Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Preserving Floyd: Joe's Hot Rounds Hot Sauce

I've done a little fermenting in my time: various fruit wines including a kick-ass dry peach that I've never been able to reproduce, vinegars which I wrote about here and here, preserved lemons, and yogurt and creme fraiche.  I tried to make sauerkraut last year but it was a dismal failure.  I used savoy cabbage which is what I blamed the failure on but now, armed with a little more knowledge, I think I oversalted.

Fermenting is one of the oldest methods of food preservation, it uses the most basic of equipment and ingredients, and besides being delicious, fermented foods are very healthy, adding good flora and beasties to our internal systems.
So, with my new bit of knowledge, a determination to get the hang of fermenting vegetables, and a pile of extremely dangerous little peppers I set off to ferment me some hot sauce!

Two of the seminars I attended at the Mother Earth News Fair were on the ease and wonders of fermentation by one of the current authorities on the subject, Sandor Katz.  Sandor dispels all the mystery surrounding the technique and makes it instantly accessible to everyone.  I'm currently working my way through Wild Fermentation, his first book which gets you right into fermenting, and The Art of Fermentation, which contains more in-depth history and science of fermentation.

Also, I'd like to point out that as far as food safety goes, fermenting is safer than canning.  Fred Breidt, microbiologist, USDA-ARS USDA Professor at the University of North Carolina has this to say about fermented foods:
"With fermented products there is no safety concern. I can flat-out say that. The reason is the lactic acid bacteria that carry out the fermentation are the world's best killers of other bacteria," says Breidt, who works at a lab at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, where scientists have been studying fermented and other pickled foods since the 1930s.  Breidt adds that fermented vegetables, for which there are no documented cases of food-borne illness, are safer for novices to make than canned vegetables.

Let me start off by saying WEAR GLOVES!!!  Mostly, I think wearing gloves for food prep increases the chances for cross-contamination (because you don't feel the stuff on your hands, thus you don't wash it off) and only provides the illusion of food safety.  But capsaicin, the stuff that makes peppers hot, will irritate your skin and if you get it into your eyes or any mucus membranes or delicate skin anywhere (and I do mean anywhere), you will suffer.  So wear disposable gloves and be very aware of what you're touching while wearing them.  If you have to take them off during the procedure, throw them out and put on a new pair when you return to the work.  Trying to put the old ones back on will spread the pepper juice around to places you were keeping it away from.

I started out by washing and removing the stems and green caps from the peppers.  You can use your choice of hot peppers for this, I had tons of the Joe's hot rounds.  I kept the peppers whole as much as possible without exposing the seeds and membranes inside.  That's because these peppers are so darn hot I wanted to handle them as little as possible.  That's where the greatest concentration of heat is- the seeds and membranes.  Trimmed up I had a little over a quart and a half of peppers.  To this I added a medium thinly sliced onion and 6 whole skinned garlic cloves.  You can add more or less onion and garlic as you prefer.  Next time I'm going to add a lot more garlic.
Sandor Katz talked about how it is possible to ferment vegetables without any added salt but states that he preferred to salt to taste when he ferments.  That was my mistake last year.  I used a 5% salt brine, the results of which I found to be inedible.  I was kind of leery about tasting these peppers so I decided to use between a 2.5% and 3.6% brine (a 3.6% brine is 2 tablespoons of salt to 1 quart of water).  You can use any salt but be aware that the fillers and iodine in table salt may lead to a cloudy solution.  I used kosher salt.  Unrefined sea salt is often recommended for the minerals it brings to the mix.  If you are using tap water, boil it and allow it to return to room temperature or let it sit out for several hours to remove the chlorine.  I sprinkled the peppers with a tablespoon of  salt and allowed them to sit for several hours.  This allowed the salt to start drawing the juice out of the peppers, onions, and garlic.  The other tablespoon of salt I dissolved into the quart of water.

While the salt was working on the peppers I got my fermenting vessel ready.  I used a 2 quart mason jar, perfect for fermenting small batches of veg since they're too big to can anything other than grape juice in.  I cut a disk a little larger than the mouth of the jar out of the bottom of a large yogurt container.  With a paper punch I cut a series of holes around it.  This got laid on top of the peppers after they were packed in the jar to keep them below the brine.

Once there was a good bit of liquid in the bottom of the bowl I packed the peppers, onion and garlic into the aforementioned jar along with the accumulated juice.

I then poured in enough of the brine to cover the peppers, then added the perforated plastic disk.
The disk is just large enough to catch on the shoulder of the jar and keep the peppers submerged.

Next I filled a strong plastic freezer bag with the leftover brine to weight down the disk and seal out air at the same time.  Use brine in the bag so if the bag leaks the brine in the jar won't be diluted.

