Scary-Good Hot Sauce

Bubble, bubble, a little toil, not much trouble.

In mid-September, I chunked up a whole mess of hot, super-hot, and mild peppers, stuffed them into a couple jars, added salt water, and let them burble away on my kitchen counter.

Fermentation, kickstarted by the the ambient yeasts and mild fall temps in my kitchen, worked its black magic (okay, it’s SCIENCE), and—bingo!—six weeks later I’d passively made myself two jars of very lively pickles. From there, killer, interesting, layered, complex, and delicious hot sauce was just a purée-strain two-step away.

Don’t be scared. It’s simple. Really. A super-basic, counter-culture ferment.

Catch the story in pictures. Detailed instructions follow below.

I cut red and orange peppers into largish chunks, then smooshed them into a clean glass jar and topped it all off with brine. Same treatment for a green+yellow jar.
I cut red and orange peppers into largish chunks, then smooshed them into a clean glass jar and topped it all off
with brine. Same treatment for a green+yellow jar.
For Pete's sake, wear gloves when handling hot peppers. I went barehanded and thought I was careful. But a shower several hours after prep proved I wasn't careful enough.
For Pete’s sake, wear gloves when handling hot peppers. I went barehanded and thought I was careful. But a shower several hours after prep proved I wasn’t careful enough.
You'll need a weight of some kind to keep the peppers submerged below the brine. Here, I used a ramekin filled with ceramic  pie weights.
You’ll need a weight of some kind to keep the peppers submerged below the brine. Here, I used a
ramekin filled with ceramic pie weights.
A do-rag (clean cloth affixed with rubberband) helps keep fruit flies out and a diaper (just a cloth underneath) minimizes the mess should any liquid burble over the sides.
A do-rag (clean cloth affixed with rubberband) helps keep fruit flies out, and a diaper (just a cloth underneath) minimizes the mess should any liquid blurp over the sides.
Here's the green and red jars after just a few days, already starting to cloud up. Go, science, go!
Here’s the green and red jars after just a few days,
already starting to cloud up. Go, science, go!
40 days later, the situation's beautifully murky. I've read guidelines that suggest everything from a 2-week to a 6-month ferment. 6 weeks was plenty for me.
40 days later, the situation’s beautifully murky. I’ve
read guidelines that suggest everything from a 2-week
to a 6-month ferment. 6 weeks was plenty for me.
After a minute in the blender or processor (be careful of your eyes), you'll get a very fragrant, very pungent pulp.
After a minute in the blender or processor (be careful of your eyes), you’ll get a very fragrant, very pungent pulp.
Do the mash. The monster mash. Again, be sure to guard your eyes (and nose) from the capsaisin-y fumes.
Do the mash. The monster mash. Again, be sure to guard your eyes (and nose) from the capsaisin-y fumes.
Crazy how much the red looks like Frank's. Add it to the green, and it'll look like Cholula. And taste way better.
Crazy how much the red looks like Frank’s. Add it to the green, and it’ll look like Cholula. And taste way better.
Pure red (l) has a fiery, medium-hot zap; straight-up green (r) is more piquant—and downright HOT; the blend (m) has a nice, deep, mellow, slow burn. YMMV, of course.
Pure red (l) had a fiery, medium-hot zap; straight-up green (r) was more piquant—and downright HOT; the blend (m) had a nice, deep, mellow, slow burn. YMMV, of course.
Scary-Good Fermented Hot Sauce

Just a friendly, fiery, counter-top ferment. Two pounds total of mixed peppers eventually yielded just about two-and-a-half cups of finished sauce, which, bottled and kept in the fridge, will keep indefinitely—well, at least a year. As usual with my ferments, I merged techniques from Amanda Feifer over at Phickle and from Sandor Ellix Katz’s The Art of Fermentation

  • 2 pounds mixed peppers, a balance of hot and mild, plus a few scorchers, if you dare
  • 2 medium carrots, scrubbed, roughly chopped
  • 8 medium cloves garlic, peeled, lightly smashed
  • 6 cups filtered water
  • 3 tbsp Kosher salt
  • 2-3 tbsp apple cider vinegar, to taste

My peppers came from various sources—my own home garden, the CSA, and a huge bag from one of my favorite customers, a gent who happens to share my passion for strange produce, Südtirol whites, Hot Doug’s (RIP), and the Chicago Cubs. Yeah, in Philly. Go figure. Anyhow, thanks, Lee.

