For The Love Of Condiments: brine fermented peppers as a base for hot sauce and fiery barbecue sauce

Ferment a jar of peppers in brine, and use as a base for other sauces

For those who’ve read my story on my fermented hot sauce, you know of my run-in with the CEO of the company that makes Tabasco hot sauce. After two phone calls with him, the first one ending when I hung up on him, we came to an understanding. I think he understood that while I certainly respect their brand and a need to protect it, I was not causing any harm to their $200M a year business. I wish I had kept a recording of the last voice mail he left for me where he explained how infuriated he was to see my “wacky sauce” label right there in the Washington Post, and how he rarely gets personally involved in such matters, but this one crossed the line! And then he let me know how through our calls he now understood I was “just a good ol’ boy who loves his condiments.”

I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, and so I took it in that spirit. He was certainly right that I do love my condiments, especially those that bring the heat.

Tabasco peppers in the garden

So I recently found myself with a load of Tabasco peppers that I grew. They take a long time to pick, and the best way to pick them is when they pull off the plant and leave the stem behind. The downside of this is they become very perishable. They must be quickly put to use. My fermenting crock was already full, so what could I do with them?

Fermentation crock filled to the top

Fermentation adds depth and complexity to the flavor of foods. Hot peppers are no different. Unlike my fermented hot sauce where I mince and salt the peppers, causing them to create their own fermentation brine (exactly how sauerkraut is fermented), I decided to ferment these peppers in a brine.

Fermenting in a brine is how we make crock dill pickles. Pretty much any vegetable can be fermented this way. Peppers are no different; in fact, they will ferment out quickly and be ready to use in weeks.

The most important thing in fermenting is to make sure the vegetables, in this case peppers, are very fresh and clean. Wash them well in cool water. Discard or cut away any blemished areas, peppers with mold, or any sign of spoilage. A lot of folks worry about washing away the bacteria needed for fermentation. Trust me, no matter how well you wash them, unless you wash with bleach or peroxide (and don’t do that!), there will be plenty of bacteria to ferment! Others claim they need to add a starter of some sort to get the ferment going. If that makes you more comfortable, by all means do it, but know that it’s entirely unneeded.

The second most important thing is to get the salt level right. Unlike cucumber pickles, you aren’t so much worried about the peppers getting soft (unless you plan to serve them whole or in rings, etc.). The right level of salt is important to create the right conditions for the fermentation bacteria to dominate, keeping undesirable bacteria and yeasts under control.

The way to get the right salt level is to weigh the peppers and the amount of water needed to keep them covered in the fermentation vessel. Then measure out 3% of the total weight of the peppers and water combined. In other words, if the peppers and water together weigh 1000g, then you need 30g salt. Use sea salt or other non-iodized salt. Iodine will mess up your ferment.

If you are really good at keeping air out, you can go as low as 1% salt, but you must be meticulous. Since I am going to use my peppers in sauces, I am not so concerned with going up to 3%. You can take them to 5% or even higher if you like. I am going to mix the fermented peppers with other ingredients to bring the salt level in the finished product down to a nice balanced flavor, which is somewhere in the 2% range, give or take.

And finally, you must create an environment where air (mainly oxygen) is excluded. Again, this prevents molds and other undesirable microflora from growing. I chose a large canning jar with a clamp lid as my fermentation vessel. These jars hold pressure, can be “burped” to release fermentation gases, or you can use a strong rubber band (like the kind that come on celery and broccoli) to hold the lid closed while allowing gases to escape. Then I took a lid from a plastic food container that matched the diameter of the jar, cut some slits in it, and jammed it in on top of the peppers to hold them under the brine. All the solids must be held beneath the surface of the brine.

Here’s an example. I have 610g of Tabasco chile pods. In a bowl, I mixed them with 3% (18.3g) of Salish alder wood smoked salt (a little smoke flavor is always nice). Next, I have 755g of a mixture of Foodarama red Scotch Bonnet, Ghostly Jalapeno, and Sara R Trinidad Scorpion Long (aka SRTSL) chiles. Mix them with 3% Trapani salt (22.65g). I need 1.1 liters of water to cover. That is 1100g. Mix 33g Trapani salt into the water. The peppers go in the jar. Pour the water over the peppers. Push the plastic lid into the jar to hold the peppers below the brine. Secure the lid. Within hours it should start to bubble. By the next day, it will be going crazy. In about 2-3 weeks, fermentation will be done, and the fermented peppers are ready to use. The picture at the top of this post shows how the jar looks.

After the fermentation was done, I took some of the peppers out of the brine and pureed them with a stick blender to see how it tastes. Ok. It’s very hot, as expected since the Ghostly Jalapeno and SRTSL chiles are super hot varieties. Three liters of this pure fire may go a long way! Good thing I had a plan to dilute the fire. Of course there are plenty of things you can do with this fermented pepper concoction, but to get you started on your own path, here are a couple recipes I came up with, and am really enjoying.

Tropical Heat Wave – A Nice Hawaiian Punch!

  • 3 cups fermented peppers
  • 1 cup honey
  • 3/4 cup raw cane sugar
  • 6 Mexican guavas
  • 1 12oz. can crushed pineapple

Place all ingredients in a bowl. Puree with a stick blender. Unlike other hot sauces on Tim’s Food Obsession (search for “hot sauce”), you need to keep this one refrigerated because the pH is not low enough to be shelf stable. Still, this will keep in the fridge for several months.

For a Hawaiian style treat, try glazing this on some slices of fried Spam!

XXXX Hot Barbecue Sauce

  • 1 cup fermented peppers
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 head garlic, peeled
  • 2T grape seed oil
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1-1/2 cup molasses
  • 1T granulated garlic
  • 2T granulated onion
  • 1T ground black pepper
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar

Saute the onion and garlic in the oil until soft. Place all ingredients in a bowl. Puree with stick blender.

I put this sauce out in a squeeze bottle when friends are over for barbecue. You might not find it is over the top hot, but the XXXX label makes sure that those with weak palates for hot foods are properly warned!

This sauce makes a great palette to create other sauces on the go. For example, here are some grilled chicken drumstick lollipops with a sauce made with this sauce, and additions of my homemade Worcestershire sauce, sesame oil, and sesame seeds.

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