Whether or not you’re a fan of spicy foods or not, there’s undoubtedly a hot sauce out there for you, and what better way to explore the world of pepper sauces than making your very own. It’s not complicated and at its most basic, it’s just a combination of fermented peppers and vinegar.
Choosing specific peppers to fit your taste and extra ingredients and flavors like garlic, honey, fruit, herbs, and spices. The skies are the limit.
Lactic Acid Fermentation
There are two types of fermentation, and while you could certainly go on all day about the science behind fermentation, these are the basics (the very basics):
Ethanol Fermentation involves yeast (and some strains of bacteria) to convert a glucose molecule into 2 molecules of pyruvate, then into acetaldehyde (the chemical that causes hangovers and time/memory lapses after a night on the town), and finally into ethanol within a base depending on what you are fermenting (sugar in the case of rum, barley for whiskey, etc.)
Lactic Acid Fermentation (which is the one we’re using in this recipe) uses microorganisms like bacteria or fungi to convert sugar (glucose) into lactic acid to obtain energy. Carbon dioxide is a by-product of any form of fermentation. During lactic fermentation glucose is converted into 2 molecules of pyruvate, the pyruvate is converted into lactate via an enzyme called lactate dehydrogenase, which as a result produces CO2 and lactic acid.
So why add salt?
Thus far it seems that all you need to ferment a vegetable is said vegetable and some water, which is technically true be it one of the worst ways to ferment anything. Adding a high concentration of salt goes a lot farther than just impacting flavor.
Salt doesn’t just keep your veggies fresh in terms of color and texture, it also prevents any unwanted bacteria from propagating into their colonies. Lactic acid bacteria have a much higher tolerance for salt than most other bacteria therefore can keep fermenting the glucose even in high salt concentration levels. Salt does however slow that process, which is a great thing because it gives time for those funky flavors to come through.
Best Peppers for Hot Sauce
It should be abundantly clear that the pepper you use should focus on just how spicy you like your hot sauce. The Carolina reaper pepper is one of the hottest peppers in the south, and it’s safe to say that if you’re a fan of the milder sauces, you shouldn’t use something with a Scoville rating of over two million. All hot peppers produce a chemical called capsaicin. The stress under which the pepper is grown determines how much capsaicin it produces determining how hot said pepper is.
The following is a list of hot peppers from most mild to most scorching. There are at least a couple hundred different peppers you can choose from for your hot sauce all with a different flavor and level of spice. Also, take color into account. Peppers can be white, red, green, orange, yellow, purple, even black. You can make some great color pallets with those.
The intensity of a pepper is measured by the number of times capsaicin needs to be diluted by sugar-water. The measurement is called the Scoville scale and the unit for the measurement is Scoville heat units (SHU).
Cajun Belle 100 – 1000 SHU
Ancho 1000 – 1500 SHU
Chipotle 2500 – 8000 SHU
Jalapeno 2500 – 8000 SHU
Peter pepper 5000 – 30000 SHU
Black pearl 10000 – 30000 SHU
Tabasco pepper 30000 – 50000 SHU
Cayenne pepper 30000 -50000 SHU
Super chili 40000 – 50000 SHU
Pequim 40000 – 80000 SHU
Charleston hot 70000 – 100000 SHU
Apache 80000 – 100000 SHU
Devil’s tongue 125000 – 325000 SHU
Goat pepper 100000 – 350000 SHU
Scotch Bonnet 100000 – 350000 SHU
Habanero 100000 – 600000 SHU
Ghost pepper 800,000 – 1,050,000 SHU
Infinity pepper 1,060,000 – 1,250,000 SHU
Caroline reaper 1,400,000 – 2,200,000 SHU
Dragons breath 2,500,000 SHU
The basis of a fermentation brine is just salt and purified water. Unless you’re storing the ferments for a prolonged period of time, you can just use tap water (some people like to boil it first) since the salt will prevent any unwanted bacteria from growing within a short period of time. The amount of salt you use totally depends on the amount of water, the type of salt you use, and the vegetable you’re fermenting.
The softer the vegetables are the more salt you should. A classic brine starts at a 2% salt concentration but can go up to 5 or 6 or 7% for much softer vegetables. To ferment peppers I recommend a 3-4% salt concentration. So for every cup of water (250 g/ml) use between 7.5 and 10 grams of salt.
You can pretty much use any edible salt to ferment, sea salt, kosher salt, pink salt, pickling salt, etc. Different salts have different structures and weights so use a scale over any spoon to measure the salt.
How to Ferment Peppers
Once you’ve chosen your peppers all you need to do is cut the stems off the peppers then halve them lengthwise. Don’t bother shopping them into small pieces; it’s a waste of time and just makes more of a mess. Dissolve the salt in the water, stuff the pepper halves in a jar, then top with the brine. If you don’t have a jar with an airlock, make sure you use something like a fermentation weight or small ramekin to keep the peppers submerged. One of the most important steps to fermentation is making sure the peppers are fully submerged.
Leave the jar of peppers somewhere that’s around room temperature (between 64°F – 71°F is ideal) for at least a week or for up to two weeks. Sunlight will interfere with the fermentation process so ideally keep the jar in a cupboard or pantry.
A couple of things will happen to your brine after it’s been fermenting for a couple of days. Firstly the water will become cloudy, which is normal and preventable if you use pickling salt. If you don’t have pickling salt and don’t feel like buying it don’t worry, it’s perfectly harmless.
You may also notice that a white residue will form on the surface of the water. This is called kahm yeast and is also totally harmless. It’s not the same as mold (mold is fuzzy, keep that in mind) and you can keep it from growing by fermenting the peppers at slightly below room temperature.
How to Make Hot Sauce
Once your peppers have fermented, strain them (but keep the brine) then transfer the peppers to a blender with a couple of tablespoons of neutral oil, an equal amount of vinegar, a couple of tablespoons of the brine, then pulse them into a liquid state.
That is the very basic hot sauce recipe and it’s where things can get really interesting. This is where you can add practically anything you want. Fresh herbs and spices of your choice are a great option. Make sure you toast and grind your spices before adding them to the sauce and make sure all the herbs are really fresh.
You can take things a lot further than just herbs and spices. Toasting garlic in the oil you use is a phenomenal way to boost the flavor. You can use sugar, honey, syrup, or molasses for some sweetness, you can char and add fruits like pineapple, mango, apples, or berries, and one of my personal favorites is adding bacon drippings. For an extra smooth sauce, strain the hot sauce through a mesh strainer then bottle in (preferable in glass) and store it in the fridge for up to 90 days.
So there you have it. Making hot sauce consists of mostly just waiting with a bit of measuring and a bit of blending before and after. Make it as simple or as complicated as you want it to be and don’t forget to share with the family, it’s the best part of being passionate about preparing food.
hot peppers of your choice
vinegar of your choice
- Prep the peppers by cutting the stems off them and halving them lengthwise them piling them into a big, glass jar.
- Make the brine by dissolving the salt in the water then pour the brine over the peppers.
- Make sure the halved peppers are all fully submerged in the brine before closing the lid and labeling the jar with the date.
- Place the jar somewhere dark between 64°F - 72°F for one to two weeks relatively undisturbed to let the peppers ferment.
- After the peppers have fermented to your liking strain them (reserve the brine) then empty them into a blender with the oil, vinegar, brine, and anything else you want to add.
- Pulse the ingredients until smooth then pour through a mesh strainer for an extra smooth sauce.
- Bottle and store the hot sauce in the fridge for up to 90 days and enjoy whenever the mood strikes.