inviting yeast to the party. Wild yeast has a lot of unusual and bizarre flavors. King is referring to kahm yeast, which is a catch-all name for the pellicle (layer) that yeasts and bacteria generate when an area is exposed to oxygen. On the surface of a ferment, kahm yeast appears as a thin, impenetrable layer of creamy white color. It’s generally risk-free. If there is very slight development, you can simply add the yeast to the ferment and continue. In other circumstances, the layer can become quite thick; therefore, it is preferable to remove the layer by scraping it off. However, using an airlock to initially reduce oxygen exposure is the best course of action.
*Some people might be hesitant to open the jar and taste their ferment to check for flavor and acidity. Adding oxygen might promote the development of yeast. However, the majority of the fermentation ought should be finished after a week or two: The body is acidic, and the majority of the free sugars have been broken down. Kahm yeast has a significantly tougher time developing in these circumstances.
Another problem is mold. You don’t always have to discard your ferment if it has green, blue, black, or orange mold forming on the surface of it. If the growth isn’t too large, simply scrape it off. The best approaches involve creating an anaerobic environment, using fresher peppers, picking the right amount of salt, or fermenting at slightly lower temps (not exceeding 70F).