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.
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, the flavor will deepen, growing more complex and acidic as beneficial bacteria go to work.
Most of the world's most beloved hot sauces - from Tobasco to Sriracha - begin in the fermentation crock, and that's because fermentation gives the hot sauce a bright acidity and deep, complex flavor that develops slowly with time. And, fortunately, they're simple to make. You just toss hot, ripe chili peppers in a jar with plenty of garlic and other spices as it suits you, then cover them with salt water, and wait.
Fermentation is a magical and transformative culinary technique that not only helps to preserve foods that might otherwise spoil, but 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 good bacteria, just like yogurt, sauerkraut, or radish kimchi.
What's in it?
At its most basic, you'll only need three ingredients to make a fermented hot sauce: fresh peppers, salt, and water. These ingredients are the foundation of hot sauce. However, you can enhance the flavor and the complexity of your sauce by adding additional ingredients. Alliums, such as garlic and onions, as well as herbs, spices, and even fruit work well to enhance the flavor of homemade hot sauce.
- Fresh chilies are the foundation of a good homemade hot sauce, fermented or not. Fully ripe chilies are best for making a fermented sauce, so look for yellow, orange, or red chilies rather than green ones. Fresno peppers, aji amarillo, and scotch bonnets work well for fermented hot sauce as do fully ripe jalapeños, Thai chilies, or serranos. Sweet peppers, such as bell peppers, can be added for a milder sauce.
- Garlic can give your sauce its depth, and it provides a grounding note that tempers the fiery top notes of fresh chili pepper.
- Fruit can be a delicious addition to homemade hot sauce, too. Its natural sweetness can bring balance to the heat of chilies. Citrus, such as tangarine, lime or orange, is particularly delicious; however, many home cooks have good luck adding blueberries or even pineapple to their sauce.
- Spices and other aromatics can bring balance to your sauce. Ginger,turmeric, szechuan peppercorns, hibiscus flowers, and even allspice can work well depending on the full flavor profile you prefer.
- Salt is a necessary ingredient for most fermented foods. It's best to use a minimally processed salt with no additives for fermentation
What kind of equipment do you need?
At its heart, fermentation is simple. In order to make fermented hot sauce, as well as many other fermented foods, you'll need a few key pieces of equipment including a vessel and a lid. In the case of hot sauce, you'll want a high-speed blender, too.
- A fermentation vessel can be as simple as a mason jar. You can also purchase crocks and jars specifically designed for fermentation.
- An airlock or fermentation lid is helpful for allowing the carbon dioxide that naturally builds up during fermentation to escape, while preventing the free flow of oxygen which can contribute to mold formation.
- Glass fermentation weights are helpful, but not essential, and they help to keep your chilies submerged during fermentation, preventing the formation of mold and keeping your hot-sauce-to-be safe.
- A blender is necessary for puréeing the fermented chili peppers and turning them into homemade hot sauce. If you don't have a blender, you can work in batches to purée the peppers and brine in a food processor instead.
How to make fermented hot sauce
Making this hot sauce recipe, as with most fermented foods, is easier than you think and fairly straightforward. There are requires two primary steps: fermenting the chili peppers, and then blending the sauce.
- Prepare the ingredients. You'll want to prep the chilies and any other ingredients you have in advance. You'll rinse the chilies to remove any debris, and then cut away the stem end. Coarsely chopping the chilies can speed up fermentation, too.
- Mix the brine. A typical brine for fermentation is about 2%; however, for both hot and sweet peppers a higher level of salt is optimal, and you'll typically need to ferment these ingredients in a 3-3.5% brine. You can mix the salt and water together on the stove, and then allow it to cool to room temperature before adding it to the chilies.
- Combine the chilies and brine. After about two weeks, your chilies will be done fermenting and ready to make into sauce. You'll purée chilies and any other ingredients, as well as some of the brine together to form the sauce.
- Strain the finished hot sauce. If you prefer a thinner sauce, you can strain it if you like.
Tips for making hot sauce
While making fermented hot sauce is simple, there are a few tricks you want to keep in mind so that it comes out right every time. Paying attention to the quality and variety of ingredients as well as proper fermentation techniques can make a big difference in the quality of your sauce.
- Remove the seeds from the hot peppers if you prefer a milder hot sauce.
- Use a variety of fresh 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.
How to store your sauce
Fermented hot sauce is a living food that's rich in food enzymes and 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 long-term storage, but the high heat of canning will destroy the sauce's beneficial bacteria.
Some home cooks stabilize their finished hot sauce by adding apple cider vinegar. Adding vinegar lowers the PH of the sauce, increasing both its acidity and the ability to store it long term. If you wish to stabilize your hot sauce this way, you can purée the fermented peppers and, instead of mixing them with leftover brine, use apple cider vinegar instead. This forms a blended sauce, using both fermented peppers and vinegar.
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 away from direct sunlight for 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.
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.
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 apple cider 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.
While it's possible to use dried chilies and chili powder in a fermented hot sauce, it's not advisable to use only dried ingredients. Instead, consider adding a small portion of dried chilies or chili powder in addition to fresh chilies for successful fermentation.
Fermented hot sauce contains active, live bacteria, just like yogurt. For this reason, you must refrigerate your hot sauce when it's finished and tastes right to you. Otherwise, it will continue to ferment and grow increasingly sour if you leave it at room temperature.
Properly fermented, hot sauce will keep for at least 6 months in the fridge.
The beneficial bacteria in fermented foods are easily damaged, but not necessarily killed, by freezing. So, you can freeze your hot sauce and store it in the freezer for up to 1 year. But, it's best to keep it in the fridge where the temperature is less extreme.
Canning is an excellent way to preserve hot sauce; however, it involves high heat. And high heat kills the beneficial bacteria responsible for fermentation. As a result, canning will destroy any live cultures (as well as the benefits they may convey).
If you still wish to can your hot sauce, first test the PH using PH strips to ensure it's a safe level of acidity of at 4.6 or lower. Then follow the USDA's instructions for canning hot sauce.
Most hot sauces are thickened with commercial gums, such as xanthan gum. However, for this version, you can simply add less brine when you purée the fermented peppers.
Alternatively, you can strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve if it's already too thin, and or add more pepper mash.
Depending on the thickness of your hot sauce, you'll probably have leftover brine. This brine is delicious on its own, too: salty, spicy with a sour edge. It can give broth, soups, and stews a hot, acidic punch of flavor. It's also delicious used as a marinade for grilled chicken, especially in combination with chopped garlic and fresh herbs.
When fermenting peppers, or any other food or drink, there's a small risk that your mason jar or bottle may explode. That's because carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of fermentation.
If you're fermenting in a tightly sealed container, the carbon dioxide has nowhere to go and will build up in the jar, potentially leading to cracked, seeping, or (rarely) exploding jars.
To prevent your jar from exploding, use an airlock when fermenting. Lids that are designed for fermentation allow carbon dioxide to escape, so there's no risk of cracked or exploding jars.
Properly fermented foods are safe to eat. Your ferments should be free from signs of mold. Small isolated spots of mold can be removed; however, if a raft of mold develops that covers the surface of the brine or if your brine becomes thick and viscous, discard the contents of your jar.
If you're further concerned, you can also use PH strips to test the PH of the fermented peppers, their brine, and the finished hot sauce. The PH should be 4.6 or lower.