The top selling brands of hot sauce that use aged hot peppers are Franks RedHot, Sriracha and Tabasco® brand as well as many others. They don’t use the same peppers, the same process, the same type of containers or the same length to age their peppers before it becomes sauce. The process, methods and equipment that each manufacturer uses does contribute to the distinct flavor of their sauces and the process is the fermentation of peppers.

Fermented hot sauce is actually fermented hot peppers first made into a mash and then aged for a length of time in a brine solution of salt and water. This is the process that creates the rich and deep umami flavor in a hot sauce and is applied to other food products as well.

The end resulting hot sauce will be made the same way by blending the ingredients together into a fine texture. It is the process of aging the hot peppers that takes some careful attention to details in the process and mixture of the brine.

Understanding fermentation

By definition, fermentation is “the chemical breakdown of substances of a substance by bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms typically involving effervesce or the giving off of heat” (Google Dictionary). So what does that mean? Do hot peppers actually break down if they are fermented? Other sources state that fermentation is the decomposition of food by microorganisms (chilipeppermadnes.com). These are strong words against such a simple list of ingredients that produce such tasty hot sauces.

Many definitions include “the breakdown into simpler substances” (vocabulary.com). This is the same process for making beer, wine, kimchi, bread and yogurt. However, your fermented hot sauce will not have any alcoholic content to it, unfortunately.  It will contain healthy probiotic bacteria similar to the food and beverages above.

Fermentation of hot peppers is harmless bacterial growth taking over the peppers or mash. The fermentation process, or breakdown of substances by bacteria, creates acid. Don’t be alarmed when you read about bacteria in your fermented hot sauce…its good bacteria. The most prominent is lactobacillus or lactic acid bacteria.

Lactic Acid Bacteria

Lactic acid bacteria is the end product of the hot pepper fermentation process and inhibits the growth of spoilage agents. They contribute to the nutritional value, texture and flavor of the fermented peppers that you do not get from fresh or cooked peppers.There is a lot of research pointing to the health benefits of fermented foods but is too complex to be included in this article. .

Why ferment?

Fermenting hot peppers before you blend them into hot sauce brings out a rich, bold and tangy flavors from the hot peppers that you would not get from fresh, cooked, smoked or other means of processing. It is these flavors through the process of fermentation that are transferred into a hot sauce to make its flavor unique.

You cannot protect a recipe with a copyright of the ingredients, but you can distinguish the process you use, such as fermenting. The contents of the brine and the length of fermentation can differentiate your hot sauce from many others using some of the same ingredients.

Tabasco ® is such a simple list of ingredients but the process of aging the peppers (their trade secret) makes a flavorful sauce. Their peppers are aged in re charred oak barrels for three years before vinegar and spices are added and it is blended into a sauce. (don’t try this at home).

Fermenting is also a form of preservation. Many hot sauce recipes can be made without the use of vinegar (a preserving agent) after they have been fermented. It is still OK to use vinegar as part of your recipe as it will further enhance the flavors of the peppers and other spices in your sauce.

It’s a simple process (but not really)

Preparing hot peppers for fermentation is not a complex process but what happens during fermentation is. It takes some measuring of a few simple ingredients to make the brine (see below) but once that is completed it just needs to sit. This is a longer process of making sauce but there are not many ways to duplicate the flavors that evolve from the process.

Is fermenting healthier?

Fermented peppers have probiotic bacteria and this is also transferred into the hot sauce. Specifically lactobacillus as mentioned above is the more common bacteria found in these peppers and sauces. This helps the body to break down foods and absorb them into your body better. This bacteria can also kill “bad” bacteria in the body leading to a healthier life style.

There are believed to be other health benefits related to certain species of these bacteria such as the control of intestinal infections and lactose tolerance as well.

Do fermented peppers have more vitamins?

There are claims that fermented hot sauce has more vitamins but this would need to be determined further by testing fermented and non-fermented sauces. Testing a hot pepper or sauce for vitamins is not an easy task and involves chromatography and mass spectrometry. According to the USDA nutritional Database hot chilies (before fermenting) have 109 milli-grams of Vitamins C per pepper and jalapenos have 106 milli-grams per cup.

An article from BBC Good Food states that there are health related benefits to consuming fermented products such as immune functions and easier digestion of lactose. Fermentation can provide vitamins B and K through increasing the beneficial bacteria in your gut.

The fermentation process of hot peppers

The fermentation process of hot peppers involves soaking peppers in a salt and water solution known as brine for weeks, months or years until the solution breaks down the glucose in the peppers. This process begins immediately and can be completed in a week. Further fermentation will create deep flavors but if done right, will not rot or decay the peppers.

What is brine?

Brine is a solution of water and salts and is used in many food preparations, not just fermenting hot sauce. The brine is the most important part of making fermented hot peppers, as well as the conditions you store the sauce and the method of “burping” the ferment.

There is not much science into the peppers although there are some theories that whole peppers vs mashed peppers will act differently in the brine and may affect the overall flavor of the sauce. It is the ratio of salt to water that causes the peppers to ferment.

