Follow Us on Pinterest 

Chiles at Rushy Springs Farm

One of the most iconically-American (and especially Southern) condiments is salt-brine-fermented hot pepper sauce. Usually made from tobascos (the pepper variety, not the brand), this kitchen staple and table condiment is a snap to make, especially if you have a glut of chiles on hand. Here in East Tennessee, chile season is still in full swing, and many varieties thrive here. Despite, or rather because of this easy abundance (chiles were our most dependable crop this summer and last, outperforming our tomatoes by leaps and bounds), many chile growers do not know how to keep on top of utilizing their crop before it disappears.

Pickling, drying, and smoking are all very good options for preserving your garden's chile harvest, but each has special (and often prohibitive) requirements: shelf space, a dehydrating apparatus, and a smoker, respectively. Salt-brine-fermenting needs none of these, requiring only a tiny bit of counter space for a fermenting crock or jar, some salt, a stir every now and then, and some patience. As for the chiles, tabascos are great, but there are so many varieties out there. As long as they are yellow, orange, or red, ripe, and appropriately spicy for your palate, use whatever you have or can get your hands on.

Luckily, in addition to our harvest of red jalapeños and yellow aji limos, we have had the good fortune to become acquainted with Jim Smith, a local chile farmer and producer of fermented hot sauces. Jim inspired us to try our hand at this simple and rewarding process after many chats under his tent at the Market Square Farmer's Market in downtown Konxville. At any time, Jim has up to 14 different varieties of chiles for sale, ranging from the mild and unusual to the punishingly hot (Ghost and Scorpion chiles are his best sellers). He also offers a completely unique hybrid cultivar, the Tennessee Cherry Chile (a much more complexly-flavored cousin to the Yucatania and Tabasco varieties). In addition to having all of these available fresh from his farm every week, Jim keeps even busier with his growing salt-brine-fermented hot sauce business. If that wasn't enough, he also dehydrates a portion of his harvest, turning it into highly aromatic chile powder (including one made out of Boldog Paprika peppers).

Jim was kind enough to let us tour his operation in Talbott and give us some insight into how he ferments his sauces. One of the immediately unique standouts to his procedure: after stemming the chiles, they get brined in a mixture of unrefined salt and Reisling wine. The wine, of course, increases the amount of sugar available for fermentation. As for the unrefined salt, Jim claims fermentation is much more vigorous and complete when he uses it (which, he thinks, is due to the high mineral content). As for fermentation time, Jim has a very personal relationship with each batch. He tends them daily (sometimes hourly in their most active stages). If peppers rise to the surface, they get mashed back down. If any yeast starts to develop, he adds salt. As the chiles soften and disintegrate, he adds more chiles and more salt, continuing the fermentation until he feels it is complete. This can take four to six weeks, but each batch is different.

Since Jim and his delicious sauces and chiles have inspired this blog (as well as many a fine meal), we want to return his kindness and generosity by calling upon you, our readers, to help support Jim as he continues to sustainably grow chiles and turn a profit while complying with Tennessee's requirements regarding domestic food production. Acording to state inspectors, Jim needs to have a certified kitchen and meet many of the same requirements much larger, corporate-owned food producers are held to. In order to continue selling his sauce, Jim will have to spend money he does not have to abide by these regulations. All of this despite the fact that his sauces, by their very nature (highly acidic, capsaicin-rich) are antimicrobial and safe, and Jim himself oversees the entire process, from planting the chiles to bottling the sauce. The overhead required to convert a home kitchen into an approved domestic kitchen is prohibitive for small producers like Jim.

The beauty of Jim's Kickstarter campaign is that, if we all contribute a small amount, he can meet his goal in no time. For those of you unfamiliar with Kickstarter, it's an site where entrepreneurs can raise money with the help of their community, and contributors to the project receive a gift in proportion to the amount they pledge to the project. Think of it as venture capital 2.0. The entrepreneur picks the goal he wants to reach, and if he doesn't meet that goal, he gets none of the money pledged. If, however, he does meet the goal, the money that has been pledged becomes available for use by the entrepreneur for their project.

If you are in the Knoxville area, we emplore you to visit Jim's Kickstarter page, read about his plans to expand his business, and contribute to the campaign (even a dollar makes a difference!) and visit him at Market Square on a coming Saturday. For those of you who do not hail from East Tennessee, we hope you can identify with the plight of Jim's business, his dedication to quality, and his tireless search for the perfect capsacin rush. Please take a moment to make a difference in the life of a small farmer, and therefore, in his community.

Other articles you might enjoy: Brine-Fermented Sauerkraut, Fermented Half-Sour Pickles, Worcestershire Sauce

Fermented "Louisiana-style" Hot Sauce
varies according to amount of chiles

As our pepper fermentation expert says above, a lot of this is best done "by feel," and since the quantity of peppers a garden yields will vary widely (not to mention the width of fermentation vessels) we have decided to write this recipe using a simple weight ratio and a few instructive photos. As for the type of chiles to use, any kind will work as long as they are fairly hot and not green.

