Fermented Pepper Sauces

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Smoke Blower
Original poster
Feb 24, 2017
I started fermenting peppers two years ago when I planted a bunch of serrano, jalapeno, and a couple poblano pepper plants with some space left in my raised beds.   It was a huge crop and ended up with several grocery bags full of peppers at the end of the year and I wasn’t even a fan of hot sauce.   I love buffalo wings but when I am out I typically order mild or medium hoping for flavor rather than just heat (I think its blasphemy to put BBQ sauce on a properly fried chicken wing by the way).    So man was I surprised how good the sauce came out.   That combo of peppers fermented for a couple months was unbelievable, I started eating it on everything.   It’s all flavor with a mild heat that isn’t heat for heat sake, it’s a little sour and salty, adds to mouth feel and pops on the tongue.   I ended up bottling off most of ferment by Christmas that year in 5oz woozy bottles and gave it away as presents.   I left about half a gallon fermenting throughout the winter and bottled it off around May.   That was even better and I had people that I gave the gifts out to asking for more.   I was able to give a couple refills (those bottles ain’t free you know) but I ran out of my stash early summer.  

So, of course I went overboard last spring and put in 72 pepper plants in the garden.   Mostly serrano and jalapeno, unfortunately only one poblano.   However, I also put in about a dozen tabasco, a dozen Thai Chili and a six pack each of Cayenne and Anaheim.   It wasn’t a bumper crop like the previous year, but I ended up with 8.5 gallons of peppers in fermenters.   With my process I am getting about a 80% yield on sauce per gallon of ferment when you factor in the loss of solids from the seeds and skins that don’t make it through the food mill and then add back in ~30% vinegar.   I missed Christmas this year and only got to process the first gallon and a half in February.   The serrano/jalapeno only mix came out good but not as good as last years (I pureed the mash on the first two this year and didn’t do that at all last year).   The second set I processed had cut up serrano/jalapeno/cayenne/Anaheim and the cayenne kinds stole the show and added that heat that was more than the flavor, but only slightly.   The last mix I processed was the all tabasco ones, and they came out with really just heat that overpowered the flavor.   I have shared it around and the guys that like heat thought it was great, but I was going for that flavor profile and missed it.  

I still have the five gallon bucket to process and it has mostly serrano/jalapeno with a much smaller percentage of cayenne (sliced up, not a mash), so I am hoping that comes out like last years.   I am going to have a ton of it, so I hope so.     

I have a couple half gallons of all Thai Chiles left and a small pint of Thai Chilis that has the 6 habanero's I ended up with after a rabbit destroyed the plant I put outside my fenced garden (found the rabbit dead a few feet away - that'll teach em to eat my peppers).  I don't even know what I am going to do with that (other than wear a full face respirator when I put in the blender).

I'm relatively new here and just saw this garden section of the forum and wasn’t sure if there was a big interest in pepper sauce (I read the other threads on it) on this site but I thought I’d post this while I am waiting for a conference call to start.   I’ll check back and if anyone is interested I can post some details on the process I have been following.  Here are a few pics:

I like the direction this is going!

Please, post more details of how you do it!  There are years that I end up throwing peppers away because I have so many.
Yep, I'm liking this also, especially the wise use of the airlocks.  I've always been a huge fan of Crystal (not so much of their competitor on Avery Island--too vinegary imho) and want to tinker around at home to see if I could come close to it.  Any and all info you care to share would be appreciated, o rotund one.  
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That is hard core!!! I did small batches of three different pepper and garlic combos in quart jars this year. I have full squeeze bottles in the fridge and several half cup jars of shelf stabilized sauce in the pantry. I look forward to following you through the journey.

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I too would like to see a recipe...JJ
Wow, that was quick.  Glad you guys are interested in this.   I have experimented a little bit with different methods and this is the one I am most satisfied with.  

  1. Pick your peppers and rinse the dirt off them, don’t scrub them.  The good bacteria you want (mainly lactobacillus) are already in your garden and on the peppers.

  2. Cut the heads off the peppers (use disposable powder free gloves).

    1. I cut the rest of the peppers up into slices for larger varieties, but the small tabasco’s can go right in the jar after you cut the heads off.

  3. Weigh the peppers on digital scale (I got a cheap one on AMZ for $15) and figure out your starting weight.

  4. Weigh out your percentage of salt that you go with (this is where you can experiment).  You need a minimum of 2% by weight but you can go anywhere from there within reason*. 

    1. There are different philosophies on salt, I have used Himalayan sea salt and Morton’s Canning and Pickling. Lots of people say not to use iodized because it can hurt the bacteria, but they are pretty robust.

