Tuesday 24 March 2020

Fermented Hot Sauce

I love hot sauce! As someone who eats spicy food every day, hot sauce can really make a dish. For spice lovers, the key to happiness is having a variety of different hot sauces. At least I think so. I've never felt there was a king hot sauce to rule them all. Certain sauces are good for certain things. Having a selection of different sauces is the ticket. Experimenting with variations of fermented hot sauce is the best way to perfect your own. You can be so creative! 

This post is related to a recent post that delves deep into lacto-fermenting vegetables and fruit. I recommend referring to it if you care to learn more about this fascinating process. In this example I'm going to make a fermented hot sauce using a variety of different chili peppers and garlic. There's two whole heads of garlic in this one batch! The cloves from one head are fermented with the chilies and the cloves from another are sliced, toasted in oil and blended into the sauce with some of the oil for flavour and texture. This will help you to get an idea of how the process works. I've been busy experimenting with different flavour profiles so I'll share those in this post as well. I hope that this inspires you to try this on your own. It's fun, easy and delicious. All you need is patience and an appreciation for flavour. 

For your very first hot sauce, I recommend doing something simple. Once you familiarize yourself with a couple of batches you'll get a better sense of what works and how you can play around with the ingredients. The demo in this post is a perfect way to start. Chili and garlic is a classic combination and tends to make a "good on everything" sauce. You can use any chili peppers you want! Use your favourites. Remember that most of the heat (capsaicin) in a pepper is found in the seeds and the membrane inside. For a pepper like a habanero or a scotch bonnet, the heat is very intense. You can remove the seeds and membranes and still end up with a very spicy hot sauce. It really depends on your tolerance and preference. If you're not sure what you can handle, I implore you to start with a milder batch and use that to gauge how you can improve. I happen to be a fiend for spice and my tolerance and appreciation for it is definitely on the extraordinary end of the spectrum. I happen to keep all the seeds and membrane in my batches. It's your call to make (you're the boss of your sauce). Whatever you do, PLEASE wear protective gloves. When working with this many chili peppers at once, it's not worth the risk. That spicy irritant will spread from your fingers to anywhere you touch including your face, eyes, and you don't even want to think about using the bathroom like that. Trust me on the gloves. 

For this sauce I used a combination of different chili peppers varying from very mild to very hot. Among them are scotch bonnets, jalapeño, hot banana pepper, shishito and 2 other varieties that weren't labeled at the market so I'm not 100% sure. Use whatever you like! How much do you need? Enough to fill the jar fairly tightly. So that depends entirely on the contents you choose

For my hot sauce experiments I've been using a ¼ gallon jar (32 oz/4 cups). It doesn't need to be sterilized, but make sure it's nice and clean. Then pack your jar with your peppers and crushed garlic cloves. Roughly chop your peppers to expose their flavours (and make them easier to pack). You don't need to cut them into small pieces. It's all going into a blender at the end. 

Next step is to make a brine using 1 tbsp of salt to 2 cups of water. Your salt cannot contain iodine (so no table salt) or this won't work. Kosher or sea salt works great. Personally I prefer to use fine sea salt because it dissolves the fastest. The water you use has to be clean enough to drink safely. So for me, that's tap water. Depending where you live you may want to use bottled water. Let's review:

 1 tbsp salt : 2 cups of water

This ratio is important because you need just enough salt to kill any "bad" bacteria present in whatever you ferment but not enough salt to kill the "good" bacteria that makes this whole process possible. 

Then top off your jar with the salt-water brine. The idea here is you want to submerge everything in the jar under the brine. But be prepared, it will want to float:

You'll need to add a weight to keep the top of the contents under the brine. If they are left exposed to air then it can spoil and ruin your entire batch. Don't use anything metal as a weight. During the fermentation process the brine will become increasingly acidic and it would take on a metallic flavour in your hot sauce. Avoid using wood either as it's porous and can also spoil. Glass, ceramic or pyrex will work best. I like to use a little ramekin that I fill with brine at the top and that works very well. 

I haven't tried it personally but I've read that you can fill a sealable, plastic bag with water and use that in a pinch. If you're really picky, you can even buy fermentation weights online.

