Above: some of the aforementioned habañeros plus the last Italian sweet frying pepper from my garden.
Locally-grown peppers are a rare commodity at the end of the dripping-wet summer we had in these parts, and an especially precious treasure now after the first frosts have hit.
I have for some time had a hankering to make homemade hot sauce, and these peppers presented the perfect opportunity.
When I started searching for recipes for hot sauce, I was delighted to discover that traditional sauces involve fermentation, of which (regular readers know) I am enamored. Fermentation is an old-timey way to preserve food, a creative craft that has been practiced in cultures throughout the world for thousands of years. I love fermentation, and have tried fermenting just about every vegetable you can imagine, and lots of other things too. I've added hot peppers to various ferments over the years, sometimes with extremely intense, mouth-scorching results, but I've never tried fermenting them alone.
Peppers and salt: all you need for a killer mash
It turns out that the most flavorful hot sauces are made from an aged pepper mash, which is just salted peppers fermented for a period of time from a few weeks to three or more YEARS. Then the mash can be used in small quantities for flavoring, or combined with vinegar to make hot sauce. Fermenting hot peppers seems like a good way to spread hot peppery joy throughout the year as well as a step on the path to superlative hot sauce, so I decided to give it a whirl.
It was surprisingly hard to find a recipe online that takes the hot-sauce maker all the way through the process from fresh peppers to fermented mash to the final sauce product. I did find a couple of posts from experienced mash makers here and here and some interesting variations on the basic mash (for instance, here's someone who uses kefir starter culture to innoculate his pepper mash with good results).
Since I have a good understanding of brine-pickling in general, and since making pepper mash seems to be a fairly straightforward brining process. Brine pickling is an ancient, low-tech preservation technique that uses no electricity and very minimal equipment and ingredients. You can read more about brining in earlier posts here and here and also at Sandor Katz's most excellent website, wildfermentation.com. Grist also has a good summary article on brining, including pepper mash making.
Mash-making in progress
In any case, here is the recipe I culled from reading lots of summaries of the process. My mash is atypical because it is adds garlic to the ferment. We have lots of extra garlic from the garden right now, since we're planting our garlic for next year now and there are lots of leftover small cloves, and adding garlic is almost never a bad thing in my opinion.
Garlickey Hot Pepper Mash
For the mash:
- 2 cups mixed hot peppers (I used green jalapeños; red, yellow, and chocolate habañeros; and one sweet red frying pepper)
- 1/2 cup peeled whole garlic cloves
- 1 Tbs fine- to medium- ground high-quality salt
- 1 Tbs coarse-ground high-quality salt
For the sauce (6 weeks to 6 months later)
- Raw apple cider vinegar to cut the mash to taste
- De-stem and de-seed the peppers. Be careful: this is serious business, because the seeds of hot peppers are really hot! You might want to wear gloves, and if you don't, scrub the heck out of your hands (I use dish soap, rubbing alcohol, and aloe vera to get the pepper sting out-I really should wear gloves) and do not touch your lips, nose, or any other sensitive parts after touching the insides of hot peppers.
- Throw the peppers and garlic in a food processor or chop by hand. I chopped mine, because I was making a small batch. Some people ferment the peppers whole, but I decided to ferment them without the seeds because I am not one of those people who seeks out crazy over-the-top hotness in my hot sauce.
- Mix in the regular-grind salt and stir or shake (easy to shake if you do it in a jar).
- Gently pour in filtered, room temperature water to cover. Make sure that all of the peppers and garlic are completely submerged in the brine.
- Cover with the coarse-grind salt.
- Wait and watch!
- Harvest the mash and make sauce by cutting with vinegar -- I haven't done this step yet, but will post when I do!
The mash in brine on day two.
*I must have heard the song Monster Mash hundreds of times throughout my childhood, always at this time of year, on record players of my elementary school classrooms, so I hope you'll forgive the gratuitious seasonal shoutout, dear reader.