Hot Saucy: 3 Methods for Making Fermented Hot Sauce

We’re a saucy, fermenting bunch, here at Mountain Feed. So many of us are gardeners, fermenters, foodies, and the like, that there are always some interesting things afoot in garden and kitchen alike. And these fascinations feed one another; garden and kitchen, microbes and the transformation of one thing into another. Like friendship itself, which calls forth the best in us, the projects and passions of our friends and co-workers inspire us to create more of that fire in our own kitchens and lives.

So here’s a little window, into some of what we do when we are not at work.

Fermented Hot Sauce: Peppers, Salt and Time.

Several of us make fermented hot sauce. Lactic acid fermentation is such a simple thing, that if we were to share everyone’s recipe alone, they would look a lot alike: Peppers. Salt. Time. But we all find ways to personalize the process, and make it our own. Here’s a look at just a few of our fabulous employees, and how they like to do it.

CHASE'S "BURN HOT SAUCE" - This firecracker is sparkin', proceeding full speed ahead to launch his own fermented foods business, featuring none other than his own BURN Hot Sauce. Working hand in hand with his beloved and some local growers, he's on a roll! See the story of Chase's BURN hot sauce below.

KARLA'S "CRY BABY" - Karla is the original resident fermentista in residence down here at the Feed and Farm, and over the years, she's learnt a few tricks. She's happy to share them with you, though the results may leave you in tears.

DAVE'S "WHATEVER'S RIPE" APPROACH - Dave is a wild card; you never know what might come out of his mouth, or his kitchen. Whatever it is, it's likely to be full of lively, full of fire, but tempered with the wisdom of the earth and growing things. Just like his hot sauce. A little different every time, the sauces reflect a dedication to seasonal eating and peak freshness. How does he do it? Read on.

Chase's "Burn Hot Sauce"

Chase joined the Mountain Feed team some months back, and he’s quickly made himself at home in the garden and nursery.

He’s got a few projects on the side, as well, as many of us do. Just a little side thing, you know, growing 300 pepper plants, using space beside a greenhouse he helped build, doing work-trade on a local farm in exchange for the use of growing space. In his spare time. Oh, and launching a business, with an innovative, collaborative business model.

As he described to me in detail just what he was doing, I had to shake my head. Not in surprise, exactly, because you can see that he’s an enthusiastic fellow from the moment that you meet him—no, the head shaking was somehow in recognition. 

Of the way that dedication feeds us even as it asks more of us.

Of the way that doing what we love can create a certain kind of momentum, that propels us forward, further and then further still beyond what we thought we were capable of. 

Long hours, sore backs, starry eyes.

But I was talking about hot sauce. Chase and his hot sauce.

A Local Food Business Coming to Life

Aside from working full hours at Mountain Feed, Chase has created time on the side for some big dreams. Working with Old House Farm in Soquel, he and his girlfriend Amanda have a vision of producing their own fermented hot sauce.

Well, it’s more than a vision, it’s a delicious and spicy reality, but the vision is in the way that they aim to work closely with local farms, growing produce on-site, so that hot sauce and the like can be sold at farmers’ markets under the farms’ own label. Because of the way food laws work, the regulations differ as to where a product can be sold, based in part on where it was grown and prepared.

Those Crazy Kids Are Going Big!

So, this season, those crazy kids started 300 Serrano and Hungarian Wax pepper plants from seed. Grew them on until they were old enough, planted them out, and tended them all season.

In the meantime, they’ve been taking field trips, to places like The Cultured Pickle, up in Berkley, to tour the facilities of a fermented food company that’s making it work.

They have rented commercial kitchen space, and invested in several stainless steel commercial grade fermenters. They’re going big! They expect to make 19,000 4oz bottles of hot sauce this year, or about 600 gallons. Wish them luck!

Chase's Recipe

And oh, would you like the secret recipe?

It’s an 5% salt brine by weight. Translated into the more familiar tablespoons and quarts, that’s about 3 TBS of sea salt per quart of water.

The peppers, either red Serrano or Hungarian Hot Wax, are sliced in half, then packed into the 52 gallon fermenters and submerged beneath the brine. They ferment for 3 months and are then blended up. seeds and all, and bottled with a small quantity of citric acid to increase the acidity and shelf life. Burn Hot Sauce, in a little dropper bottle. It’s intense, glowing orange and full of fire. Just a drop’ll do ya! So, so good. Look for it soon, at a market near you…

Want to learn more about selling your homemade food at market? See our Cottage Food Bill article.

Karla's "Cry Baby"

She’s another one, whose motto is, go big or go home. If you’ve ever come to any of our classes where she teaches everything from beekeeping to canning to fermentation.

Recently graduated from Bauman College, and brimfull of a new and deeper understanding of food science and nutrition, she’s no stranger to fermented hot sauce. My favorite concoction of hers from last season was called Cry Baby.