    2. I used 3.5% this year, 2.5% last.  Next year I will most likely use 4%

  5. In a big glass bowl (don’t use reactive metal) mix the peppers and salt together using your hands (if the peppers are not crazy hot ones you can/should use your clean hands, it will add another type of bacteria to your mix – variety is good).

  6. Take a clean glass mason jar (or food grade plastic container) with an airlock and put it on the jar.  Fill the jar up to about 1.5 inches from the top with your peppers.

    1. Take a look at the pics above, I have a few examples.  You can get plastic lids for mason jars anywhere, cut a hole in it, and put rubber stopper (any hardware store should have them). 

    2. You should be able to get airlocks anywhere people sell beer/wine brewing supplies.  The beer distributor near me started selling that stuff last year (I paid $1.79 per airlock).  AMZ has them too.

  7. Leave the jar at room temp (65-85F) for at least 24 hrs.  The salt will pull a good bit of liquid out of the peppers.  Swirl the jar around a little to mix the salt up into the liquid.

  8. Once you don’t see any more liquid level increase (~ 24 hrs, kinda depends on a lot of things) fill the jar up with distilled water (~$0.99 a gallon) and swirl the rest of the salt around into solution.

    1. Leave about ¾ inch or a little more at the top, I have had airlocks overflow when more water gets pulled out of the peppers.

  9. Leave it out a room temp for a while, I am seeing that the longer it sits the more flavor you are going to get.

    1. You will see it actively bubbling within the first day, that means it’s working.  The lactobacillus are converting the free sugars to CO2 and alcohol with all kinds of good by products that drop the pH and free up all kinds of flavors.

  10. Periodically swirl the jar around to get it mixed.  I don’t like opening mine up to mix it because it opens the possibility of introducing yeast strains that grow in the salty environment (Kahm yeast is often cited).  They are typically not harmful but will impart a different flavor.  I’d say about half my ferments get infected, I just scoop it off the top when I process the peppers.

  11. When you think you have let the peppers go long enough (Like I said in my original post, I have let them go 2-3 months and the sauce was good, 6-8 was even better), I wouldn’t pull them for at least two weeks (again, opinions differ), put them in the fridge for a while (days, weeks, up to you). 

    1. The fermentation is still ongoing at this point, but it is slow due to lack of available sugars and the fridge will help mellow flavors out and make a better sauce.

  12. When you are ready, take the peppers out and put them into a blender or food processor.  Be careful depending on the pepper variety, you can pepper spray your whole family doing this with something as tame a serrano (trust me).  I am currently waiting for the weather to get above freezing for a couple days so I can process more out on the deck, with a fan blowing from behind me, while I am wearing a respirator…

  13. I use a food mill (a must if you grow tomatoes the way I do) to process the blended peppers.  This gets all of the seeds and most of the skins out of the liquid.  I run the mash that comes out the end back through 3 or 4 times to get the most flavor out of the peppers.  Keep all that liquid that was in the jar, it’s all good.

  14. I then weigh out the liquid and calculate by weight the amount of vinegar I am going to put in.  I have been using 30-33% in my experiments. 

    1. I have used a couple kinds of vinegar, I like apple cider the best (Sam’s actually had Apple Cider Vinegar with the mother still in it that I really liked).  White works well, red wine vinegar too, it’s up to you.

    2. I do very small (~ 2oz bowls) batches and taste them (have crackers handy in between taste tests (cleanse that pallet).   Then once I figure out what I like, I weigh the big jar and add the weighed out proportion of vinegar

  15. Back to the fridge.  The longer you leave it, the better the flavor develops.  I have always bottled some ASAP just so I have some to use, but the longer it sits the better (at least a couple days).

  16. Now, here you have a choice.  You can bottle it and start using it, or you can do some leg work and make this look professional.  The vinegar and pepper sauce will separate, that’s fine.  You can just shake the bottle when you use it. Your other option is to use an emulsifier to get the mixture to stay in suspension.  There are options on that, I will explain what I do.

    1. I bought xanthan gum on AMZ to use as an emulsifier.  It’s a natural plant extract, not a chemical and even organic certified foods have it in them (if your that kinda person).  I take the sauce and heat it up to around 150F (you guys all have thermometers around) and then pull out the immersion blender.  Run the blender in the pot and get a nice vortex going and sprinkle a tiny (I mean very tiny) amount of gum into the whirlpool.  Blend it and sprinkle a little more and turn off the heat.  If you put too much gum in, it will turn into a slime, so be careful.  Pull a little sauce out and put it in a small diameter glass jar where you can see it separate.  If it separates within a couple hrs you didn’t add enough, repeat the heating step and add more gum until you get it right.