Screw the lid on but not airtight. Leave it a little loose but so that no dust or anything can get in. 

Voilà! You have your very own batch of hot sauce fermenting!

Day 1

Keep your jar somewhere out of direct light and at room temperature. Place it on a disposable towel or in a bowl and replace as necessary. As it ferments, tiny bubbles of Co2 gas will develop in the jar. Enough gas in the jar will create pressure. This is why we leave the lid just a little loose. If needed, the gas can push excess brine up through the lid and it will run down the sides and makes a mess (unless you're prepared with a disposable towel or a bowl).

Even with that precaution, you'll still need to unscrew the lid completely to expel all built up gas once or twice a day (although probably not necessary on the very first day). This process is called "burping" and it's important because if you don't, enough gas could build up to break the jar, cause a big mess and ruin your project. So don't skip this step.

Day 3

At first it will smell fresh and kinda salad-y. After the first couple of days, anything naturally green will dull into a greyer shade. The brine will start to get cloudy (that's totally normal and harmless). The flavour will start to get more sour and this will reflect in the aroma.

Day 6

You may even see some harmless yeast growth in the brine. So long as your contents are kept submerged under the brine and nothing is poking out, exposed to air, you shouldn't have any mold concerns. Mold tends to be fuzzy, a distinct colour and raised. If you see a whitish film develop on top or inside the brine, that's kahm yeast and it's totally harmless. Sometimes, but not always, garlic will start to turn kind of teal or blue. That happened in this example so you can see. It may seem alarming at first, but once again, that's harmless and natural. I'm not sure how to explain it and haven't had the easiest time looking it up myself. But don't worry if that happens to your batch too. It's all good! 

Day 10

After about Day 10 the Co2 production may start to slow down and you may not have to "burp" the jar as much. This is a good sign that your ferment is almost ready. At that phase the aroma will start to give you an idea of what flavour your sauce will have. There will be so much more flavour than you started out with!

Day 14

I recommend you let your hot sauce ferment for 2-3 weeks. It will take patience but it will be worth it. It will really develop the flavours and they will get sour, mingle together, mellow into one and develop little complexities. When fermenting little pickley things I only go for a few days to a week. Also, vegetables and fruit tend to soften as they ferment in brine. I prefer pickley things to have some crunch but if you're going to blend up everything into a smooth sauce that's no problem. 

After 2-3 weeks and you're satisfied with your ferment, it's time to make your sauce!

When you blend the ingredients, you'll need to trickle in some oil. We'll be passing our puréed sauce through a fine sieve. The oil will give the sauce a bit of body and a more luxurious texture. This is the perfect opportunity to add more flavour! 

Slice up at least 8 cloves of garlic (I usually use a whole head, like I did here). Then add them to a small saucepan with ½ a cup of a neutral tasting oil with a high smoke point (like canola or vegetable) over medium-low heat. Gently toast the garlic until lightly golden. Frying the garlic will flavour the oil while getting more delicious and crispy.

If you didn't know this already, garlic burns very easily. So keep a close eye on it. If it burns the flavour will be ruined and you'll have to start over again. The garlic will continue to cook for a little while even after you take them out of the oil so I remove them just before they get to the golden colour I'm after.


Remove the garlic from the oil and reserve. Allow the oil to cool down for a few minutes. 

In the meantime, empty the contents of your jar into a sieve over a bowl to catch the brine. Reserve the brine. Be careful, it will be full of capsaicin and very spicy. If you get it on your bare fingers it could burn and spread. 

In a blender, add the fermented chilies and garlic, the toasted garlic, 1 cup of the brine and ½ cup of white vinegar. Pulse in short bursts before blending continuously into a smooth purée. Adjust the levels of brine and vinegar to taste.  

Gently and steadily pour in 3-4 tbsp of the garlic oil (up to a ¼ cup). Personally I like to shoot for just under ¼ cup otherwise it gets a little too thick for the bottles I like to use (with stoppers). 

I always add a big pinch of salt at this stage and then give it a taste. Adjust to your liking. I didn't in this case, but I've added sugar to some of my hot sauce experiments and depending what you're making, this would be the stage to do that as well. That's to taste but 2-3 tbsp is a good gauge. 

