Fermented Hot Pepper Sauce

In mid-September peppers were in full swing at the local farmers market.  I purchased a dozen ghost peppers, and two large red bells. Time to make fresh hot pepper sauce with four easy steps:  Chop. Salt. Pack.  Wait.

(Chop & Salt) I removed the stems and whirled in a Cuisinart until thoroughly blended, and then added a pinch of salt toward the end.

(Pack) I poured the slurry into a quart jar and covered with fly-deterrent cloth (not shown).  As soon as the ferment gets going, the solids float and get pushed up by the CO2 production.

Stir twice a day to submerge the solids and to prevent mold from forming on the surface of the ferment.  If it does (see below), stir it in and stir more frequently.  The mold is harmless, but can impart a flavor I find distasteful. So, keep stirring.

(Wait) After two weeks, I transferred the sauce to a jar with an airlock.  No more oxygen means no more mold forming on top. (And no more stirring.) The sauce keeps fermenting with the airlock and it’s pH lowering. It’s normal for there to be continued separation of solids, top and bottom, and clear liquid in the middle.  

After 6 weeks from step one, I filtered the sauce through cheesecloth to remove the seeds and then added vinegar to stabilize (meaning, the pH drops even more from the acetic acid and the sauce won’t mold on top if left out of the refrigerator).

My yield was 14 ounces of ferment, and i added 6 oz. of vinegar for a total of 20 oz. of fermented hot pepper sauce.

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33 thoughts on “Fermented Hot Pepper Sauce

  1. That’s an excellent recipe and one that we will be making when our vegetable futures are harvested early next year. Cheers for a fantastic recipe :)

  2. Looks delicious, Was any water added to the mash or will the peppers and liquid seperate when fermenting like they did in the 2nd and 4th photos? Thanks for sharing.

    • All the liquid in the ferment came only from the peppers. The reason for the bell peppers was to add liquid since the ghost peppers were small and would have yielded little fermented sauce. Every vegetable juice I’ve fermented separated during the ferment: carrot, celery, beet, pepper, burdock. During the initial ferment from a few days to two weeks, generally all the solids float (2nd photo) and need to be stirred often to keep them submerged and mold free. Then, things change, and some solids sink while certain others float leaving mostly clear liquid in the middle. (4th photo) The solids that float tend to be more coagulated and lumpy. They usually get removed when I suction out the oil and/or moldy layer on top of the ferment. (I sometimes add an inch layer of olive oil to the ferment to block oxygen entrance but in this case I used an airlock.)
      The bottom solids are more of a slurry and easily remix into the ferment.

  3. Thanks Favero,
    That makes a lot more sense to my own pepper fermenting. I’ve been experimenting with a variety peppers (excluding bell) and have noticed that they appear to separate into pulp and liquid however never enough to make the pulp float. Most of the time the liquid just surrounds the mash and the level doesn’t change. I am getting the whitish mould on the surface, I was just going to it skim off then soak remaining pepper ferment in vinegar then strain, drain and enjoy.

    Do the peppers need to be bright and ripe or can green Jalapenos (and other unripened chillies) be fermented?

    Thanks again
    DTCJ

  4. This is awesome! I love hot sauce and I have no idea why it didn’t occur to me to ferment it!

    Have you tried not adding vinegar and just sticking it into the fridge? I’m curious if I can get away with just a straight ferment. I’ll probably try it anyway, but if you’ve had horrible luck with it, maybe not.

    • I have not tried the no-vinegar-in-the-fridge option. I keep my hot sauce in the cupboard since the fridge is too full already. And without vinegar, mold grows on top.

  5. We have been fermenting hot sauce for about a month now, although we haven’t gotten as much bubbling action as you appear to be getting. Is that normal? We see some foam on top, and a few bubbles rising now and then. Perhaps our ambient temps are too low? We like a cool house typically around 64 degrees. The solids have fallen to the bottom and the water is a rich red color. Just not sure if it’s working.

