Fermentation Fascination: Hot Sauce in the House!

Hot sauce is a staple in this house, whether it's sriracha—the global shortage of which has been greatly exaggerated, at least looking at the shelves of my local Asian market—or that vaunted product from New Orleans, Crystal Hot Sauce, containing just cayenne chilis, vinegar and salt. More than simply a condiment for shaking on eggs, tacos or stir fries, I use hot sauce to add depth to the cheese sauce for my macaroni and cheese, or to add zip to dips and deviled eggs.

Chopped, brined and ready to go into the basement!

So you can imagine my horror the other day when I discovered we were completely out of our usual hot sauces. Fortunately I was able to grind up some of the Ayers Creek Farm dried cayennes I had saved, so the dish wasn't completely bland, but boy howdy, it was a close one!

I'd collected a bag of assorted peppers—a few stray padrons, a couple of Jimmy Nardellos, anaheims and anchos from farmers' market trips and our CSA share that hadn't found their way into other concoctions—and a couple of hotter-than-all-get-out yellow-orange Bulgarian carrot peppers from my neighbor Bill, so I decided to chop those up and throw them in a quart jar with garlic and a salt brine.

I left them in the basement for a few days, and when they smelled oh-so-pickle-y, I brought them upstairs, drained them—reserving the liquid for thinning it to sauce-like perfection—and whizzed them in the blender. One sniff told me it was probably too hot for everyday use, so I threw in a couple of roasted red peppers I'd found in the fridge and tasted a tiny drop.

Hoo-eee!

Inspiration courtesy of the peppers at Eloisa Organic Farm.

It was better, but still a little too much heat, so I blended in a couple more roasted peppers and a pinch of salt, thinned it with the brine to pourable consistency and bottled it in old spice bottles I'd collected, which were the ideal size for table use.

Now, having seen farmers' market tables loaded with peppers, I'm hot (no pun intended) to make more. My friends Michael and Linda at Terra Farma in Corbett loaned me Fiery Ferments, a collection of recipes by noted fermentarians Kirsten and Christopher Shockey. With recipes and techniques for everything from hot sauces and chutneys to kimchi and other condiments, I can already tell it's going to be my bible.

But to get you started, here's the basic recipe for the hot sauce described above.

Assorted Peppers Hot Sauce

For the brine:
5 Tbsp. Kosher or sea salt
2 qts. water

For the peppers:
1 lb. assorted peppers
8 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

Make a basic salt brine by combining the salt and water in a large bowl or gallon container. Stir until dissolved.

Remove stems from the peppers and roughly chop them (including seeds and pith). Pack tightly into clean quart jars along with any spices—I just used the smashed cloves of garlic—then pour brine over them to within 1" of the rim of the jar. Keep peppers submerged in brine with glass weight or small zip-lock bag with brine in it. Loosely cap, set in a dish in case it bubbles over, and let it sit in a cool, dark place like a basement for 4-7 days. Strain, reserving brine, and blend. Thin to desired consistency, taste for salt. If it’s too spicy, add roasted sweet peppers, or if it needs more heat add roasted hot peppers.

Photo of peppers from Eloisa Organic Farm. Find them at the Hollywood Farmers Market and the Corvallis-Albany Farmers Market!

Fermentation Fascination: DIY Hot Sauce

I had this whole plan, see? I'd been searching without success for the thick-skinned, thick-walled, fleshy espelette peppers like the ones I found four years ago from Viridian Farms—which is unfortunately no longer in existence—and used to such great effect to make some kick-ass, fruity, smoky harissa. In the intervening years I'd tried espelette peppers from various area farms, but the fruit, while it had the requisite thick skin, was uniformly thin-fleshed. When roasted, the flesh stuck to the skins like glue, making peeling arduous and not worth it in terms of resulting volume.

Harissa.

This year I was determined to try again to find those perfect peppers and purchased peppers from two more farms. Again, sad trombones.

With the first couple of pounds I managed to make a very small batch of harissa, but the next two pounds were just not going to be worth the work. Not wanting to waste their fruity, biting heat, I was casting about for good uses. Most suggestions were to dry and grind them to a powder, but then I ran across farmer and author Josh Volk's Instagram photo of chopped peppers that he'd fermented in a 3.5 percent salt mixture.

Bubbling away.

Aha!

A little back-and-forth with Josh led me to chop the two pounds of peppers in the food processor, add the salt, pack them in a Mason jar, set the jar in a dish in the basement, then put a zip-lock bag of water inside the jar like a pickling weight, which allows it to breathe (and overflow if necessary). Putting a lid on isn't necessary, but if you do, make sure it isn't screwed on tight—it needs to breathe!

Hank Shaw's sour corn.

After four days I saw bubbles and a little puddle underneath the jar, which indicated that fermentation was, indeed, occurring, so I left it for a few more days. Recipes say you can allow it to ferment for as long as a month, but being the impatient person I am, I gave it a week before bringing it upstairs to whiz in the blender, adding water to thin it to a sauce-like consistency.

The result? Well, we used it as a hot sauce on pork tacos along with some of Hank Shaw's sour corn that I'd made earlier and we thought it was great. But the real test came when I gave some to my neighbor Ivy Manning,  a hot sauce aficionado as well as author of countless authoritative cookbooks, for her expert opinion. Her reaction? "Can you just pour some out on the counter so I can roll in it?"

'Nuff said.