Monday, November 11, 2013

Starting Fermented Hot Sauce

Last year I tried to make Lemon Drop Hot Sauce by simply pureeing together Lemon Drop peppers, vinegar, and some spices. Now I wish that post wasn't getting as many hits as it is, because the sauce really didn't turn out well. The vinegar was totally overwhelming, so it only tasted like vinegar with a capsaicin burn. I actually ended up throwing it out.

This year I decided to try something different. I'm actually fermenting my Lemon Drop peppers, which is how the pros make hot sauce. When you ferment vegetables, Lactobacillus bacteria release lactic acid, which is milder in taste than vinegar (acetic acid). Hopefully this will allow me to make a hot sauce that is sour and hot, but the fruity and sweet notes of the peppers will also be able to come through.

I've got a few books on fermentation on my Amazon Wish List, but I didn't want to wait to get started, so I did a bit of Googling to find instructions. One of the first hits I got was this Joy of Cooking site, so I started with these instructions.


I got so many Lemon Drops last year that I still had a bag of them in the freezer. I decided to use some of those in addition to some that I'm harvesting now from those same plants which survived last winter (I guess peppers are perennial in my climate now). I doubt the freezing would hurt things. If anything, it might make the process easier since the cell walls are damaged, and that might make it easier for the bacteria to munch on them.

I let the frozen peppers thaw, and then whizzed them up in the food processor, since that was easier than chopping them by hand. If you do this, just be sure not to stick your face over the top when you open the lid! I mixed in 2% sea salt by weight of the peppers like the instructions said. The only sea salt I have is pretty coarse, but that shouldn't matter if you do it by weight.

The instructions say to pour in Riesling wine until the peppers are submerged. I only had Chardonnay, so I used that. Chardonnay is oaked and Riesling isn't, but maybe that will make my sauce taste like it was aged in oak barrels like some commercial hot sauces are. (But it probably just won't make a difference).

The instructions don't specifically say why they use wine. Most other instructions say to use water, but wine probably adds sugars which help feed the bacteria. I thought it might taste nice with the fruity flavor of the Lemon Drop peppers. Once it was all mixed up, it did smell really sweet and fruity. I started this batch on October 16, covered it with some folded up cheesecloth held down with a canning ring, and let it sit on the counter.

Then I started doing some more searching online. I soon found out there are tons of instructions out there for fermented hot sauce, and they're all different! Argh! Most use water and not wine, but some add sugar to the water. Salt amounts range from 2-10%. Some folks use airlocks like you do to homebrew wine. Others use crocks like you use for sauerkraut. There appears to be no right way to do it.

That's a lot different than canning foods, where you're supposed to follow exact formulas tested by the USDA. Then again, with canning you're trying to keep all bacteria out. With fermenting, you're trying to colonize your food with good bacteria, and they protect your food from bad bacteria. Once you get the good bacteria going, they do most of the work for you.


A couple of weeks went by and I started getting worried. Some sites said I should see bubbles in only a few days, but there was nothing. I had to scrape off a tiny bit of white mold once, but that was it. Mostly it seemed like absolutely nothing was happening.

I started to wonder if the alcohol in the wine was preserving it. Maybe things would pick up once the alcohol evaporated.

On November 2, I had a big bowl of freshly harvested peppers again. Things seemed to have settled in the jar a lot, so I thinly sliced those peppers and added them to the jar. I topped it off with more wine, and added another teaspoon of salt. I didn't weigh the salt this time, because I was lazy and realized this wasn't exact anyway.

I kind of forgot about the jar for a few days.

Then about three days ago I noticed this...

Bubbles! I thought maybe it was air that was caught in the peppers from the last time I stirred it, so I banged the jar a bit to release the bubbles, but the next day there were more bubbles. That confirmed that these were bacteria farts bubbles being made by the bacteria fermenting my peppers!

The pepper mash had also been changing in smell. At first it smelled fresh and fruity, from the mixture of the fresh Lemon Drop peppers and wine, but pretty soon it started to smell more... well, fermented. Still sweet and fruity, but with a musty or yeasty undertone. By the time the bubbles started really going, it was smelling more sour and pickle-like.

By this time the plants in my garden were really cranking out more fruit, since we've been getting so much rain lately. So yesterday I decided to start another jar!



This time I added a tablespoon of sea salt to the chopped peppers, and let them soak overnight before adding the wine. Then I've been adding more peppers and more wine as I harvest more peppers from the garden. I'll keep doing that until the second jar is full, which won't be much longer at the rate I'm harvesting peppers. I also tried to speed up the fermentation this time by skimming off a few spoonfuls of brine from the first jar and adding it to the second jar. That should inoculate it with the bacteria that's working on the first jar, so the second jar doesn't have to wait as long to be colonized.


The next thing I'll need to figure out is how long to wait until the first jar is done fermenting. Again, instructions range from 6 weeks to a year! I have a food mill now, so I plan on blending it up in the blender first, then running it through the food mill to get it smooth. Most instructions say to add vinegar, but I'm going to be careful with that so the vinegar doesn't overwhelm the flavor of the sauce. Again, the whole point of doing all this is because I want a hot sauce that mostly tastes like peppers, not vinegar.

Maybe the first batch will be ready in time to give as holiday gifts. Too bad everyone else in my family are wimps who don't like spicy food.



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