The last time you ate at a Mexican restaurant, did you use the commercial hot sauce on the table? It was likely made with peppers — or chile pepper powder, depending on the brand — and vinegar. But one thing about vinegar is that it can taste ... vinegar-y. So if you've ever balked at the one-note taste of commercial hot sauces, that's partially to blame.

Enter lacto-fermentation, the new hotness that's actually ages old.

Photo by Meredith

What is Lacto-Fermentation?

First, what it isn't: "lacto" doesn't mean it has milk in it. Essentially, it's a process in which bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid. Lactic acid is a preservative, which is why it's so important in the pickling and fermentation process, and turning your everyday peppers into hot sauce with swag.

So, What is Lacto-Fermented Hot Sauce?

We spotted this hot trend a few months ago, when cookbook author Alana Churnila laid out a home-cook friendly approach to lacto-fermentation. Since then, we've tasted a twist on these unique, intensely flavorful hot sauces in one of the Seattle-area's most celebrated restaurants.

James Beard Award-nominated chef Brendan McGill specializes in seasonal preparations of fresh produce, meats, and wild foods, and makes his own amazing lacto-fermented hot sauce. He serves the sauce alongside just-plucked-from-the-bay oysters at Hitchcock restaurant on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, and sells bottles at Seattle's Hitchcock Deli.

By partnering with Tani Creek Farm, McGill gained access to an enormous crop of biodynamically grown peppers that you can't find anywhere else. (Seriously, when did you last see a Transylvanian Paprika in your neighborhood grocery?) McGill explained the process of creating these super hot sauces.

Tani Creek Farm peppers. Photo by Julia Wayne

"The basic process is that you put peppers through a lactic fermentation, with the lactobacilli digesting the carbohydrates (plant sugars) and expelling acetic acids or enzymes," McGill says. He covers the peppers in a salt brine, a process done for thousands of years in places like China, India, and beyond. The salt brine digests the bacteria and lowers the PH.

"Lactobacilli live on all plants, but especially on ones that are allowed to be really close to the ground, in a natural environment," he adds. The peppers he uses are grown in organic conditions, with soil that is in "full decomposition mode" so there's plenty of natural processes happening all around the finished fruit.

It's All About Flavor

The resulting peppers gain the secondary flavors you get when food is allowed to acidify in natural conditions. "Your simple vegetable becomes pleasantly sour, even umami-rich in some cases, and gets loaded with probiotics and beneficial gut flora," McGill says.

"It is very easy to make hot sauce with vinegar, acidifying peppers in it," McGill says. "You can pickle or puree them with vinegar, and do it quickly. You end up at the same place, but the craft of letting fermentation do its thing creates all the outrageous flavors and complexity instead."

Peppers in a fermentation crock. Photo by Julia Wayne

While it might seem that pickle plates are everywhere, McGill points out that those radishes, cukes, and carrots were likely pickled with vinegar. Lacto-fermentation delivers intense and complex heat -- but is time-consuming and takes a fair amount of effort. But McGill says it's worth it, for more than one reason: "People don't think of Northwest cuisine as being particularly spicy," he says. "Everyone thinks salmon, mushrooms, spruce tips. But if you buy local, biodynamically raised peppers and do what you will with them, you can have great sauce. It helps push the boundaries."

Hitchcock's Lacto-Fermented Hot Sauce Photo by Julia Wayne

How to Make Your Own Hot Sauce

If you want to try lacto-fermentation yourself, you'll need patience and the right kind of peppers -- probably not jalapeños or serranos from the corner store. Why not? It's not in the grocery store's best interest to have organic, fresh-from-the-ground peppers, covered in natural bacteria. They break down faster and cost more that way, so they often end up coated in wax instead.

If you have a farmers market nearby, that's your best bet — other than growing peppers yourself. Local peppers are best so they don't have to travel as far and the good bacteria won't die in transit.

