Why Understanding the pH of Fermented Hot Sauce is Important

There are many methods of making or processing hot sauce that provide a unique, pungent, and tangy sauce that stands out among others. One of those unique processes is fermenting and this method can create low pH levels and therefore make a hot sauce with low acidic levels. Understanding how to semi-control the process before making hot sauce is important.

Fermented hot sauce can have an unstable pH level throughout the process. It is the process itself that causes the pH to lower or creates an acidic environment. Having the incorrect brine solution, not fermenting for long enough, or storing it under the wrong conditions will cause the pH to fluctuate.

What is pH?

The pH refers to Potential Hydrogen and is the value of hydrogen ions found in food products according to Clemson Cooperative Extension. This is evident and measured in a food product, swimming pool water, and soil. It is measured in a hot sauce to determine the amount of bacteria growth that will occur. This is directly related to how long the hot sauce will stay fresh or how long it will remain edible once it is bottled and stored.

The pH level of a fermented hot sauce is not something that can be seen, felt, or tasted. However, if a fermented hot sauce has a sour or sharp flavor it most likely has a low pH level, either from the ingredients or fermentation process.

As far as hot sauce pH is used to measure the ability of the sauce to hinder or allow bacterial growth. Nothing lasts forever including hot sauce but a fermented one having a pH of 4.6 or below at the end of the process will prevent bacterial growth and allow the sauce to age for a long time. A fermented hot sauce will typically reach a pH level that prohibits negative bacteria growth if the process is performed properly and under the correct condition. Read more to Finally Understand the Fermented Hot Sauce Process.  

The pH level is measurably different for all types of hot sauces, especially fermented sauces. Fermented hot sauce creates a low pH level suitable for a long shelf life simply through the process. Fermenting hot peppers for hot sauce forces fresh ingredients to create bacteria within a salt and water brine solution. It is this bacteria that creates an acidic environment that breaks down the hot peppers, causing a low pH level.

What causes it?

The main ingredient in hot sauce is hot peppers and hot peppers are a vegetable. Once ripened all vegetables will decay, rot or “go bad”. This is a natural occurrence in nature. Fermenting is a method of substantially slowing down this process to preserve the peppers that will become hot sauces. The “breakdown” is OK and is what is necessary to achieve fermentation. Throughout the process, the pH will gradually decrease but will eventually terminate at some point or become stable.   

How to measure it

The pH of a fermented hot sauce can be measured for accuracy with a pH meter once the fermented process is complete. The pH can be measured throughout the process but the true reading will not be produced until fermentation is complete. Other methods like litmus paper may not be as accurate but can be used for general purposes. Most manufacturers that commercially produce hot sauce will send samples to a laboratory for High-Performance Liquid Chromatography Testing (HPLC). HLTC is the most precise method of testing the pH level of a fermented hot sauce but a simple home meter can give fairly accurate results. Check out our TOP PICKS FOR pH METERS here!

What it means

Having a fermented hot sauce with a pH above 4.6 or close to a neutral range of 7 is very unusual. If this happens it probably means that your sauce did not go through the fermentation process properly. A hot sauce close to neutral or on the alkaline side of the scale is OK to consume but it will not have a very long shelf life. An alkaline hot sauce will need preservatives added or should undergo some form or preservation method to increase edibility. There are 12 Standard Hot Sauce Preservatives but most fermented hot sauces will not need them.

What does it do to the human body?

Consuming fermented products can have slight effects on the human body but it probably would not be noticeable with small consumption of fermented hot sauce. Hot sauce will have temporary negative effects on areas of the mouth and throat but minimal amounts of fermented hot sauce will not provide much of the probiotics that other foods will. Read more here on the False Claims of a Probiotic Hot Sauce.

How long does fermentation take?

The fermenting process begins immediately and can be completed in one week although many manufacturers don’t complete the process in under 6 months. Trying to ferment hot peppers in a few days will not create much of anything except salty peppers. The pH can reach a stable and low acidic level below 4 on the pH scale after about a week of fermentation.

How to make fermented hot sauce

Hot sauce does not get fermented but the hot peppers or pepper mash used to make the sauce do. The hot peppers need to sit in a brine solution and the correct mixture of the contents will allow for the fermentation process to perform properly…or not. The brine should be made separately and should consist of 1 tablespoon of salt to 1 cup of water.

Making brine

The brine used to ferment hot peppers is made of water and salt. Too much water can cause the peppers to rot and destroys the fermentation process. Too much salt will cause the peppers or pepper mash to be preserved and this will disrupt or halt the fermentation process. Review the conversion chart below to increase quantities of brine to make small, medium, or large batches of fermented peppers or mash.

1 tablespoon1 cup
2 tablespoons2 cups
¼ cup4 cups
½ cup8 cups (½ gallon)
1 cup1 gallon
5 cups5 gallons

Equipment used to ferment

There can be a variety of equipment used to ferment hot pepper. Huy Fong Foods uses 55-gallon plastic drums to ferment red jalapenos before making sriracha whereas Tabasco® uses re-charred oak wine barrels. These are examples of the fermenting process on large commercial levels and each of them will reflect the flavor and overall acidity of the hot sauce. Fermented hot sauce can be made on a smaller scale or in lower quantities such as a ceramic crock, 1 gallon glass jar, wood bucket, or oak barrels.  

Other equipment can be used to create a makeshift fermentation system. Glass, ceramic, and wood all work properly but some plastics will need to be high-quality food-grade Plastic or BPA-free. Fermenting in sealed 5-gallon buckets is fairly common for many food types but there also needs to be the ability to allow air to escape.

Process of fermenting

Once the proper brine solution is made the fermentation process will take over but the proper conditions and correct conditions need to be adhered to. Fermenting should take place in an environment that is “room” temperature and of average humidity. Containers should remain sealed because any air that enters can create harmful bacteria. Fermentation creates “healthy” bacteria that need air or gasses to escape and that is why equipment used to ferment needs a method of air escaping.

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