Label and date the jar, put it in a bowl (in case your ferment runneth over like mine did) and put it in a warm dark place.  Or cover it with a towel and put it in a warm place.
Our house runs around 68F-70F so it's on the cool side for a ferment.  This just means that it will take longer until the ferment reaches the finished stage.  Katz says that a slow ferment imparts more complex flavor than a quick one.  I'm a rookie so I'll take his word for it but complex flavor sounds good for a hot sauce!

While the peppers were in process I was talking fermenting with an acquaintance who does a bit of her own fermenting, making water kefir and kombucha for her family instead of drinking sodas.  I asked her if she would do a workshop on fermenting and she said she would love to but it was very expensive to get into because you needed to use "Pickl-Its" (tm).  Having never heard of these wonders I ran home to my trusty computer to look them up.
Image 2-Liter
It's a bail and gasket jar with a hole drilled in the lid for an airlock for $30.  Really.  $30.

I ran down to my local wine making supply store hoping to find a drilled #13 white gum plug.  They didn't have any that size but they did have small gaskets to fit airlocks.  So I bought a gasket (.40) and an airlock (.85) and ran home to make my own pickl-it (so not tm'd).

I cut another circle the size of a wide mouth jar out of the lid of a large yogurt container.  Use a wide mouth jar lid for the template and cut just inside the traced circle.  In the center of that punch a hole a little larger than the inner circumference of the airlock gasket.  Fit the gasket into this hole (cussing helps) and fit the airlock into the gasket.  I swiped a second gasket from a Tattler lid to fit on the rim of the wide mouth jar.  This second gasket just assures me that I've got a good seal between the ring, lid and jar.  You may be able to find a bail jar gasket at your local hardware store or any store that carries canning supplies.  I filled the airlock with water, removed the bag of brine from the jar and replaced it with my McGyvered pickl-it lid (so not tm'd).  Total cost: under $1.50 and a little time.

What the airlock or the bag o' brine does is allow the good beasties that came with the veg in your ferment to do their job without being challenged by less desirable beasties floating in the air.  At the same time it allows the CO2 from the ferment to off-gas.  If your ferment is slow you may not see the bubbles rising and escaping.  But if you have an active ferment you'll see bubbles rise and escape through the water in the airlock.  Sometimes you'll see mold form on the surface of your fermented veg.  Simply remove this and any veg on the top layer that's affected.  You're more likely to find this in a crock or jar that's been topped with a plate and a weight (like I did originally) to keep the veg under the brine because some air can get in and interact with the surface.  Don't freak, the veg under the brine is all right.  You are less likely to see mold in an air-locked vessel.

Now I sat back and waited for the peppers to reach my desired level of sour.  Most pepper sauce makers I consulted said 7-10 days depending on the ambient temperatures so at day 7 I plucked up the courage to taste one.  Oh, yeah, it was burn your lips and don't swallow hot but I could taste the beginning of a sour there.  I ended up waiting 14 days until the peppers were my preferred sour- a little tangy but not puckery.  I thought the ferment had tamed the heat somewhat but no, it just made it sneaky.  Before the burn set in I detected fruity with the tangy and liked what I tasted.  Then I headed for the milk.

On day 14, after putting out the fire in my mouth, I drained the peppers and saved the brine.  I dumped the peppers into the food processor and whirled them until the puree resembled oatmeal in texture.
I poured the puree into a non-reactive pot and added 4 tablespoons of light brown sugar, 1/4 cup of my own white wine vinegar (or you could use distilled or rice wine vinegar) and 1/4 cup of the reserved brine (which has heat and flavor in it).  I brought the puree just to a boil then turned it down to simmer for 5 minutes.  Doing this kills the probiotics that are in the sauce but it also stops the sauce from fermenting.  (You can skip this step if you want the probiotics to remain but store the sauce in the coldest part of the fridge to bring the ferment to a near standstill.  Remember to loosen the cap every so often to let off any gas that's formed.  Tightly capped jars with fermenting contents can and will explode.)  You may want to open the windows and ventilate well while cooking the sauce.  Also, rinse your utensils, pots, and such in cold water before washing.  I found the off-gassing from rinsing with hot water to be surprisingly strong (sniff, sniff, sniff, cough, cough, sneeze).

Next, mill or sieve the seeds and skins out of the puree.

Taste the resulting sauce carefully and adjust the seasoning with the brine, vinegar, and/or the sugar as needed.

Bottle and store in the fridge.  Allow to age for at least a month.
We tried some out the next night in a white bean, garlic and greens soup in which we normally use rooster sauce sriracha.  Michael and I agreed that while the sauce was thinner bodied than sriracha the taste, at least for now, is fruitier and fresher.  It'll be interesting to see how the flavor develops down the road.


  1. Wow! This was a great report with good pics. I understand just how you did it. I've made fermented sauerkraut and dill pickles. Now I want to try fermented small carrots.

    1. I've been thinking about carrots too. Riverstone Farm has been bringing beautiful carrots to market and I should grab some for fermenting before they disappear!