  17. Once your done processing the sauce, put it in whatever containers you have.  I bought cases of 5oz hot sauce bottles on AMZ with lids and dasher caps for less than $20.  Put the rest in some mason jars in the beer fridge and refill your shaker bottle from it.

    1. I also bought shrink capsules to put over them that you use a hair dryer, again I made Christmas gifts out of these

    2. If you are into labeling, Avery labels sells wine bottle labels that are designed to go in and out of the fridge (Avery # 22809) that you can print on a decent laser printer.  My kids have come up with cool labels with our family photos on them.
Now a couple notes on what I wrote above:

  • There is a ton of info on the web on how to do this differently than I have laid out above, again this is what has been working for me.

  • The salt concentration you use is up to you, I found that even the 3.5% by weight that I used this year didn’t have a salty taste at all.  I actually added salt during step 16.

    • The amount of salt you use will effect what species of lactobacillus actually survives to ferment your sauce, so different salt levels in different ferments may end up tasting different and not just the salt taste, so there is a ton of room for experimentation in this.

  • I have spiked mine with garlic as well, do that at step 6 when you put your peppers in

    • One thing weird did happen with a batch of garlic once.  The garlic turned blue.  Found out that was a natural reaction when I used tap water that had too much copper in it.  Haven’t seen that since once I started using distilled water (although it could, I am sure there is copper in some of those processes)

  • For those of you that are really into probiotics, that’s exactly what you are making here.  If you don’t heat your sauce up to at least 140F for 5 minutes, even with the vinegar you are going to have live bacteria.  Therefore you need to keep your sauce in the fridge, you don’t want bottles exploding from ongoing fermentation.  I put all the sauce, even the pasteurized into the fridge.  Remember, you are not aseptically packaging your sauce so even cooked sauce can have bacterial growth in your jars/bottles.

  • If you skip the vinegar and heating step, you absolutely have to refrigerate the sauce and periodically release pressure.  You can leave the airlock on in the fridge if you have the room too.  You’ll need to shake that bottle up each time you use it but its really good too.  It will be a little more sour than the stuff with the vinegar, in a different way. 

  • I have had good results with store bought starters (Caldwell’s) that are sold for sauerkraut.  You would follow the mixing directions on the packet and put it in when you put the peppers in the jar (step 6 above).  This basically inoculates your ferment with ideal lactobacillus which overpower the naturally occurring bacteria and keep the ferment clean.

    • On the downside, they are not exactly cheap.  I think I paid $20 for a box of 6 packets.  I used some for kraut and some for pepper sauce

    • The other alternative that you have the second year is to use some liquid from you best looking jar (one that didn’t get any of the yeast growth is ideal) and spike it in during step 6.  That seemed to work for me this year.
Wow, that was long.   I hope this is what you guys were looking for.

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Great stuff! That's pretty much exactly the recipe I've been using. In addition, I usually have some fermented tomatoes on hand if I need to adjust heat. Green tomatoes for green sauce and red for red.

Definitely worth a point!
Thanks guys. MOI, I really like the idea of using tomatoes to cut the heat. I made a small batch of a Carolina vinegar sauce to go with a pork shoulder last month, I put the milder pepper sauce in there and it turned out great. Was thinking of making a big batch and using up some of those gallons of tomatoes.
Great detail with clear instructions. Thanks...JJ
This is something that never even occurred to me that I should try doing. Now that I've read this thread, I can't wait. Before my son left for college many years ago, he and I would buy half a dozen bottles of hot sauce at one time from various Internet hot sauce specialty shops. While we found a few that we liked, it was a quest that never quite found the holy grail. Perhaps making your own is a way to finally reach hot pepper sauce nirvana.

Thanks for your excellent posts!
Thanks, FB, for the easy to follow, yet detailed description. Wondering if you ever used toasted wood chunks in your mash: some commercial sauces are stored in wooden casks for fermentation, and I recall reading somewhere that this could be done to add another layer of flavor.
Glad to share guys, thanks! Groucho, I failed to mention the oak experiments I did, thanks for the reminder. Yes, I put several different types of wood in some ferments. Adds a little bit of flavor but I don't think I used enough. One thing you MUST remember if you do use them is to fish them out before you put the peppers in the food mill. I ruined the screen on the first one I did. I forgot they were in there...
I'll post some pics, but the 2016 ferments are done (although not all bottled) and I have 10 gallons fermenting of 2017 vintage (mix of ~30% Serrano, 30% jalapeno and 20% Poblano) . I canned quite a bit of sauce from 2016 peppers after my last post, I don't think I will be running out any time soon. Once I get some more shaker bottles done, I will see what I have left and post something on the trading thread. I've never done that but I wouldn't mind bartering some hot sauce for some good rubs or bbq sauce...
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