    Also, what is the longest you ferment them? I’ve read up to a year but that you should put the ferment in the fridge after a month and continue that way.

    Thanks!

    • Consider tasting the sauce at intervals during the fermenting process. That will certainly let you know if it’s working. Also, put the ferment in a warmer location and see if things speed up. I generally put my ferments in ‘the vault’ (an unheated room in the basement, under the porch) after the initial 2-week rapid ferment on the kitchen counter. I have juices that are still fermenting in the vault after more than a year. My favorite is radish juice over 1 year old. I cap it after 6 months and let it carbonate.

  6. I’ve never done this before, but tried starting a few batches according to your instructions and have some questions:

    I started them 4 days ago and there’s been little change. The mixture isn’t separating and I haven’t noticed much water being extracted. Do I just need to be patient? I used 10oz of hot peppers and 16oz of sweet, thicker-walled peppers, though not bells. It was a fairly runny, pourable slurry after chopping in the processor and doesn’t seem to have changed much in consistency. It’s also starting to smell “off” even though I’m stirring every day. The smell is as though it’s going bad, but no visible mold has formed (how can it if I’m stirring every day?).

    Also, I’m wondering why you only use a “pinch” of salt (1/2 tsp?), which isn’t very much. Other fermentation recipes I’ve read say to use at least 6% salt by weight and to only use kosher or non-iodized salt.

    Thank in advance for any advice you can give!

    • Jeff- I have limited troubleshooting experience with ferments. Only two weeks ago I discarded my first fermented juice ever. It was carrot juice. I typically wait to stir fermenting juices until mold appears. It separated and bubbled, as is typical, and when I stirred the first mold that appeared, the juice was very viscous. Thick and mucous-like, actually. Its odor was not disgusting, though it didn’t smell typical of a lacto-ferment. I poured it out.
      (I’ve fermented hundreds of batches of foods, and had only two others go bad: a huckleberry-peach meade, and a whole-head cabbage kraut.)
      My partner often juices vegetables for drinking, and always gives me a tall serving, which, nearly always, I ferment. So, I add a pinch of salt to what is typically a pint or less of juice, and let it set in a quart jar on the cupboard. After the initial ferment is done, I transfer it to a narrow neck bottle and put it in the vault for a few months (or a year). For a pint or less of juice, and pinch of salt seems adequate. And I favor less salt (except for kraut or kimchee, where too little salt will affect texture, resulting in a mushy product).
      I’m fermenting some half-gallons of tomato juice and likely used 1 tablespoon of salt. And when I make miso paste, I generally use half the salt of any recipe I’ve followed.
      Separation of juice and pulp is much more obvious in the juiced vegetables where the pulp is very fine. When I ferment blended peppers, the pulp is more coarse and separation is more subtle. It always happens though, even if it takes more time to occur.

  7. Favero and Jeff,

    I have only been fermenting peppers for a short time too and have used a similar process to Faveros. In one batch I fermented Jalapenos for four weeks and another batch of Chilli and Large Capsicums has been fermenting for the past 8 weeks. Neither of these have separated to the point where the mash floats however they both have turned into a very wet slurry and when strained the liquid is delicious. I figure that different types of chilli and capsicums produce different quantities of liquid however they still ferment the same. Perhaps with more time the mash will separate enough to float. Ironically my Jalapeno sauce is nice and hot and spicy to taste on its own but when put onto foods the flavour seems to disappear. Strange

  8. I, too, have a question about the white mold and the “off” smell. I began fermenting red peppers about 4 weeks ago (Santa Fe) and one of the jars has no mold but does have an “off” smell, like when my husband’s salsa is going bad. The other jar has both a thin layer of mold (I skimmed) and the off smell.
    Question: Will this sauce taste good if I strain it? It smells more “gone bad” than fermented.
    Question: Has anyone tried adding a little sugar to the pepper mix to give the bacteria more food to munch on?