When you're happy (and hopefully excited) with the flavour of your hot sauce, pass it once or twice through a sieve and discard the solid pulp.

Clean the bottles/jars of your choosing and fill them with your fresh, homemade fermented hot sauce. I really recommend a funnel for this step. 

I ordered my bottles online and the style came with these little plastic stoppers. These are great because they control the amount of sauce that comes out. This way you can liberally shake and get the exact amount you want. I find that if I use a full ¼ cup of oil in the blending phase it starts to become a hassle to get out of the bottle. If you're not using bottles with stoppers, you may want to disregard that advice. 

I really like the addition of oil because it really perfects the texture of the sauce. So far I've only ever toasted garlic in the oil before I add it, but there's so much more you can try including ginger, spices, onion and other flavourings! You can be so creative and experimental. That's my favourite part about hot sauce making.

Store your hot sauce in the fridge and consume within a few months. The flavour may continue to develop a little but there's enough lactic acid, salt, capsaicin and vinegar to preserve your sauce for a while. Your sauce will continue to ferment in the fridge but at a much, much slower rate. There will also be natural separation so give it a good shake before each use. 

That's all you need to do! It's that easy. Honestly the hardest part is the waiting. It takes some patience but it's a lot of fun and these make fantastic gifts for your family and friends. Homemade hot sauce that you fermented yourself? Come on! I would love that as a gift. lol

Now that you're familiar with how this works, here are some other fermented hot sauces that I've made to help give you inspiration. This has been a new learning experience for me so I'll also share some things I've learned in the process.

Habanero-Garlic Sauce

This was the very first hot sauce I made. For my first experiment I kept it really simple. I only fermented habanero peppers, nothing else. I kept all the seeds in so it was searingly hot (which I love) but admittedly it masked the flavour of the toasted garlic and the oil. For my first sauce, the texture was perfect! It was sensationally tasty as well. I was so happy with how it turned out and this was the one that started it all! lol

1) Jalapeño, Garlic, Sweet Onion, Scallion & a lil' Scotch Bonnet with fresh cilantro and lime juice at the end

2) Hot Banana Pepper, Pineapple, Ginger & a lil' Habanero

My second and third batches I made during the same time. I generally referred to them as my green and yellow sauces. In both of these batches I omitted the oil as an experiment. I prefer it with the oil. Without it, the texture was basically that of Tabasco sauce. Not bad, but I prefer it a little more clingy and a little less runny. Live and learn!

The flavour of the green sauce turned out really nice. I added a couple of scotch bonnets for extra kick because I love spicy heat, although this was one of my milder batches. It's also my only batch where I blended something fresh into it afterward (cilantro and lime juice). It was good but ultimately redundant because it's nice for a couple of hours and then afterward you couldn't really taste them at all. The lime and cilantro quickly became preserved as well and lost that "freshness" that I was aiming for. Otherwise very tasty and perfect for Mexican and Texan dishes. 

The yellow sauce was divine and the one I most want to make again. It was my first hot sauce with a sweet fruit as one of the main ingredients. It was interesting because the bacteria consumes most if not all of the natural sugar and converts it into lactic acid. So the natural sweetness is completely gone. It had more of a sour pineapple flavour but still unmistakably pineapple. In my mind it still registered as a little sweet because of it. The sharp pepperiness of the hot banana pepper went really well with it. I added a couple of habaneros for extra kick but I didn't blend them into the sauce because they were fire-engine-red and I wanted a pure yellow sauce. I even added some turmeric to the final product. The ginger was really nice too especially with the pineapple. Pineapple and ginger both ferment really well. I recommend using them either or both together. 

This is the only batch of hot sauce that I've come up with that didn't include garlic. The next time I make it, I'm going to add oil for texture but I don't think I'll toast garlic in it. Maybe some ginger and a few peppercorns instead. I'm still figuring that part out. I just loved how pineapple and ginger were the star flavours while still remaining quite spicy. So flavourful!