How do you make a brine?

Brine is made with water and salt. It is this ratio that is crucial in how your peppers ferment. Not enough salt will cause the peppers to rot. Too much salt content in the brine will kill the “good” (lactobacillus) bacteria and the peppers will not ferment.

A standard mix for fermenting hot peppers is of 3 tablespoons of salt for every quart of water. Mix the brine first before pouring it into the jar of hot peppers. You don’t need to use all of it as long as it is mixed correctly but make sure that all of the salt has been dissolved.

Water

Believe it or not there are many different types of water that may affect how your peppers ferment. They are distilled, well, pH, tap, filtered, deionized, spring, mineral, purified and hard as well as a few other types. Exploring these different types of water is beyond the scope of this article.

According to The Probiotic Jar clean well water or spring water is the best water to use for fermenting. Chlorinated or water with fluoride will kill the bacteria necessary for fermentation. If you live in a city or rural area where the water runs through a filtered system it is most likely chlorinated water that is coming out of your tap.

Salt

As with water there are many different kinds of salts as well. Sea salt and mineral salt are the recommended salts to use for your brine. Himalayan salts are also good to use for your brine but keep in mind that larger crystallized salts may measure differently especially in small increments.

How much salt to use?

According to the Probiotic Jar the amount of salt in a brine to ferment hot peppers should be 3.5% to 5% salt by weight. This equals the above measurements of 3 tablespoons of salt to 1 quart of water.

What does iodine in table salt do to the fermentation process?

Although there is some speculation and belief that the iodine in table salts effects fermentation, according to researchgate.net it does not. In a recent study they further state that the iodine salt did not inhibit the growth of bacteria. Although studies may show that the iodine content in table salt does not directly effect the fermentation process there are still other substances created from the process for not using it.

Can I reuse the brine?

Yes you can re use the brine or save it for other uses as well. There is a process of bacterial growth that the peppers undergo and adding peppers at an already existing stage of this bacterial growth could alter the process. For fermenting hot peppers there is no reason to re use the brine. It is inexpensive and easy to make and the reuse in hot peppers could alter the flavor of your sauce. Especially if you are using a recipe that you have perfected. I would not re use the brine if you want your recipe to be consistent in flavor.

Does the salt in the brine act as a natural preservative?

Although salt itself is considered a natural preservative it is the fermentation process here that is preserving the peppers. Typically salts are coated on meats and other foods but in this case it is the ratio of salt and water in the brine is low.

Fermenting Peppers

Ferment whole peppers or a mash?

You can ferment hot peppers either whole, chopped or finely chopped into a mash. However slight they are, there may be some differences at how the peppers process throughout fermentation. A mash will have more of the pepper exposed to the brine.

  1. Whole pepper floats more and could get mold.

Your peppers need to be submerged in the brine solution and whole peppers will float. Most brining crocks or glass fermentation containers have weight to hold down the peppers. If the peppers are cut up or finely chopped into a mash they will not float. If the peppers are exposed to the air they have the potential for mold.

2. Whole peppers may ferment slower.

With the wall of the pepper exposed the brine solution will be able to soak into the pepper faster than if it was whole. Although if you plan on fermenting for months there may not be much difference in time.

3. “Mashed” peppers may lose their heat quicker and easier.

Hot peppers that are fermented will lose their heat due to the breakdown and mashed peppers will undergo this breakdown quicker, due to more of the peppers walls being exposed.

4. Brining them whole is easier.

Placing the peppers in the fermentation jar will be simpler and easier than chopping them or cutting them up. If you plan on making hot sauce regularly or producing it for sale, this could save lots of time and effort.

The differences in the final flavor of your product between whole and chopped fermented peppers may be minimal or non at all.

How long can I ferment peppers for?

The fermentation process begins immediately and can have an aged flavor in about a week. This does not mean that they have reached their peak. As mentioned above Tabasco® ages their cayenne peppers in mash form for three years before it becomes a sauce.

This takes the right kind of salt, the proper preparation of the barrels and a controlled environment for storage. The temperature and humidity of the environment they are stored in is very important. The process of fermenting hot peppers can take more effort than just letting your peppers “sit” for three years. If not done right the peppers can rot.

Are the fermented peppers preserved?

The fermentation process is considered a form of preservation and this process changes or enhances the flavor of hot peppers. The high acidic content of many fermented hot sauces creates the preservation so that other ingredients or additives are not needed.

Fermented hot sauce has a lower pH?

The bacteria in fermented hot sauce will decrease the pH making it more acidic. Some hot sauce recipes choose not to add vinegar to fermented peppers because they have already gone through a preservation process and will have a higher acidic content to them already as well as a more pungent flavor.

Equipment

There is no cooking involved so you will not need any large pots or pans. The only kitchen equipment will be a sharp knife and a cutting board. Aside from these two simple pieces of kitchen utensils the only other item you need in the container in which the peppers will ferment.