    • Question: Will this sauce taste good if I strain it? Reply: I suggest you strain and taste. Doing so will not affect the fermentation process, and will let you know how it’s proceeding, flavor wise. In fact, you don’t need to strain to taste: try a spoonful and see how it is. You don’t need to swallow it- just put some in your mouth, swish it around a bit, they spit. There will be plenty of flavor on your palette.
      Question: Has anyone tried adding a little sugar to the pepper mix to give the bacteria more food to munch on? Reply: I have never added sugar to a lacto-bacteria ferment, as yeast are far more likely to utilize the sugar than are the bacteria. So, you might end up with a different community of micro-flora, and perhaps some alcohol content, as a result of the added sugar.

  9. So I’m happy to report after trying a few different things to get my hot sauce ferment warm enough, that using a seedling heat mat has done the trick. I read about it on another fermentation forum. It heats the area from 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the ambient temp. It literally “woke” my hot sauce up and it’s truly fermenting as it should have been. I guess I didn’t have the right conditions before. I’m looking forward to reporting back in a few weeks. Fingers crossed!

  10. The Red Savina Hab is just about the sweetest pepper in the garden! Why destroy that sweet taste that pops so nicely when you eat a fresh one? Next time, just blend it with a bit of apple cider vinegar, and keep the sugars intact! Most sauce companies ruin the peppers by packing them in brine (salt water) which allows the fermentation. What a disappointment!

  11. I started fermenting cayenne and red sweet and red thai peppers in October with salt. I left them out in an unheated building after the initial action. I haven’t done anything to them and there is about 1/4 inch of mold on them. I have strained off the mold and they taste good. Is this okay? Or, is the mold dangerous at this point?

    • Surface mold and yeasts are ubiquitous with vegetable ferments. Unless I have installed an air-lock device of some kind on a fermenting food, I expect the molds and yeasts to participate, too. Scrape it off and enjoy the ferment beneath.

    • Nope, not a problem at all. Depending on the species of pepper, the seeds could contribute to the heat in the sauce. If I blend the peppers, I remove the stems first since they can be bitter.

  12. I followed a recipe to make a mash of habaneros, serranos, garlic, and 6% kosher salt around the end of October. It’s been sitting for 3 months. I think I may have used too much salt. I noticed a few tiny bubbles that would suspend in the mash over time, but it never produced enough liquid to float anything. It never grew any mold. It smells and looks fine. My only concern is the possibility of botulism since I never got that awesome super-bubbly fermentation action. From what I understand, botulism doesn’t add anything to appearance or smell. Since this mash never produced much liquid, is it possible it still fermented enough to prevent botulism, or does fermentation need more liquid to work? I’m adding a little vinegar and blending it to a liquid sauce, but I’m thinking about boiling the sauce as well to be safe.

    • Lacto-fermented raw vegetables create an environment that is antagonistic to the bacteria that causes botulism. It is the accumulation of acids created by the fermenting bacteria that out compete, and make an environment that is inhospitable to, the bacteria that make humans ill (like salmonella, e. coli, listeria, clostridium, and botulism). Copious liquid is not required for the fermentation to work.

    • I thought I should get a second opinion for this reply, so I went to my neighbor Queen’s house with a bottle of this year’s hot sauce and a few dipping hors d’oeuvres and we got into her hot tub for the tasting. We started by pouring some hot sauce into a glass and sniffing the bouquet. I described it as bright: she thought subtle yet complex. (I strained this batch so although it’s not clear, it’s very thin- all liquid and no solids.)

      Then we took a sip. Queen quickly replied ‘tangy and effervescent’. I get a initial reminiscence of Tobasco’s red pepper sauce, then the tang overpowers that thought, and the heat quickly fills my soft palette. The pepper flavor is light and almost fruity. Then the heat spreads down to the inside of my cheeks and holds there awhile.

      After we finished the hors d’oeuvres, we continued by simply sipped from the bottle, never feeling overcome by the heat, nor tired of the tang. The pepper flavor is subtle, and has a gypsy-like quality, moving easily and showing up in different places of my mouth, throat and palette.

