A Tribute to the Mighty Scotch Bonnet, Part 1: Fermented Hot Sauce

A typical harvest from my pepper garden over the course of two weeks:

Now, obviously, the majority of the harvest is other than the Mighty Scotch Bonnet itself. And some of it, frankly, is wholly unsuited for hot sauce as it were. However, if we save the sweet peppers (Chocolate Bell, Garden Sunshine) for salads and stir-frying, and if we slice and pickle the jalapeños and cubanelles; what’s left (Ghost Pepper, Scotch Bonnets, Cayennes, and Hot Cow Horns) has some serious potential to make for a flavorful sauce with some serious kick.

The first ingredient for making a good hot sauce is a glass of good beer. Today we will go with Yuengling’s Oktoberfest. Impulse buy at 6.99/sixer, not the best Oktoberfest you will ever have but damn fine for the price. If Yuengling’s traditional lager tasted this good, I might keep the fridge stocked year round… At any rate, pour yourself a glass before you go any further.

Now, as far as those peppers go: let us dispose with the outsiders:

To pickle the jalapeños and cubanelles is as simple as slicing them and covering them with a mixture of salt, vinegar, and water (to, er, be specific: 1 cup water, 1 cup white vinegar, 1 tbsp salt).

Fill mason jars with the sliced peppers and then pour in the water/salt/vinegar mixture until it just covers the peppers. These are great in salads and on sandwiches, and the way the purple jalapeños glow purple is just awesome to behold.

Now back to business. Chop the remaining peppers (that would be, in this case: 1 ghost pepper, 10 scotch bonnets, about a pound of cayenne and hot cow horn peppers, and three paprikas…trust me, once you try real paprika you will put it in anything you can), and add whatever leftover sliced jalapeños/cubanelles you couldn’t cram into the jars for pickling (waste not, want not or what not). Place the chopped peppers in a blender.

Now, for the non-pepper ingredients. If this was a vinegar-based hot sauce, I would prefer to stick to just peppers. Onions, garlic, fruit, etc can add sweetness or character or whatever, but I tend to be a purist and would prefer a hot sauce to feature a single pepper with no fillers or frills or what-not. However, this is a fermented hot sauce. Fermented hot sauces undergo a lacto-fermentation process in which lactobacilis bacterium consume sugars in the mash and produce lactic acid which pickles and preserves what is left (this is how cabbage becomes sauerkraut). Peppers do not typically have enough sugars for lacto-fermentation to be successful. Therefore, the addition of other high-sugar vegetables and/or plain table sugar is a must when making fermented hot sauce.

Onions, garlic, and carrots are good choices for vegetables which will promote fermentation. I also like to add two tablespoons or so of table sugar for good measure. Assuming fermentation takes place, the addition of sugar will NOT contribute sweetness, as the sugars will be consumed in the fermentation process. If anything, adding sugar will make the final product more SOUR as it will increase the amount of lactic acid produced.

Finally, in a lacto-fermented sauce you will need to add (1) kosher or sea salt (a couple of tablespoons should suffice for most recipes, but, if you want to be precise, shoot for 3.5% by weight), and (2) a lactobacilus starter of some sort. If this is your first fermentation experiment, the easiest source for a starter would be store-bought, live culture yogurt. Simply skim the liquid from the surface of a tub of yogurt and add it to your pepper mash. If you have any other live-culture fermented foods handy, such as pepper mash, sauerkraut, or kimchi, a spoonful or so of these will do quite well. Finally, if you are a homebrewer, a few uncrushed grains of malted barley tossed into the pepper mash will work wonders.

Once everything is pureed and well-blended, pour into a fermentation vessel. My vessel of choice is a Carlo Rossi wine jug with a stopper and airlock affixed. For long-term aging/fermentation, an airlock is essential to keep mold, yeast, and other spoiling agents at bay. Alternatively, you can ferment in a mason jar covered with plastic wrap and a rubber band. If you are unable to ferment in some sort of airtight vessel (it should not be totally airtight in any case – whatever you use MUST be able to vent the CO2 produced by fermentation), simply limit cover whatever bowl/jar/cup you are fermenting in with plastic wrap or a clean towel and process the sauce within a week or so.

Once fermentation is complete (usually a week or so), age the mash for as long as you wish. Thirty to forty-five days is a typical aging period for most amateur sauce makers. Tabasco sauce is reputably aged for three years. Use your judgment and tastebuds to find the balance you prefer. Once aging is complete, boil the sauce with a blend of vinegar and water (50:50 is usually about right) until it reaches the flavor and consistency you like, then bottle and store in the fridge. Bon Apetit!

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