With a kick

A year or two ago, I ordered a hot-sauce making kit from Amazon, but it was kind of a disappointment. It had dried peppers which you simmered and pureed and then put into bottles. It was OK, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Then, five or six weeks ago, I stumbled across the Fermented Hot Sauce Society group on Facebook. I already had a very small experience with fermentation — I bought a fermentation jar last year and used it to make fermented dill pickles.

The vast majority of the pickles you’ve enjoyed in your life have been infused pickles: cucumbers that are soaked in vinegar. They’re great; no one loves a good pickle as much as I do. But infused pickles aren’t the original pickles, and they aren’t the only pickles. The original way of pickling a food (cucumbers, cabbage, what have you) was to store it in a simple brine, not vinegar. The brine, if everything is handled properly, keeps bad bacteria from causing the vegetable to spoil, but it allows good lactobacillus bacteria to work on the food. This bacteria, which is also behind foods like yogurt, produces lactic acid as it works, which gives the food a pleasantly-tangy flavor.

Eventually, someone discovered that you could simulate the flavor and texture of fermentation by soaking the food in vinegar. And, as I said, that’s great. But fermentation has it’s own unique flavor that can’t be exactly duplicated. If you’ve ever had a really, really good pickle, say at a delicatessen, and weren’t sure what made it so delicious, it might have been fermented.

Many hot sauces are fermented, including Tabasco, and that’s what gives them a unique flavor alongside the heat.

There are two ways to make a fermented hot sauce. You can ferment the peppers and other supporting vegetables in chunks, as if you were making pickles, and then puree them at the end of the process. Or, like Tabasco, you can puree the peppers with salt and allow the mash to ferment. I decided that the first method would be easier for me, as a first-timer.

I put out a call for hot peppers on Facebook and Jane Tucker from my church responded, giving me way more peppers than I was expecting. I had plenty for my fermentation jar, and sliced up some of the rest for the dehydrator. The peppers were a mix of jalapenos and cayenne peppers, and the jalapenos were in a variety of colors.

The fermentation process produces carbon dioxide. So if you sealed up a jar tightly and forgot about it, the pressure could build up, bursting the jar. You can “burp” the jar each day, or you can use a crock with a loose-fitting lid, which is quite traditional for making pickles. But those methods expose the ferment to the outside air, possibly letting in mold spores. You must be vigilant and skim the ferment of anything that looks like it might be mold-related. A fermentation lid, or an airlock, gives a way for the CO2 to escape without allowing any air inside. Some fermentation lids, like mine, even have a hand pump which allows you to pump out the excess air at the beginning of the process, creating a vacuum in which it would be much harder for mold to form.

I added some shredded carrot, shredded garlic, and garlic cloves to the jar, along with my peppers and some brine. I tried to use a glass fermentation weight to keep everything submerged, but it was too narrow and the jar wasn’t packed tightly enough, so it sank. At the suggestion of someone in the Facebook group, I floated a big slice of onion right on top. That kept everything submerged — and if any mold had started to form on the onion, I could easily pull it out. (It never did, probably because I kept the air pumped out regularly.)

Here’s how the jar looked when I first loaded it, before adding the onion slice.

I was originally shooting for a three-week ferment, and planned to bottle my sauce on Monday, when I was taking a day off work. But I had worried that I hadn’t seen as many bubbles as I had with last year’s pickles, and when there were still a few tiny bubbles last weekend, I figured it couldn’t hurt to let the ferment go for another few days.

Last night, I decided I, and the ferment, were ready.

I had assumed that I would have to add vinegar to the finished sauce to bring it to a pH level that could be safely stored at room temperature. But when I checked the brine last night, it came in at a solid 3.0, below what I needed — and the final sauce has the tanginess to prove it.

Everyone on the Facebook group suggests buying a pH meter, and I probably will at some point, but until I knew whether this was something I’d do again I didn’t want to spend that much money. I found some pH test strips on Amazon that were labeled for making kombucha. And they gave me a pretty clear and unambiguous result.

Pureeing the peppers leaves you with a somewhat pulpy sauce and some pepper seeds. You can leave in the pulp for a thicker sauce or you can push the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer for a liquid sauce. I had originally planned to do the thicker sauce, and that’s why I had ordered hot sauce bottles without the plastic shaker top. But after pureeing and pureeing, the sauce still didn’t seem quite smooth enough, so I, sort of reluctantly, reached for the fine-mesh strainer. I did save the pulp, however; a previous post on the Facebook group had suggested drying it and grinding it into a dry seasoning. (If you look carefully at the ingredient list for some Tabasco-approved spinoff products, they will sometimes list pulp or mash.) I spread it out on parchment sheets in my dehydrator.

Now, I had my sauce. I needed to heat it up to just below boiling, to kill any remaining microorganisms and stop the possibility of any fermentation in the bottle. I realized that the mis-named “BOIL” function in my Instant Pot’s yogurt-making setting would be just about the right temperature, and so that’s what I used.

I was surprised and delighted at the bright orange color. Because there were so many different colors of pepper, I was prepared for an ugly brownish sauce.

I poured the sauce into bottles. As a final safety measure, the bottles were treated with the “hot-hold” method — not quite canning, but holding the bottle upside down in hot water, so that the hot sauce sanitizes the inside of the cap and the neck of the bottle. I had enough for five full bottles and one partial bottle, which I did not “hot-hold” but which I will keep in the refrigerator and use up first.

The bottles came with shrink-wrap neck-and-cap seals. You slip the seal over the end of the bottle, then either point a hair dryer at it or dip it briefly into hot water, and it immediately shrinks into a tight seal.

I had also bought labels to fit the bottles, and designed them on my computer.

The sauce does settle some — apparently, some solids made it through the fine-mesh strainer. So you have to be sure and shake it up before using. But it has a good flavor. I kind of wish I had used a few more peppers and a little less carrot; there’s a kick, but I’d have liked a bigger kick.

This was a fun project. I wish I had another batch of peppers to start. If I’d been wise, I would have frozen some of the excess peppers from what Jane originally gave me. Apparently, frozen-and-thawed hot peppers still ferment just fine. Anyway, I will definitely be doing this again.