  13. I just wanted to contribute my fermented hot pepper sauce method to the discussion. I mixed chopped jalapeños with salt and cram them into a wide mouth quart jar. Then I take a large slice of something (I’ve used apple and winter radish in the past) and put it on top and use it to press the peppers down (this will eventually hold most of them under the liquid that forms) . On top of that I put a smaller jar (1/4 pint jar) filled with pennies to press down the whole lot. Then I put an un-lubricated condom over the mouth of the quart jar and put it some place dark for 8 weeks. The condom keeps oxygen out and prevents any mold from forming. After 8 weeks I blend up the peppers and the liquid (toss apple – but the radish is delicious) in the blender and poured into clean bottles. It is excellent! I put it on everything.

  14. Mexican hot sauce typically focuses more on flavor than on intense heat. Chipotles are a very popular ingredient of Mexican hot sauce and although the sauces are hot, the individual flavors of the peppers are more pronounced. Vinegar is used sparingly or not at all in Mexico but some sauces are high in vinegar content similar to the American Louisiana-style sauces. Some hot sauces made in Mexico may include using the seeds from the popular achiote plant for coloring or a slight flavor additive. .

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  15. I love Sara Swanson’s method as well as the one posted here. I think they both have their merits concerning flavor.
    Also, I don’t see that anyone has used a food mill to remove seeds and skins which in, my opinion would help the flavor. However, the peppers may need to be par boiled to process them in this way. I think the companies that make hot sauce may use this metod instead of straining afterward. Does anyone know?
    I will soon be receiving my continous feed food mill from UPS and perhaps I will try this myself.
    Also, I think there is a call for the use of a Japanese pickle press (inexpensive). I make salted cucumber and cabbage pickles in mine and they come out crisp and wonderful. Perhaps I need another press for lenghty fermentations.
    Please let me know if anyone else has used either the press or food mill.

  16. BTW, Shirely Haecker’s post has a link to a tour package site that has nothing to do with fermentation. This kind of spam is really insidious and especially annoying.

  17. Hi Favero,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, it’s been very helpful. I find there’s mostly crap on the internet on fermented hot sauces, so this was a breath of fresh air.
    Quick question for you. I let one of my hot sauces go for a couple days and it took on a different odor. It went from the familiar smell to something a bit more sour–it had a bit of that alcoholy smell you get with rotting fruit. Just wondering: is that bad? Bad, as in harmful. And is there a way of fixing it?
    Thanks!

    • No, it’s probably not harmful to eat, especially if you don’t see any competing molds on the ferment. Go ahead and taste it – don’t swallow, just put some in your mouth, move it around a bit, then spit. See what’s happening on your palette.
      The sour odor is likely the result of a different organism living in the ferment, and I don’t know of a way to erase its odor.

  18. I’m so happy to come across your website. I pureed red hot peppers and mixed them in olive oil and left them in a few bottles on the counter. Now I’m noticing major bubbling and wasn’t sure if this is ok. Glad to know fermenting if done on purpose!! The oil tastes great but not sure if I would poison anyone I offer it to. Thanks again! Ed

    • I fermented and ate fermented foods for years and never even thought of botulism, let along worry about it, until I began teaching fermenting classes and discovered the enormous fear around eating ferments and getting sick. The only reason I ever think about it is because someone asks the question.
      The bacteria that produces the toxin that can cause botulism requires an environment with no oxygen (like when using an airlock), and favors a high pH. This ferment uses bacteria that produce lactic acid, and makes the sauce acidic (low pH). Because of the acidity, there will be no botulism-causing organisms in the ferment.
      Food safety in fermenting can be assured by two very simple guildlines: 1) use traditional methods, and 2) use a successful (trusted) inoculant (if you even use one).
      Now, to answer your question: Do we need to worry about botulism following this process? No!
      All other questions can likely be answered in Sandor Katz’s text, where he devotes several paragraphs to this topic. (See The Art of Fermentation).

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