Why It Works
- A combination of blackberries, blueberries, and habanero chiles produces a more homogenous mash that ferments quickly.
- Berries temper the aggressive heat of habaneros, and provide natural sweetness.
- Fermenting with an airlock inhibits unwanted microbial growth.
- Blending and straining result in a smooth sauce with an attractive sheen.
- A dash of distilled white vinegar gives the sauce additional tang, reminiscent of Tabasco sauce.
This recipe is a great introduction to the power of fermented hot sauces. The technique involves little more than making a coarse pepper mash—a roughly homogenous mixture of chopped peppers (and sometimes other fruits or vegetables) and salt. After undergoing fermentation, this mash gets blended with a little white vinegar and some seasoning—similar in style to classic Tabasco sauce. Here I chose habanero peppers, which—despite boasting an often overpowering capsaicin kick—have a pleasing fruity aroma and flavor.* To temper this heat, I opt for a combination of blackberries and blueberries in the mash. Berries are rich in sugar and surface microbes to jump-start lacto-fermentation; they also echo the fruity flavor of the habanero chiles. That combination of natural sweetness and sour pungency results in depth rather than pure, face-melting spice.
*Conventional cultivars of the habanero chile are spicy—between 100,000-350,000 Scoville units. But in recent years, in an effort to highlight the habanero’s unique flavor and aroma, researchers have worked to selectively breed peppers with milder spice levels. In fact, in 2007, a heatless version called the ‘Habanada’ was developed, which you can find here and there commercially or in seed form.
Habanero chiles are thin-skinned, thin-walled peppers that produce a relatively dry mash on their own. Berries lend moisture to the pepper mash due to their significant water content. A wetter mash means fewer air pockets (or none at all); fewer air pockets means less chances of unwanted microbial growth (kahm yeast or mold). Berries are also rich in pectin, which thickens the sauce slightly when blended. Finally, the berries give the finished sauce a vivid, crimson-purple hue.
Like Tabasco, this sauce is blended with distilled white vinegar after fermenting. That punch of acetic acid complements the lactic acid funk and sweetness, balancing any lingering harsh spiciness. If you want an ultra-smooth sauce with an attractive shine, it’s best to strain this sauce after blending. This sauce is perfect for any time you might use regular Tabasco—on eggs, tacos, and the usual savory fare. But it’s even amazing on fruits like pineapple, watermelon, or mango.
- For The Mash:
- 8 ounces (225g) blackberries
- 8 ounces (225g) blueberries
- 5 1/3 ounces (150g) habanero chile peppers (about 25 peppers), stemmed
- 3 tablespoons (30g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- To Finish the Hot Sauce:
- 1/4 cup (60ml) distilled white vinegar
- 2 teaspoons (10g) sugar
For The Mash: In a food processor, pulse blackberries, blueberries, peppers, and salt in a food processor until berries release liquid and mixture is coarsely pureed, about 12 to 15 pulses.
Transfer mash to 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; the total fermentation time can take anywhere from 7 to 10 days.
To Finish the Hot Sauce: Transfer mash to a blender. Add vinegar and sugar, and blend on high speed until smooth and emulsified, about 1 minute. 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 a 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. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 month (note that because of additional sugars from the fruit, it can continue to ferment as it sits; this shouldn't be an issue under refrigeration, but can cause bubbling if left at room temperature for a while).
If you prefer a slightly spicier sauce, increase the amount of habanero chiles to 7 ounces (200g), and decrease the blackberries and blueberries to 7 ounces (200g) each. For a much milder sauce, decrease the chile amount to 3 1/2 ounces (100g), and the berries to 8 3/4 ounces (250g) each. It’s best not to exceed 14 days of fermentation; the vibrant color will begin to fade.
Reserved strained solids from the fermentation can be mixed into a bloody mary, a salsa or relish, or blended into mayonnaise.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The hot sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 month (note that because of additional sugars from the fruit, it can continue to ferment as it sits; this shouldn't be an issue under refrigeration, but can cause bubbling if left at room temperature for a while).