In the late summer and early autumn, you'll find baskets brimming with ripe hot peppers at your local farmers market. And, one of the best ways you can make use of all that fiery abundance is to toss the peppers in a jar with plenty of garlic and make Fermented Hot Sauce.
Most of the worlds most beloved hot sauces - from Tobasco to Sriracha - begin in the fermentation crock, and that's because fermentation gives hot sauce a bright acidity and deep, complex flavor that develops slowly with time.
Fortunately, fermented hot sauces are super simple to make. All you need to do is toss hot, ripe chilis in a jar with plenty of garlic and other spices as it suits you, cover them with salt water and wait. Then blend, bottle and toss it in the fridge. It's that simple.
What is it?
Fermented hot sauce is a spicy, slightly acidic sauce made by fermenting hot chilis and other ingredients together in a jar or crock. Over time, flavor will deepen, growing more and more complex and more acidic as beneficial bacteria go to work. When it's sour enough, and you like the flavor, you'll blend the ingredients together with brine or vinegar. Some recipes call for straining which produces a thin sauce, while others do not and produce a thicker sauce.
Fermentation is a magical and transformative culinary technique that not only helps to preserve foods that might otherwise spoil, but it also gives foods a complex and rich depth of flavor. As a result, you'll have a deeply flavor-forward sauce that's full of beneficial bacteria, like yogurt or sauerkraut,
Tips for making hot sauce
- Use a variety of hot peppers. Chilis vary in flavor. Accordingly, some have smoky notes, others bitter and others sweet. When using a variety of peppers, you'll get the deepest and most complex flavor out of your sauce.
- Use ripe chilis. Fermentation amplifies the bitter notes you taste in unripe, green hot chilis. Using ripe chilis eliminates that bitterness and can give a your hot sauce better flavor.
- Use filtered or dechlorinated water. Chlorinated water may interfere with successful fermentation, so use a good water filter or dechlorinate your water by letting it sit overnight before you add it to your chilis.
- Fill your jar with brine within 1 inch of its opening. Leaving too much headspace will increase the likelihood of mold formation.
- Keep your chilis submerged under brine. Glass fermentation weights help keep your chilis and garlic submerged while they ferment, lowering the chance that your hot sauce will be contaminated with mold.
- Use an airtight jar or fermentation seal. An airtight jar or a fermentation seal will prevent oxygen from getting into your chilis while they ferment which helps keep your hot sauce safe from mold contamination.
- Pay attention to temperature. Foods ferment faster in warm temperature and more slowly in cool temperatures.
- Pay attention to flavor and aroma. Your fermented hot peppers are ready when their flavor and aroma pleases you. Some people prefer younger ferments, while others prefer aged ferments.
- Strain for a thin sauce, don't strain for a thick sauce. After blending the peppers, garlic and brine together you can strain the purée which will give you a thin hot sauce and a thick pepper mash. Alternatively, if you avoid straining, you'll have a thickened hot sauce about the consistency of sriracha.
Fermented Hot Sauce Recipe
- 2 pounds fresh chilies
- 6 cloves garlic
- 3 tablespoons finely ground real salt
- 4 cups warm water
- Remove the tops from the peppers, and split them in half lengthwise. Pack a quart-sized mason jar tightly with the peppers, leaving about 1-inch headspace. Drop in the cloves of garlic.
- Whisk the salt into the warm water until it dissolves. Pour the brine over the chiles and garlic.
- Place a weight over the chiles and garlic so they remain submerged beneath the brine. Seal the jar tightly with an airlocked lid, and allow the chiles to ferment at room temperature 2 to 3 weeks, or until they smell and taste pleasantly sour.
- Strain the brine and reserve it. Transfer the chiles to a high-speed blender. Add 1 cup of the reserved brine to the blender, and process until smooth. For a thin sauce, strain through a fine mesh sieve. For a thick sauce, simply spoon the purée into jars, thinning with additional brine as necessary.
- Use right away or store in the refrigerator up to 1 year.
Making a fermented hot sauce is fairly straightforward. And as long as you use quality ingredients and clean equipment,it should turn out beautifully. However, occasionally things might go awry, and here's a quick look at how you can troubleshoot potential problems.
- If a white film develops on the top of your chilis, it's probably Kahm yeast. Kahm yeast is benign, and fairly common in fermented peppers and cucumbers. Lift the film off and discard it.
- If mold appears on top of your chilis or the surface of your brine, lift it off and discard it. But if it more than a few spots appear, discard the batch. You can minimize mold in ferments by using a weight and a fermentation seal.
- If it's not sour enough, let it ferment longer or mix vinegar into the blender when you purée the chilis.
- If your chilis and hot sauce get fizzy, that's a normal sign of fermentation. Make sure to burp your jar (jars with fermentation seals are self-burping), and store your bottles in the fridge.
How to store your sauce
Fermented hot sauce is a living food that's rich in food enzymes and in beneficial bacteria. Once you purée the chilies and bottle your sauce, it will continue to ferment. So store your fermented hot sauce in the refrigerator to slow down the fermentation process. You can also pour your sauce into jars and can it for longterm storage, but the high heat of canning will destroy the sauce's beneficial bacteria.
Once you've made the basic recipe using straightforward and simple ingredients, you can introduce new flavors to really make a hot sauce that's distinctly your own. Citrus fruits like lime and orange can give a subtle sweetness that marries well with the chilis' heat. Similarly, herbs and spices like hibiscus flowers, turmeric and ginger can give an added depth of flavor to a basic fermented hot sauce.
Lime and fresh ginger pair well together, and a little added lemongrass is nice too.
Turmeric, carrots and black pepper work well together. Carrots lend sweetness while turmeric and black pepper are rich in antioxidants and work synergistically together.
Hibiscus flowers, allspice and pineapple bring a floral note and pair beautifully with habañero chilis.