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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.