I have 3 cayenne pepper bushes that consistently put out more peppers than I know what to do with. I’ve been experimenting with different recipes and listening to the bigger hot sauce makers (Dave Hirschkop of Dave’s Insanity fame, Danny Cash, the McIlhenny’s, etc…), and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to start trying out fermented pepper mashes rather than just using fresh peppers. I ordered a jar of Habanero mash from Leeners (http://www.leeners.com/) as well as 3 other types of mash from Danny Cash (http://www.dannycash.com/). But for this write-up I’m going to detail how I’m making my own out of cayennes. Cayennes fortunately are just potent enough that you can make a respectable fermented mash out of them and not have it spoil. The Chinense pepper family (habaneros, bhut jolokias, scotch bonnets, trinidads, etc…) are typically what people use for fermenting to add a stronger flavor to the peppers to match the high capsaicin content. Peppers lower in capsaicin like jalapenos, poblanos, etc… typically aren’t fermented, but I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps because the heat level is so low, adding the flavor component that comes with fermentation is maybe too strong? I’ll have to experiment with some and find out.
I’ve already got everything I need for this - blender, peppers, salt, starter, sterilized glassware, warm/dark closet, and time. So here’s how this works… first thing to do is prep the peppers - rinse them off under water and cut off the stems. Shove them all into the blender and blend them up into a pulp. I used only about a 1/2 oz. of water in the blender just so they’d mash up more easily, but if you’re diligent about scraping down the sides of the blender and making sure they’re all going through the blades at the bottom it’s not necessary. In fact you probably don’t want to use any additional liquid during this step if you can help it. Once you’ve got your mashed up peppers spoon them out seeds and all into your fermenting jar and press the mash down so the water from the pods squeezes up the sides. This will let you know you have enough liquid in the jar. If it’s still too dry (i.e. you don’t see the water coming up) you should add just a touch of water. This is so you can press the peppers down into the bottom and the water will cover the top of them ever so slightly and keep the pepper mash insulated from the air. I used wide-mouth Ball™ pickling jar for mine. You want to make sure it’s sterilized first, and an easy way to do this is put it in a ziplock bag with 2 oz. of water and throw in the microwave for 2 min. on high (vent the bag slightly of course). The inside of the bag will steam quite vigorously and your jar will be sterilized. No need to boil on the stove! Nice right? I learned this trick when my wife had to sterilize milk bottles for my kiddo when he was younger.
After you’ve dumped all the mashed up peppers into the jar, you’re going to want a starter for fermentation. Technically the contents will spontaneously ferment from airborne cultures if you leave the jar open to the air for a day or so, but this also increases the possibility of spoilage. For the lactic acid fermentation we’re shooting for I’ve heard you can use live yogurt cultures as a starter - just skim off the white liquid sitting on top of your yogurt and spoon in about a teaspoon full. But I’m going to use a hopefully more reliable method. I’m going to pull my starter from the jar of fermented habanero mash I ordered. In the picture you can see me putting in a dollop of the fermented habanero mash and mixing it in. After your starter is fully mixed into the mash, if you’re making a pickling jar sized quantity, you’ll want to spoon in about a tablespoon of kosher salt.
In any fermented pepper mash you’ll want to use about 5-15% kosher salt. I believe this is mostly to draw out moisture from the peppers for cover since they’re not a vegetable that contains a lot of water (cayennes especially!), but also to slightly slow the fermentation process. I’m not entirely sure how lactic acid fermentation is affected by salt, but from everything I’ve read, too much salt will have an adverse affect on fermentation, as well as make the end result too salty to use in your pepper sauces. You want the flavor of the fermented peppers to come through, and control the salt content after the fact. But salt I believe is certainly necessary to control other less-desirable creatures from infecting your mash (mold, etc…)
Another consideration in fermentation is air contact. Since there’s many nasties floating around out there in the air that can spoil your product, you’ll want to limit the exposure. Having said that, a byproduct of fermentation is carbon dioxide gas, so you can’t just seal up the mash jar entirely or you’re going to have an expanding gaseous time-bomb on your hands. So you’ll want gas to be able to get OUT, but you don’t want to leave the jar open to the air and let all the nasties (mold, etc…) IN. How to do this? Well, in beer fermentation you typically use a special water-chambered air-lock device that lets gas bubble out but doesn’t let any air in. Beer is also considerably more vulnerable to infection than salted pepper mash, so special precautions like this are necessary. With salted pepper mash however, you still want the same effect, but we can achieve this more easily albeit less elegantly simply using a water bag. Simply double bag a plastic zip-top bag, fill it full of water, set it on top of the mash mixture and press it down on the mash so it serves as a weight. The water in the bag will press against all sides of the jar, and will let gas bubble out around the edges of the jar, but will limit the mash’s exposure to the outside air. This method is of course not nearly as precise as using a carboy airlock like you would for beer, but given the more hearty nature of what’s being fermented, it will work just fine. Just make sure you press the peppers down into the jar before placing the water bag and make sure there’s a skim of liquid covering the top of them.
That’s it! Just set the mixture in a dark place, if you can elevate the temperature slightly above room temp., (~75-80 degrees F) even better. Primary fermentation should happen in 3-5 days, and secondary fermentation will take 3-4 weeks after.
I’ll create a follow-up post to this in about a month with the results of my fermentation. fingers crossed