Why It Works
- Charring Fresno chiles concentrates flavor and sweetness, and lends a subtle smokiness to the hot sauce.
- Adding fresh chiles to the pepper mash helps to initiate fermentation.
- A small amount of salt brine fills any empty spaces in the mash, limiting air pockets.
- Tamari provides subtle umami notes, and factors into the salt brine.
- Fermenting with an airlock inhibits unwanted microbial growth.
- Blending the sauce with roasted garlic oil results in a smooth, rich sauce with even more savory intensity.
Making fermented hot sauce can be as simple or involved a process as you want. This recipe employs a few more intensive, left-field techniques than your standard hot sauce: Charring the peppers; fermenting a mash in a modified brine; and emulsifying that sauce with an infused oil. These techniques produce a smooth, velvety sauce with savory depth and a complex balance of smokiness and funky acidity. If you’re looking for something a bit simpler, check out our recipes for double berry habanero or chipotle, garlic, and cumin hot sauce.
Charring peppers brings out their natural sweetness and concentrates flavor; it also adds a slight smokiness that persists even after fermentation. Here I choose thin-walled, relatively fleshy chiles like Fresno peppers (which have a medium heat level), which can withstand charring or broiling without burning altogether. Because such high temperatures destroy beneficial lactic acid bacteria required to initiate fermentation, I set aside a measured amount of fresh Fresno chiles to incorporate into a coarsely pureed mash along with the charred chiles. A bit of tamari provides an umami boost that mellows slightly after fermentation and melds seamlessly with the sauceit also acts as an additional source of salt to inhibit unwanted microbial growth.
The tamari also factors into a liquid salt brine. Fermenting the mash in a small amount of salt brine helps to fill any pockets of air in the mash, encourages an anaerobic environment, and helps mitigate unwanted kahm yeast growth.
To finish the sauce, I blend the mash with vinegar and season it. Of course, I could stop there. But because we’re being extra fancy, I slowly blend in roasted garlic oil until the sauce is rich and emulsified. The oil lightens the texture of the sauce and gives it body; it also brings a kick of roasted allium flavor that complements the smokiness of the charred peppers.* Finally, straining yields a velvety, ultra-smooth sauce that looks perfect on the plate.
*To those of you out there worried about the risk of botulism and garlic, I’ve got a few points. First, properly oven-roasted garlic confit oil relies on temperatures and timing that far exceed the recommended temperature and time to kill botulism toxin and its spores. Second, botulism is typically a concern for low-acid food products above a pH of 4.6. In most of my tests, this sauce averaged a pH around 3.4—a level at which botulism cannot grow and toxin formation is completely inhibited. Third, growth of botulism is also slowed or inhibited by competing microorganisms present in a system—in this case, lactic acid bacteria.
This fermented hot sauce is all about building layers of flavor throughout the process. The choices I make all produce intense flavors in their own right. But because I implement those choices at different stages of fermentation and processing, they have the space to meld and balance each other. That’s probably an overly complicated way of saying: There’s no wrong way to go with fermented hot sauce. My hope is that this recipe gives you some inspiration to explore your own flavors, combinations, and treatments.
- For The Mash:
- 25 ounces (700g) stemmed Fresno chile peppers (from about 1 3/4 pounds/800g whole peppers)
- 1/4 cup (60ml) bottled, filtered, or distilled water
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) tamari
- 1 tablespoon (10g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- To Finish the Hot Sauce:
- 1/2 cup (120ml) distilled white vinegar
- 2 teaspoons (10g) sugar
- 2 teaspoons (5g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1/2 cup (120ml) roasted garlic oil
For The Mash: Adjust oven rack as close as possible to broiler element and preheat broiler to high. On a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet, arrange 10 1/2 ounces (300g) peppers in a single layer. Broil until peppers are blistered and well charred, 5 to 8 minutes per side. Cooked peppers should weigh about 7 ounces (200g) after broiling. Let peppers cool completely before using.
In a food processor, pulse charred peppers, remaining 14 1/2 ounces (400g) fresh peppers, water, tamari, and salt until coarse mash forms, 16 to 20 pulses.
Transfer pepper mash to a clean wide-mouth, 1-quart canning jar. Tap jar lightly on palm to remove any air pockets. Cover surface of mash with plastic wrap, pressing gently to ensure full contact, and weigh down with fermentation weight or small jar lid. Seal jar with airlock lid following manufacturer's instructions.
Store pepper mash in dark area away from sun and let ferment, maintaining an ambient temperature between 55°F (13°C) and 75°F (24°C), for 7 days; check mixture daily for signs of gas formation (mash will climb up sides of jar; this is a good sign). Starting on the 7th day, taste mash daily until it has reached a pleasantly sour flavor (like sauerkraut); the total fermentation time can take anywhere from 7 to 21 days.
To Finish the Hot Sauce: Scrape mash into a blender. Add vinegar, sugar, and salt, and blend on high speed until smooth, about 1 minute. With blender running, slowly stream in garlic oil and blend until smooth and emulsified, about 1 minute longer. Measure pH using strips or pH-meter to make sure sauce is about 3.4; if it is too high, lower pH to 3.4 with more vinegar as needed.
Strain sauce through fine-mesh strainer set over a nonreactive bowl or large container, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible; reserve solids for another use (see note).
Transfer strained hot sauce to glass bottles or jar, cover, and keep refrigerated until ready to use. Sauce will keep refrigerated for up to 1 month.
Broilers tend to vary greatly in intensity and speed of cooking. Check the peppers after 5 minutes to monitor the rate of charring in Step 1. If you can’t find tamari, regular soy sauce will work as well, but the umami flavor will be slightly less pronounced.
Reserved strained solids from the fermentation can be incorporated into a mignonette for oysters, added to sofritos and other sautéed aromatic vegetable bases in soups and stews, and as an alternative to tomato and chile pastes in some recipes.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The finished hot sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 month; after that point it may experience a loss in flavor quality, though will still be safe to eat.