I don't know why I hadn't gotten into fermenting before last fall, but when I did I really went wild over all the possibilities. It started, I suppose, when we picked up a jar of Bubbies pickles in the summer. They were so good - lacking the vinegar smell and taste of every pickle I had ever eaten before. Fermenting produces lactic acid, which doesn't have the sharp aroma of vinegar. I first made dill pickles with cucumbers I found at a farmer's market, then came yellow cauliflower pickles, Middle Eastern turnip with beet pickles, multicolored carrot pickles. I sliced up some red jalapenos and fermented those in a brine. They were OK, but when I found out how hot sauce is made, I knew I had to learn how to make it at home.
Fermented hot sauce starts out much like sauerkraut, the peppers de-stemmed are then crushed, salt is added, but no brine. Certain lactic acid bacteria (mostly Lactobacillus plantarum) ferment the peppers. Salt prevents undesireable molds and yeasts from also fermenting the peppers. Salt also draws moisture out of the peppers, resulting in their total submergence under their own juices. Thus, oxygen doesn't come into contact with the pepper solids, which also prevents undesireable boogers. The lactic acid produced from fermentation prevent the growth of botulism bacteria. Fermenting cabbage to make sauerkraut requires about 3% salt by weight. But the salt quantity for pepper ferments can be between 6% and 14% This is because pepper ferments are aged at room temperature for a sufficient amount of time for the lactic acid to liquify the meat of the peppers. Kahm yeast would grow on the peppers during the long aging proces if not for the large amount of salt, while saurkraut is kept cool in basements or refrigerated after fermenting to keep Kahm yeast at bay.
Tabasco Sauce is perhaps the forerunner of all fermented hot sauces. It was first produced in Louisiana just after the Civil War by Edmund McIlhenny, who was trying to resurrect the wreckage of his family farm. It is still produced to this day - the only ingredients are vinegar, salt and Tabasco peppers. Except for the distilled vinegar, it is raw and unheated. I'm not as fond of Louisiana-style hot sauces as I am of Mexican hot sauces, but use it once in a while. The aroma unmistakable. Their production is illustrated in this old TV show. The reason they still make it old style is because it is still a family-owned and run business. If they were owned by an outfit such as Kraft or Beatrice Foods, I'm sure they would cut some corners, add some guar gum, outsource their chile peppers, etc.
I grew up in Southern California in the 1950s and '60s and everybody enjoyed Mexican food. We had three different brands of Mexican hot sauce that I remember, which we So Cal Wonder-Bread suburbanites called taco sauce: La Victoria (1917), Pico Pica (1937), and El Pato (1914). While El Pato is now imported from Mexico, I believe these so-called Mexican Hot Sauces were all made in California back when I was a kid. Mexico's famous Cholula hot sauce has only been made for "three generations", so I wonder if fermented hot pepper sauce is an American invention?
I count four types of commercially-made hot sauce today: Louisiana, Mexican (California), Carribean, and what I call Chili Head. I don't count any South Asian sauces, such as the phenominal Sriacha, which comes from California, because South Asians prefer fresh chili pastes made at home or ready made at the local grocers.
Commercially made chili-head sauces are a recent phonomen. They are likely made with the hottest available chilis and have unmistakable brand names such as Daves Insanity, Blair's Death, Ass Kickin', Ring of Fire, Pain is Good, Crazy Mother Pucker, etc. Chili heads like to see how much hotness they can take. The Naga Ghost Chili from India is currently the world's hottest, but it wasn't so long ago that the Trinidad Scorpion was king. Chili heads still argue over which one is really the hottest. Check out this video of a howlie Naga seed seller enjoying a single chili.
I'm into plain old Mexican hot sauce, though. I like its thickness and the fact that it isn't super hot. Last October, a local certified organic grower had a u-pick for $1.50 a pound. There were lots of end-of season goodies still available, amongst which were some beautiful serrano chilis. Looking back, I was stupid not to have picked more than a pound. There were so many other things to pick, though. I wasted a lot of time picking tiny Thai Nam Prik birdseye chilis. Didn't even get a half a pound of those and I spent a lot of time picking them.
To ferment chiles, they first need to be stemmed, then crushed. Most examples I've seen on the web showed grinding the chilis in a food processor or blender. This, to me introduces too much oxygen into the ferment, which can be bad for color and help the wrong kind of beasties grow in the mash. I decided to try and grind them in my Victoria corn mill. These mills are plated with tin, so don't rust yet are food safe.