As for which peppers to use, McGill encourages you to experiment. He makes a Tabasco-style blend by putting together every wackadoo pepper he has on hand. To make a sauce that adds searing heat without an overpowering flavor, he uses habañeros. Jalapeño lovers could try a straight-up one-varietal sauce, and should get "bombastic" flavor, since the peppers are so distinct.

Photo by Meredith

Northwesterners who don't want to make their own can find Iggy's sauces, also made on Bainbridge, at select stores and farmers markets, and there are several varieties for sale on Amazon. If you think you're ready to create your own special sauce, know that it's a bit of an undertaking -- but how cool would it be to have your own signature hot sauce?

Lacto-Fermented Hot Sauce Recipes

We have two recipes for you to consider, each with different ingredients and a different process. Alana Chernila's recipe for lacto-fermented hot sauce blends honey, garlic, lime juice, and carrots with the peppers, and then ferments. McGill's recipe (and his tips for success, below) involves fermenting the whole peppers, then blending them. See which one sounds best to you!

TSM's Fermentation Harvest Pot with Stone Weights

Brendan McGill's Lacto-Fermented Hot Sauce

Ingredients:
Any quantity of organic, freshly-harvested hot peppers
Well, spring, or filtered water
Sea salt (3 percent of the total mass of peppers and water)

Optional: a splash of juice from a raw lactic fermentation, like organic & raw (not pasteurized) sauerkraut

Equipment:

You'll need a fermentation crock. I really like the TSM products available via Sausage Maker or Amazon. A wide-mouthed one-gallon jar would work as well, although you'll have to find weights that fit inside the mouth of the jar to keep the peppers submerged in the brine, as well as some sort of cover that you can burp occasionally

Preparation:

  1. Measure the mass of the peppers you plan on fermenting; record. Wash your peppers and put them into your crock, filling to 3/4 full.
  2. Fill a pitcher with spring, well, or filtered water. Be sure not to use treated water (the chlorine is harmful to the fermentation).
  3. Fill a clean a measuring pitcher to an even quantity, like 2L. Pressing the peppers down with one (clean) hand, pour the water over the peppers until they are almost submerged. Record the quantity of water you used. Thanks to the metric system, the volume of the water is equal to the mass of the water, so if you added 2L of water to 4K of peppers, we know the total mass of our fermentation is 6K. I try to do these things in nice round numbers as to make it easy on myself.
  4. Calculate 3 percent of the total mass (in this example, 180g), scale that much sea salt and add it to the fermentation. It will find equilibrium eventually, but feel free to mix it around a little with your hand (it always makes me feel better).
  5. Add that (optional) splash of raw-fermented brine (from sauerkraut, or a previous batch of hot sauce). This will behave as a starter and assure your fermentation's success. It's not entirely necessary, since good peppers should be crawling with lactobacilli -- but 4K of organic peppers will cost you close to $100, so it's best to be sure.
  6. Use your crock's weights to evenly press down the (almost) submerged peppers. After 24 hours, the peppers should be entirely submerged in brine. The salt and pressure from the weights breaks down their structure a little bit, and they kick out whatever water they were retaining, which adds to the quantity of brine.
  7. Pour some water into the water seal of your crock, so that CO2 released from the fermentation can burp out, but the fermentation won't have too much fresh oxygen in the chamber (which can feed molds).
  8. I let my hot sauce ferment for one month in this environment at a warm room temperature. You can get a good result in shorter time, but we want a nice, acidic hot sauce, and the longer it ferments, the more sour it becomes. Check it weekly, skimming any white molds that grow on the surface of the brine with a ladle.
  9. When it's done, tie a bandana around your lower face, and wear eye protection (you don't want this in your eyes) and pour carefully into a 5 gallon bucket. Use a Vitamix or immersion blender and thoroughly puree, then strain if you like. We reserve the dregs from straining, dehydrate, and grind them into delicious fermented chile powder.

This sauce keep in the refrigerator for at least one year. I usually get through my annual batch just in time to rotate to the new crop. It's fun to serve to people and cite its age: "Here's your fermented pepper sauce, 2014 vintage."


Related: Making Homemade Pickles is Easier Than You Might Think


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