It Might Leave You in Tears...

Made with a 6% salt brine from the red jalapenos that stuck around to ripen late on the plant, it was gaspingly good, rich and red and hot as glowing embers. The fermented jalapeno recipe of hers that we posted last month could very easily be a hot sauce recipe, too. Left to ferment for anywhere from a week to 6 months, the finished peppers are then blended with just enough of the brine to get a desired consistency. 

How Karla Stores Her Hot Sauce

A fermented hot sauce must be stored in the fridge, or else have vinegar or citric acid cooked into it in order to make it shelf stable. 

Karla keeps some of her blends fresh in the fridge, with no additives, and to others adds vinegar at a rate of 1/4 cup per quart for longer-term storage.

For added safety, she cans the sauces that are to be stored, adding the requisite acid, and then using the water-bath canning method. She processes the sauce in 8 ounce mason jars for a full 10 minutes. This effectively kills off all of the bacterial activity, making the sauces shelf-stable, but no longer probiotic.

While individually fermented quarts and half-gallons supply a steady stream of hot sauce for immediate use in her kitchen, larger batches bubble away for longer periods of time in big 2.5 gallon jars, with Perfect Picklers on top, and in the Ohio 3 gallon Fermentation Set. It’s always a race between cucumbers and pickles, which will get which fermentation vessel.

Karla's Unique Take on Fermented Peppers

“Because they have so much sugar,” she explained, “they often ferment super vigorously in the first few days of a ferment. One year, I shredded them up, and the crock never ‘boiled over’, I think because there was no trapped air space. Even when you halve the peppers, they still trap a certain amount of air. Shredding the peppers treats them more like kraut, increasing the surface area and using the water in the peppers themselves as part of the liquid in the brine, which concentrates the flavors even more. It worked great! I’ve never done it since, though,” she laughed, “because who wants to take the time to grate 3 gallons of peppers? It’s brutal! The fumes! Even with a food processor, or by hand…”

She trails off, laughing, thinking of the eye-watering fumes that erupt from attempts to grate or food-process hot peppers. 

It’s true, handling these fiery peppers is an eye-watering enterprise. That’s why our girl always wears gloves to handle hot peppers, though of course there is little to be done for the airborne fumes, save wearing goggles.

Dave's "Whatever's Ripe" Style

Our friend and co-worker Dave also grows and ferments his own peppers. And he, too, has his own unique way of doing it. Rather than focus on single-variety sauces, Dave’s method is based on what is ripe that very day. He heads out into his wild and sprawling garden and picks whatever is at the peak of ripeness.

Jalapenos, Habaneros, Anaheims, and more—straight into the fermenter they go, topped with a 5% salt brine.

Some of His Techniques

The size of the batch depends on the size of the harvest; he makes batches as small as a quart, and as large as 3 gallons. Perfect Picklers atop mason jars, or ceramic crocks are his vessels of choice.

The peppers are left whole, with just a slit down one side to let the brine into the peppers and lessen their tendency to float. A ceramic weight keeps the peppers submerged beneath the brine during their long ferment, which can be anywhere from 3-6 months.

When he’s ready, he lifts the dripping peppers from their brine and places them in another bowl, where he uses an immersion blender to blend them into a chunky sauce.

Getting Two Sauces from One Batch

Depending on the batch, he may add some of the brine back into the sauce, or a pinch of salt. This way, he gets two sauces out of one fermentation, one salsa-style, and the other more in the vein of a Tapatio sauce; thinner and with more of a vinegar tang, for splashing rather than spooning.

Storing the Sauce

Like Karla, he divides his batches in half, with one part going straight into the fridge, just as it is. The other half he sends through a food mill, to create a smoother texture, and adds vinegar, at a rate of 2/3 sauce to 1/3 vinegar. 

All of Dave’s sauces remain alive and biologically active, because he does not heat-process the finished product.

If a fermented product has not been water-bath canned, the safest place to store it is in the fridge. Even the addition of acid alone is not enough to render a sauce entirely shelf-stable, since the lactic-acid bacteria that teem in the ferment are acid-loving by nature, and will continue to be active in even an acidic, airless environment.

Over to you...

Even within the constraints of such a simple recipe, you can see a fair amount of difference in the way that these three feeders approach their fiery sauces. Fermentation allows for these variations, within the limits of safety and taste, in a way that leaves room for the individual to develop their own personal methods.

Follow these basic guidelines, and pay attention to the results. Fermentation is an extremely safe method of preservation. Trust your nose, and trust your methods. If you’re ever in doubt about the safety or process of your ferment, you can always ask an expert. We’re happy to help. See more of our fermentation articles and recipes here.

This article was published as part of our September 2015 journal.