Caribbean-inspired Hot Sauce

This one was special to me because I used scotch bonnet as a main flavour contender and it's my favourite chili pepper of them all. It's very popular in Caribbean dishes so it inspired me to make a Caribbean-inspired flavour profile. This is where I started to get really creative and complex. The ingredient list includes scotch bonnet peppers, mango, ginger, garlic, scallions, lime zest, fresh thyme, peppercorns and allspice berries. This is also the first batch where I used sugar and it worked really well to bring out the mango flavour out of all that fire. Scotch bonnet peppers are incredibly hot so all of the other flavours are more supporting notes. I recommend fermenting strips of lime zest (with as little pith as possible) for flavour rather than trying to squeeze in fresh juice at the end. Yes, you can also add whole spices to your hot sauce ferment! It's another great way to add flavour. I always picked them out before blending though. Just as a personal precaution. Although running it through a sieve at the end may take care of it anyway. Better safe than sorry! This is my spiciest sauce to date but it had so much flavour too. 

Thai-inspired Hot Sauce

This one was a lot of fun and the product of a grocery run at a massive Asian market in town before it closed. I fermented a mix of red and green Thai (or Bird's Eye) chilies, shallots, coconut, galangal, ginger, garlic, Thai basil, lemongrass and star anise. I added sugar to this batch as well which worked perfectly. This may have been my most flavourful sauce. It was almost as if each ingredient was in a line up for you to taste as each one blossomed one after the other on the tongue. The only issue with this batch is a problem I've had with two batches so far and this was the first. Because this batch contained a lot of hearty, robust dense ingredients like coconut, ginger, galangal, lemongrass in particular. When there is too much of this texture, it can lead to an undesirable thickness. Perhaps another round of sieving the final product would have helped. I'm still figuring it out. It tasted phenomenal it was just a little on the heavy/grainy side. I also removed the star anise before blending. I don't recommend fermenting coconut into a sauce. As intriguing as it seemed, it was the least identifiable flavour and only contributed to the texture issue. Imperfect, but not at all ruined. 

Also, a great tip, if you have a batch that has a lot of little seeds or small floaty bits that don't want to stay submerged, you can cut a circle from a cabbage leaf and use that as a lid to place under your weight. It will keep everything submerged underneath as you can see below. 

Smoky Fermented Hot Sauce

This one was a fun experiment! I mean they all are, but this one especially. I love smoky and spicy together. Although I don't find it that spicy, chipotle is one of my favourite flavours (smoked, dried jalapeño). Last January I got some dried chilies as a birthday present and among them was chipotle and smoked/dried habanero (would love to know the Spanish word for that if anyone knows!). I got to thinking about what it would be like to make a fermented version of these. Bacteria needs natural starch and sugar to feed on and ferment. But both of those in a chili pepper are depleted when they're smoked and dried. It doesn't give the bacteria much to feed on so they don't ferment well. It got me thinking, what if I made a hot sauce with the fresh versions (plus garlic, of course) and added the smoked/dried versions as well for flavour. It was spectacular! One of my favourites. I will definitely be trying this method again. Surprisingly, the smoked chilies turned the brine the colour of black coffee. That happened within the first 24 hours! The only issue with this batch is I had that thick/grainy issue like my Thai-inspired sauce. I think after 2½ weeks of sitting in a brine I expected the dried chilies to rehydrate and soften but they didn't end up getting that soft. So the batch had more of that robust quality to it and the texture was a little too brawny. Next time I'll be more careful about how much I add. At the time I was very eager to add the smoky flavour and ensure it was there. 

Again, I really love hot sauces and making my own fermented varieties has ignited a passion within me. I hope it does the same for you! When peaches are back in season in late summer I want to feature them in a batch. I'm definitely redoing the banana pepper/pineapple/ginger one (only perhaps with Scotch Bonnet this time instead of habanero). I've only just discovered the smoked pepper treatment and how well that works. There will be more for sure. 

If you have any questions, please leave them for me below. I'll do my best to answer them. On that note, I'd like to reaffirm something: I love very spicy hot sauce, exceptionally so. My hot sauces are akin to that. I don't want that to turn you off from this if you have a normal to non-existent spice tolerance. Ways that you can make a batch milder are to use milder peppers, remove some or all of the membranes and the seeds, use more aromatic flavourings like onion, garlic, ginger, fruit, herbs, bell pepper, carrot, whatever you want! You are the indisputable boss of your sauce. You can make it anyway you like! 

Happy Fermenting!

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