Everyone is familiar with the famous hot sauce of Louisiana. Hint, the name starts with the letter “T” and ends in “basco”. I was always intrigued with the idea of making a fermented hot sauce, but toning down the vinegar content to highlight the fermented character of the sauce. I also like a bit of garlic, so I wanted that in my sauce. Last, I wanted to bring more heat!
I ran quite a few experiments on this over the years, and got the recipe and process pretty dialed in. I make about two gallons of this sauce per year, and that is enough for our home use and to give some away as gifts. I bottle my sauces in glass woozy bottles and add labels and shrink bands so they really look nice as gifts.
Back in 2010 when the Washington Post did its feature on me, their photographer got a nice shot of my sauces. One of those was my “Wacky T#######” sauce. The photo was right there on the front page of the Food Section. A few weeks later, I got a rather testy call from Avery Island, from the CEO of the company, insisting that I change my label. While I was on safe legal ground, I felt it was best to make nice with a billionaire who has endless resources to make my life miserable. With my conversation with him fresh in mind, I relented and changed the sauce to “Crazy Cajun Hifallootin’ Hot Sauce.” I was left with quite a story!
I grow a lot of chilies in my garden. The basis of this sauce is serrano chiles, and heat is provided by red Scotch Bonnets, Red Savina Habaneros, and a few red Bhut Jolokia. You can mix the peppers to suit your own tastes. I once made a batch way too hot, so I started another crock with red bell peppers to ameliorate the heat.
My “Yucatan Firestorm” sauce pictured above is made with a similar process, but includes carrots and onions and is finished with a touch of lime juice.
As chilies start to ripen and turn red in my garden, I harvest them and store in the freezer until I have enough to mince. Later in the season, weekly harvests easily produce several gallons of red, ripe chilies.
I get the fermentation going with 1-2 gallons of red chilies. This is a lactic acid bacteria fermentation, just like sauerkraut. I stem the peppers and mince in a food processor, scoop them in a bowl, and then add 2 tsp coarse sea salt to each gallon of whole peppers. There is no harm in leaving the stems on the peppers, I remove them because they take up space in the crock and I plan to use the solids once the sauce is strained.
Some folks are into precision in their lactic fermentations, but the way I look at it is that hot sauce is a condiment, so the salt content can vary. If you feel a need to weigh the salt, then I recommend a ratio of 3% salt to pepper mash by weight. You can go as low as 1% or as high as 5%. 1% will mean you have to be really careful to exclude air or you will have all types of wild yeast and mold grow in your mash. Some of these are toxic or may spoil the flavor of your sauce. I find higher salt content will reduce the fermentation character of the sauce since it inhibits the fermentation process a bit. Another thing to consider is that you can always add salt to your finished sauce if you’d like more, but if the finished sauce is too salty, then you have a problem! Furthermore, I find that salt greatly accentuates heat from peppers, so if the salt content is too high, then your sauce may have a sharp heat as opposed to a profile with full flavor with integrated heat.
Put the salted minced chilies in the fermentation crock (I use a 10L Harsch crock), lay a sheet of plastic wrap over the top of the salted chilies, and then lay the weights that came with the crock on top of the plastic. The next “feeding of the crock, I add 2-3 large heads of garlic into the minced content. Repeat with more peppers and more garlic until the crock is full. If you are looking for a measurement, I would estimate the garlic is 10% of the weight/volume of the crock. So, nine liters of pepper mash and one liter of garlic.
Once the crock is near the top, you no longer need to use the weights. Don’t fill all the way to the top since the contents do expand a bit as they ferment. See the picture at the top of this post for an idea of how full I fill my crock.
Keep the lid on the crock, and keep the water channel filled and fresh. I keep the crock on my kitchen counter, but keep it on a towel in case it bubbles over or seeps out the bottom. Change the towel if it gets soiled. Resist the urge to open the crock, but since it is pretty much topped up, there is very little air space.
After at least two months, the fermentation is done. I typically let the fermentation go for a year to make sure it has run its course and get the full fermented character in the sauce. If you have a means to check the pH, it should be between 3.1 and 3.5. (3.4 seems typical.) I scoop the contents out and process in batches through a spiral strainer or food mill to remove seeds and skins. I used to run the pulp through the mill twice to get all of the goodness out of it, but then I discovered that the solids can be used for other great products, so I run only once with the finest mesh strainer.
I collect the sauce in a large stainless stock pot or bowl and emulsify it with a large stick blender. 10 liters of fermented mash yields two gallons of sauce. Taste and adjust the flavor with a small amount of good apple cider vinegar, and more salt if you think it needs it.
Dehydrate the solids for other goodness.
An optional step is to thicken the sauce with a bit of xanthan gum. This is tricky stuff. You can find it in the baking section of most grocery stores. Bob’s Red Mill is the brand I see most often. The package is a lifetime supply. For two gallons of sauce, use 1/2 or 1 teaspoon of xanthan gum. To prepare it, take a cup of your strained sauce and place in a blender, or in a bowl with an actively running stick blender. With the blender running, add 1/2t xanthan gum powder. If you just add the powder and then try to blend, it will form clumps that will take much more effort to dissolve. Stir the thickened cup of sauce into the full batch. Assess the texture, and if you want it thicker, then repeat the process with another 1/2t of xanthan gum.
At this point, I use a two gallon mason jar to do a bit of bulk aging. The sauce may stratify a bit. If this happens, I draw off the clear “elixir” from the top of the jar using a turkey baster. I add this elixir to my NC barbecue sauce or to pots of beans, etc. It adds a delicious fermented note to any dish.
The remaining sauce, uniformly red, is bottled with a turkey baster into sterilized 5-12 ounce woozy bottles. Some people claim that the sauce needs to be Pasteurized at this point and bottled hot to avoid re-fermentation in the bottle. I have never had this issue as long as the fermentation is run to completion, the pH is 3.4 or lower, and nothing other than salt, vinegar, and/or xanthan gum are added. I use an orifice reducer on the bottles to allow folks to shake out just like the “brand name” folks. If the sauce separates in the bottle, just shake it up, or pour off the elixir and use as above.