The results of what is considered a hot sauce can be achieved with many different combinations of ingredients and with many different processes that can all produce different acidic levels. A common way of making homemade and commercially manufactured hot sauce is by fermenting the whole peppers or pepper mash and this results in a sauce with a lower pH level.
The lower the pH level is for a hot sauce the longer it will be preserved. A hot sauce with a pH that is too low will be very acidic tasting but well preserved. Generally speaking, the pH of a fermented hot sauce will be below 3.6 on the pH scale and this will provide the necessary preservation and long shelf life. The lower pH will give a fermented hot sauce a sharper pungency, tanginess, or tart flavor than a non-fermented sauce.
A hot sauce recipe does not need to be crafted around a certain pH level but if you make sauce regularly or create your unique recipes knowing what the pH level is can be important. This can determine the longevity of the sauce, the storage, or how it may affect the human body’s pH when consumed at large levels. This can be true of any style or type of hot sauce but is considerably noticeable in a fermented hot sauce. Read more here on the Difference Between Fermented and Non-Fermented Hot Sauce.
A fermented hot sauce will have a lower pH level than a non-fermented and this is due to the increase in bacteria that the fermentation process causes. The level of acidity gradually decreases through out the fermentation process but eventually finds a termination point. This level of acid is important for preserving the sauce well after it is made and bottled. It is the brine solution used to make a fermented sauce that needs to be the right combination of salt and water to allow fermentation without decay of the ingredients.
Fermentation is the slow bacterial breakdown of solids, specifically the hot peppers in a hot sauce and this process creates the acidity or low pH of fermented hot sauce. Examining the process even further places emphasis on the breakdown of sugars by enzymes. The process of fermentation begins immediately and can take about a week, although many sauces get fermented much longer. Many traditionally fermented hot sauces use the process for months or even years but the process does slow down throughout the duration. The longer the fermentation, the lower the pH level but there is a point of termination where the sauce reaches its peak. A hot sauce that is fermented for 3 years like Tabasco® will not necessarily become acidic to the point where it is not consumable. It also means that a fermented hot sauce like Sriracha which is only aged for 6 months can have the same pH as one that is fermented much longer.
Knowing what the pH level of a fermented hot sauce is can provide information on how long it will last or how long it can be consumed at a safe level. Hot sauce is notorious for being fresh for a long time, but some sauces will go bad before others. Read more here on How Long Hot Sauce Lasts. The pH of a fermented hot will gradually increase or become lower over time but this does not necessarily mean that it is preserved better. The reading needs to be below 4.6 to prohibit the growth of bacteria. Once the sauce has been stabilized this shouldn’t change.
A fermented hot sauce will have a lower pH than many other types of sauces and this will allow it to be stored unrefrigerated for long periods. A hot sauce that has been “freshly” fermented may need to sit in room temperature conditions before it is bottled until it finalizes or stabilizes the fermentation process. Some of the bacteria within a fermented sauce will continue to perform the fermentation even after it has been bottled and this could cause bottles to explode. Typically when the ingredients are added to the fermented hot peppers the fermentation process will stop but it can also be halted with very cold temperatures or pasteurization.
What is the right pH?
There is no right or wrong pH level for a fermented hot sauce. All hot sauce will eventually “go bad” no matter how acidic it is. However, knowing the pH level or testing sauce to understand these levels is important for the longevity or freshness of the sauce. It can also be important for consuming foods that are either acidic or alkaline. Some acidic hot sauces can irritate the stomach and can instigate heartburn if consumed in large quantities. Some theories may claim that a fermented hot sauce is healthier than non-fermented but unless they are consumed in very large quantities the benefits may not be much of a gain towards a healthier lifestyle.
How to control the pH of a fermented hot sauce
Controlling the pH of a fermented hot sauce during the fermentation process is very difficult. The idea behind fermentation is to produce bacteria that make something acidic. This process in and of itself lowers the pH level and altering this could affect the process. The acidic level will continue to decrease over time but at a very slow rate. Even adding high alkaline ingredients like fruits and vegetables will not control the fermentation process. The ratio of the contents in the brine solution that is used to ferment can directly control the fermentation process.
Brine is a ratio of water and salt that is the necessary solution needed for fermentation. A proper brine for fermenting hot sauce should be a 5% brine solution. That means it should consist of 95% water and 5% salt. This may be a higher salt content than some other types of brine used for fermentation because hot peppers will already have a higher water content than other fruits and vegetables. This ratio shouldn’t change too much but can fluctuate between 4% to 6%. Some brine solutions for fermenting dried peppers can go as 3% salt because they don’t have any water.
More on controlling
The pH level of a fermented hot sauce can certainly be controlled after the fermentation process. It can be lowered by adding vinegar or citrus, but many fermented sauces will already have a sourness to them so adding these liquids will increase tartness.
Hot peppers are generally fermented at room temperature or about 68 to 72 degrees. This temperature can fluctuate slightly but it will change the rate that fermentation occurs. Refrigeration will slow down the fermentation process significantly and is not necessary during the process. Refrigeration isn’t needed to keep peppers “fresh” because it is a breakdown of bacteria that creates the fermentation.
The pH level of a fermented hot sauce is not reflected much in the consistency of the sauce but it can color can. The whole peppers or pepper mash used during fermentation becomes pale in color and appearance but this does not reflect the flavor.