I slacked off the adjustment so that the seeds wouldn't be crushed and the peppers came out great! I got big flakes of skin and lots of juice because they were crushed rather than chopped. I then put a quart-sized canning jar on the scale, zeroed it out, added the pepper mash, then added 10% by weight of sea salt. I let it sit for while to let the salt draw out moisture, then stirred it and pushed down on the chiles until all the solids were submerged under the liquid.
The Victoria mill easily crushed the peppers without aerating them
After about a day and a half, it started fermenting. All the solids floated to the top, out of the liquid. I moved the whole thing to a pint jar and cut out a piece of semi-thick plastic bag which I could use to cover the chiles to keep them submerged. There had been way too much headspace with quart jar. Too much headspace means too much oxygen! I kept the pepper mash on a shelf in my desk at home, where I work. It's dark and warm there next to the computer. Twice a day or so, I loosened the jar lid to let carbon dioxide gas escape.
This went on for ten days or so, after which the fermenting activity ceased, but I needed to let it age for at least three months. By the way, the folks who make Tabasco Sauce age their pepper mash in wooden barrels for up to three years! After the three months were up and it was now winter, I spooned the mash into a quart jar and stirred it for about five minutes or so each day. This is to break up the pulp. Pulp action lasted for another three weeks or so.
I passed the mash, about four tablespoons at a time, through a #20 mesh with a spatula. The sieve is a Keene Classifier and I normally use it when I grind dry corn for cornmeal. It's somewhat coarse. Many pepper sauce makers use food mills AKA Foley mills, for the same purpose. I don't own one of those.
I threw the seeds and skin away into the compost pile and then passed the sauce through a #50 mesh with my library card. This mesh is quite fine. I normally use it for separating flour from bran and germ when I'm milling wheat. This part took quite a long time, perhaps a half an hour just trying to get the pulp particles down to a smaller size. Most home hot sauce makers don't go through a step like this, but I wanted to see if ultra-fine particles would keep the sauce from separating after it settles.
Done! I ended up with about six ounces of sauce from about a pound of serrano chilies. This is the best Mexican hot sauce I've ever tasted. The color is outstanding. Just compare it's color to Cholula. No fillers, stabilizers, spices or preservatives.
There's a whole slew of information on hot sauce making. Youtube has a few videos, most don't do fermented chili peppers, but there's a series of three by a fellow who calls himself Spicy Dave that covers a very old school, folk art method (part 2, part 3) for making fermented Louisiana hot sauce. He ferments his peppers in an open crock - "Just scrape off the mold!" - but the basic lessons are intact. There's a chili head website, The Hot Pepper where users to share info on making hot sauce, trade and sell pepper seeds, etc. Go to the Louisiana Pepper Exchange where you can buy fermented pepper mash by the gallon. Prices are quite reasonable.
List of Ingredients
Crider's No Cal Hot Sauce: Organic Red Serrano Chiles, Sea Salt La Victoria Salsa Brava: Water, Jalapeños, Red California Chiles, Tomato Paste, Onions, Distilled Vinegar, Modified Food Starch, Salt, Garlic and 0.1% Sodium Benzoate (As a preservative). Pico Pica Real Mexican Style Hot Sauce: Water, Chile Peppers, Tomato Puree, Salt, Spices, Cottonseed or Soybean Oil, Citric Acid, Xanthan Gum, Garlic Powder, Paprika and Sodium Benzoate as a preservative. El Pato Hot Sauce: Tomato Puree, Water, Chilies, Onions, Garlic
Salt and Spices. Tapatío Salsa Picante Hot Sauce (California, since 1971): Water, Red Peppers, Salt, Spices, Garlic, Acetic Acid, Xanthan Gum and Sodium Benzoate. Cholula Hot Sauce (Mexican): Water, Peppers (Arbol and Piquin), Salt, Vinegar, Spices and Xanthan Gum. Salsa Huichol Hot Sauce (Mexican): Chili Peppers, Spices, Iodized Salt, Distilled Vinegar, and Sodium Benzoate. Valentina Salsa Picante (Mexican): Water, Chili Peppers, Vinegar, Salt, Spices, Sodium Benzoate.