Poblanos, serranos, jalapeños, Cubanelles, bananas, sweet habañeros, bells, and a few mystery peppers.
Poblanos, serranos, jalapeños, Cubanelles, bananas, sweet habañeros, bells, and a few mystery peppers.

Because I was unsure how hot each type was—and because I was too chicken to taste them all raw—I decided to divide and conquer, making two batches that I would later sample and then blend to taste (bonus wine word: assemblage!). I arbitrarily sorted by color (red to orange in one pile, yellow to green in another), but you could go by variety or any other variable, for that matter. Or just throw them all in together and co-ferment (another bonus wine word). Totally up to you.

Pick your Jars

Unless you have a set of fancy pickle weights (these may be going on my Santa list), you’ll have to find a combo of outer jar and inner jar that works for you. I’ve got a couple Kilner clip-tops that marry beautifully with some 3-inch custard cups I bought a few years ago. Experiment, and use what you’ve got.

This clip-top jar holds about 3-1/2 cups, and a 3-inch ramekin snugs right inside. Add a handful of pie pebbles, and everything will stay under the water line.
This clip-top jar holds about 3-1/2 cups, and a 3-inch ramekin snugs right inside. Add a handful of pie pebbles, and everything will stay under the water line.
Prep the Peppers

Give them all a rinse to remove any leaves, dirt, or spider webs (yes, it happens, especially right near the stem). Carefully trim and discard the stems from the peppers, then give everything a very rough chop. Leave the seeds and ribs, but cut away any dark or rotten spots you see.

I cut the poblanos into just two or three chunks, and kept most of the littler ones whole (ex the stems).
I cut the poblanos into just two or three chunks, and kept most of the littler ones whole (ex the stems).
Pack the Jars

Distribute the garlic cloves and chunked carrots evenly among your jars. Layer the peppers in, using a muddler or wooden spoon to press as many in as possible. It’s okay if they crack and/or break up a bit. Stop when the jars are about 80% full, so that you have enough room for the weights. Tip: Don’t stop too soon, though. I once had a ferment in which the veggies broke down so much that the inner jar sunk below the lip of the outer, and I had a helluva time getting it back out.

Add enough brine to cover the vegetables. Cap it off with the weight. Use twine or a rubberband to secure a clean towel or piece of cheesecloth over the top. Air flowing in and out is good; pests would be bad.

A cloth hat keep bugs out. If it gets wet and/or stinky, change it out once a week or so.
A cloth hat keep bugs out. If it gets wet and/or
stinky, change it out once a week or so.
Be Patient

Let the jars sit, undisturbed, at room temperature, for several weeks up to several months. I nibbled after 14 days and decided it still tasted pretty raw, so I let ol’ lactobacillus ramble on. I pulled the plug at 40 days, mainly because I needed to reclaim some counter space. The end product was fantastic, but next time I’d like to set a smaller jar aside and really let it go—maybe three or four months.

Drain, Purée, and Strain

Whenever you’re ready to proceed, use a slotted spoon or pair of tongs to remove the veggies to the bowl of a food processor or heavy-duty blender. Purée for one or two minutes, until you have a pretty uniform pulp. If it looks dry to you (like you might have a hard time extracting much liquid), add back some of the brine until you get a consistency you think you can work with.

After adding in a little brine, I ended up with a consistency somewhere between apple butter and Sriracha.
After adding in a little brine, I ended up with a consistency somewhere between apple butter and Sriracha.

Set a chinois or a fine mesh strainer over a bowl or measuring cup, and press and stir and coax as much liquid as you can out of the mash. I suppose something cool could be made with the dregs, but I just tossed them.

Taste and Bottle

Taste your batch(es) and decide whether you want to co-mingle or keep them discrete. I set aside a small bottle each of straight red and straight green, but made a bigger bottle of 50-50 blend (final winey bonus: Cuvée!) . For all, though, just before bottling, I added just a splash of apple cider vinegar.

Like wine (and most any ferment), hot sauce will soften and mellow a little over time; sweetly acidic cider vinegar speeds up that evolution. Adding vinegar also stabilizes the ferment, supposedly allowing it to be shelf-safe. Maybe. But I keep mine in the fridge anyhow.

Red-Green Combo in action on scrambled eggs. The fox says, "Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm."
Red-Green Combo in action on scrambled eggs.
The fox says, “Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm.”

I kept this one super simple, adding only garlic and a carrot for a bit of sweetness. I know other folks load theirs up with fruits (apple, peach, mango), or even add brown sugar. Maybe next time I’ll try some of that. Each batch’ll be a little different, anyway, depending on your pepper mix, the temperature in your home, and how long you let it all percolate.

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