The container

Hot peppers can be fermented in any type of glass jar or container with a tight lid. Some air will need to enter the mash at different intervals during the process. There are specific pieces of equipment available that allow air to enter but this can also be done by periodically opening the top.

Parts of the fermentation jar

Lid

A tight lid is necessary for your fermenting jar or crock. It is used to keep air (oxygen) out of the brine and pepper mixture. The contamination of air can create mold on the peppers but you will need to occasionally release the gases from the fermentation process so make sure the lid comes on and off easily.

Airlock

The airlock allows gas created from the fermentation process to get released from the jar continuously. This device is not necessary but it a more controlled way of releasing the gases and not allowing air into your mixture.  

Weight

A weight of some sort will hold down the peppers to be completely submerged under the brine. A ceramic crock will usually come with a stone weight. Some types of containers will have a device attached to the lid that will serve the same purpose. Other methods of this include a plastic bag filled with water.

Base or jar

This is the jar, crock, bucket, drum or barrel used to store the hot peppers for fermentation. This will obviously vary in size depending on the amount of mash you are making. If you have never fermented before start out small, perfect it and then work toward larger quantities.

Fermenting containers

Fermenting containers can come in many different shapes and sizes as many products do. Make sure you wash and sterilize you’re your containers especially if you have used them for other fermentation experiments.

8 oz mason jars and fermentation lid

I have so many uses for these jars when I am making hot sauce or experimenting with different recipes. They work great for fermenting small batches because it is easier to measure the pepper and brine ratio. Also the glass allows for a quick visual on what is happening.

Obviously if you plan on making gallons of hot sauce these small jars will not work and you will need to increase volume. If you have standard wide mouth mason jars get the airlock lids here from Amazon.

Pickle jar

This is a larger version of the mason jar and make sure that the jar has a top. Also remember that a larger portion of fermented peppers will be more difficult to measure the brine. The Picklemeister from Amazon is a one gallon jar that includes the airlock. Check it out through this link or just get the airlock here.

Fermenting Crock

These are available in glass or ceramic and either are suitable for fermenting hot peppers. As stated above I prefer the glass to “see the action” but these work great for small batches. Here is a half gallon with weight.

Fermenting jar

This will obviously hold a gallon of fermented peppers or mash and could make more than a gallon of hot sauce depending on what the ingredients are added.

5 Gallon Buckets

I have seen 5-gallon bucket used for many applications in making hot sauce but I have never used one of them to ferment peppers. The convenience of the sealed top and carrying handle are great features and these are also great for stacking.

Plastic drum

These can come in many sizes and are similar to what Sriracha from Huy Foods use for their fermentation process. You may need to modify the lid for fermentation purposes depending on where you purchase.

Oak Barrels

This is what the pro use. Tabasco ages their hot peppers in re charred oak barrels. Oak barrels can vary in size but typically the larger 55 to 65 gallon white oak barrels are what is used, some even larger. Typically used for whiskey and wine different subtle “flavors” can be detected depending on the wood and the char level.

You can purchase new oak barrels from Amazon if you feel confident in your fermentation abilities or you can purchase the Amazing Pepper Barrel from Thousand Oaks Barrel Co here also through Amazon. This is great for beginning oak barrel fermentation projects.

Oak barrels will cost more than some of the other fermentation containers. Money can be saved by buying used or re purposed barrels but they often for decorative reasons and may not want to be used for fresh hot sauce.

Making sauce

As stated at the beginning of this article the process of making the sauce will be as simple as if you were making unfermented hot sauce. Strain the mash and blend until it reaches the constancy that you want. Add vinegar or other spices to your liking or use this simple recipe below.

10 oz of jalapeno (12 – 15 peppers)

½ of garlic (5 – 6 cloves)

2 cups of brine (1.5 tablespoons salt / 2 cups spring water)

Fermented hot sauce kit

I love kits because you usually get everything you need in one package and can learn a lot from something that already works. If you have never fermented before, purchasing a 60 gallon oak barrel for $250.00 only to find your peppers have rotted over the past 6 months can be a big investment. Farm Steady has a great kit through this link. Learn the process, perfect it and move onto the oak barrel.

Fermenting hot sauce procedure

Do fermented peppers need air?

The breakdown of your hot peppers, due to the fermentation process, will require the release of air. This environment without air is known as anerobic. This can be done with an airlock lid or by opening the top of the container periodically to release the gasses made from fermentation.

  1. Choose your container
  2. Cut the stems off the peppers and slice them in half the long way
  3. Put them in the jar with or without other ingredients
  4. Mix the brine separately so the salt dissolves and add it to the peppers
  5. Push the peppers down with a weight
  6. Screw the top on tightly
  7. Store at room temperature or between 60 – 70
  8. Remove the lid everyday for a week to release gases if you are not using an airlock top

Experiment with fermenting peppers at a different duration to achieve deep, rich flavor level. Varieties of peppers may ferment at various durations and create flavor intensities not achieved otherwise.  Don’t attempt to duplicate flavors from well known brands…be unique and ferment with different salt types, different water and different durations.

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