Around this time of year, as our Indian summer is winding down, there’s always a big burst of chile peppers from the garden. It seems like they know they’re going to sleep soon, so they put their all into producing pods before retreating into dormancy. I wouldn’t say my pepper plants are at the end of their season just yet, but as we creep closer to winter and our weather is (finally) cooling down, I’ve noticed the flowers are fewer and farther in between.
Chile pepper plants are perennials and in my mild climate (zone 10b) they start fruiting in spring, go gangbusters all summer and fall, and overwinter easily outside. I’ve been harvesting heaping bowls of hot peppers all year long among the Chinese Five-Color, Filius Blue, fish pepper, jalapeño, serrano, and habanero plants I keep in pots all over the yard.
Whatever wasn’t used fresh was laid out to dry, and with my last couple of pounds, I decided to preserve them a different way: by fermenting them into hot sauce.
Though I call this a hot chile sauce, you can actually keep the fermented product more of a paste (as pictured), or turn it into a thin and pourable hot sauce or Louisiana-style hot sauce.
The recipe also doubles/triples/quadruples easily, so if you find yourself flush with peppers, you can ferment a big batch and make a few different styles of hot sauce for yourself, or divide it into smaller jars for gifts. Homemade hot sauce is one of those things that people really delight in (assuming they like hot and spicy things), because, well, it’s not another jar of jam. (Not that there’s anything wrong with jam… but I’ve collected enough jam from crafty friends, wedding favors, and my own canning sessions to last through a few zombie apocalypses at this point.)
The key ratio to keep in mind is 2 percent salt of the total weight of the peppers. This ensures the proper balance of bacteria in the peppers, as the salt will be just enough to inhibit bad bacteria, but not so much that it prevents all the good bacteria from getting their ferment on. I recommend a sea salt, pickling salt, or kosher salt without any additives.
Now, what kind of peppers to use? That’s entirely up to you. I like a mash-up of all the different peppers from my garden (most of which are on the super spicy side), but you can choose to ferment only one variety at a time. This allows you to make a hot sauce that leans toward mild, fruity, or smoky, depending on what you use. You can tone down the flavor even more by adding a sweet (bell) pepper to the mash.
For different styles of sauce you can create once the peppers have fermented, read on!
Fermented Hot Chile Sauce
Makes 1 1/2 cups
3/4 pound fresh chile peppers
1/4 ounce sea salt
4 garlic cloves
Trim the stems from the peppers. If they don’t pull off easily, I like to leave the little green caps on the peppers (but still remove the long stems). The caps impart a subtle, earthy perfume to the final sauce.
Combine the peppers, salt, and garlic in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse mash. You can also mince the peppers by hand, but I find that a food processor extracts more liquid from the pods.
Pour the pepper mash (and all the liquid) into a quart jar. Tamp down with a spoon to expel more liquid from the bits and pieces, and cover the jar with a lid. You want to allow the fermentation gases to escape, so don’t seal it tightly — I simply leave a canning lid on (without the band) to keep out flies. (A kitchen towel or several layers of cheesecloth also works to cover the jar.)
Store the jar at room temperature out of direct sunlight, but in a spot where you’ll see it every day. Stir it up with a clean utensil once a day.
When you start to see bubbles inside the jar, that’s a sign that fermentation is actively taking place.
The peppers will slightly expand and continue to release liquid as they ferment. If your mash doesn’t seem “juicy” enough to keep most of the peppers sitting in liquid, you can add a few spoonfuls of filtered water to the jar, but keep it light — you don’t want to dilute the hot sauce too much.
If you start to see a white film on the surface of the mash (a sign of lactic acid bacteria thriving in there), you can either skim it off (if it’s thick) or stir it in (if it’s only small patches), and start stirring the mash at least twice a day to keep it from coming back. The film is harmless health-wise and forms when the peppers are exposed to oxygen on the surface (which is why frequent stirring, or keeping them submerged in liquid, is important).
Depending on the ambient temperature of your room, it can take anywhere from one week to four weeks for the peppers to ferment. Warmer temperatures will help them ferment faster. Generally, I know it’s ready when the mash doesn’t smell as spicy (like burns-off-your-nose-hairs spicy) and starts smelling sweet and sour (while still having a spicy kick). It’s a strong yet pleasant smell, and you’ll notice at the end of the week (or up to four weeks), the peppers will soften and break down further. Don’t be afraid to taste it!
At this stage, you’re ready to process the peppers into a hot sauce. If you like your sauce with a bit more body, you can puree it in a blender (seeds and all) until smooth. It takes on a slightly chunky, sriracha-like texture that’s more suitable for spooning onto food.
If you like a thin, pourable sauce, you can strain the peppers through a fine sieve, a food mill, or a few layers of cheesecloth to separate the liquid from the solids. Bottle the liquid and you have your very own hot sauce. (I recommend fermenting at least a couple pounds of peppers to produce a decent amount of sauce this way.)
If you like a tangy Louisiana-style hot sauce (think Tabasco), simply measure out the liquid you just strained and add about one-third to one-half its amount in vinegar. You can use any vinegar here: wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, rice vinegar, cider vinegar, or plain white vinegar. Each one will give a slightly different flavor profile to the finished hot sauce.
And if you feel your hot sauce could use a little zest or a touch of sweetness, feel free to adjust it before bottling — maybe all it needs is a splash of vinegar or a spoonful of sugar. Once the flavor is to your liking, keep the hot sauce in the fridge to slow down the rate of fermentation.