So, first you should cut off the stem and a little bit of the base of each chile and roughly chop them. We do this with gloves and a pair of kitchen shears, since it means minimal contact with the peppers and no surfaces to clean. Some of you might want to seed the chilies to get more flavor and less heat from them. Jim includes seeds in his method, we did not for our first go around. Either way is fine, just keep in mind seeding will expose you to more capsacin, which you should try as hard as you can not to get on your hands, eyes, or anywhere on your skin.

So snip off the stem-ends in the trash or compost, seed if you want, and then weigh the chilies in a bowl on a digital scale (I suppose you can just use the starting weight of the chiles if you do not choose to seed them). Remember this number and snip the chilies a slice at a time into your jar or crock. Now, take the weight of your chilies and weigh out 2% of that amount in salt, preferably sea salt (thanks Jim!). Add this to the jar/crock, along with enough white wine (prefereably a high-sugar Reisling or Gewürstraminer that is free of sulfites) to cover by a half inch or so. Mix and mash thoroughly with a pestle or wooden spoon (be sure to wash thoroughly).

Cover the crock or jar tightly with a cloth (I screwed on the ring of the mason jar I was using) and set out on the counter where you will see it. Now, when you're making coffee in the morning, check for white mold (this is where glass jars are clearly superior) and remove with a spoon, stir the chile mixture, and cover again with cloth. Do this every other day. You will eventually see bubbles forming either on the surface or in the pepper mash. This means it's working.

Jim and others ferment this mixture for as long as it takes for the fermentation to stop, up to 4 or 6 weeks. Our very successful batch of hot sauce took only 15 days to mature into a fruity, well-balanced sauce. I suppose you should play it be ear, but for those who are too impatient for the longer fermenting times, if you have noticed fermentation bubbles, you can and should take a risk somewhere around or after the two-week mark.

Now that the pepper mash is fermented to your liking, patience-level, or whim, all you need to do is run it through a food mill. Place the food mill over a bowl, pour the pepper mash and brine into the mill, and work the flesh and seeds, rotating the handle in both directions to push as much juice from the mash as possible (discard whatever is left). Measure the volume of the brine liquid and add half that amount of vinegar. Jim uses brown rice vinegar for its neutral flavor profile, but feel free to experiment here with a little addition of something more flavorful, like sherry or apple cider vinegar. You shouldn't really need to add salt at this point, but do so if it tastes a little one-dimensional. Bottle and refrigerate, adding to anything that needs a nice fruity shot of heat or salt. Enjoy!


Hiding's picture

Hey, thank you for the above instructions! I found your page here after I'd already blended, boiled and added vinegar + spices. So the sauce I made didn't have a lot of flavor, it's just very, very hot. To improve it, I looked up the ingredients to Marie Sharp's habenero sauce, one of my favorites, and therefore added carrots and onions - but I fried the onions, which made the whole sauce sweet and hot. After reading your page, I realized I could add water to dilute the vinegar and a touch of homemade yogurt - well that worked! It's happily fermenting on the sugars 12 hours later. So you saved my sauce! Well, we'll see after two weeks :) Last, by accident I have a korken jar that lost the rubber seal - I'm using that to ferment, b/c I think it's poor seal will allow gas to out-vent without letting much in.
meg's picture

Glad you found us! Sounds like you have everything under control. Definitely let us know how it all turns out.
Robert A.'s picture

Thanks for the recipe! I have a question, though. Every time I've tried fermentation with a white wine brine, I haven't gotten any bubbles. I've had dozens of successful ferments with a water brine, but have had no such luck when I replace water with white wine (I've used a Riesling every time). Has anybody else had this problem? Is there something that needs to be done differently than with a salt water ferment?
EH's picture

Thank you for including the ratio! My tabasco harvest is measured in ounces, not pounds, and this recipe is just what I was looking for.
Malorie's picture

Hi there, I do not drink wine/alcohol...this recipe sounds great it is there something I can substitute for the booze? Thanks!!
meg's picture

Instead of using wine, you can chop up the peppers in a food processor or blender, add the salt, and wait for fermentation to start. I might add a little sugar just to give the bacteria something quick to eat, and if you have any unpasteurized sauerkraut lying around, throw in a few tablespoons of juice from that to jumpstart fermentation. You can also use the liquid that forms on top of yogurt (whey) to get it going. Just make sure the yogurt is plain and contains live cultures.
Linette's picture

What about the white mold? I had been looking at different sites for directions on how to make the sauce, so I pulled some information from each of them. One said after creating the pepper mash and brine to leave it uncovered a day or two to allow it to get natural mold or yeast into it. I did this and on the second day there was a lot of the white mold present. I scooped out as much as I could, taking some of the peppers with it. It seamed as though the mold just as much submerged as it was on top. I then put a zip-lock bag with water in it to act as a weight and keep the mash down. Now as I keep checking it the mold continues to grow. What should I do and have I ruined the batch?
meg's picture's not the best idea to leave the mash uncovered. Believe me, the mash will ferment, and even if it seems like it's taking too long to start fermenting, you can jump start it by adding whey or sauerkraut juice. White mold isn't dangerous, but it grows under the surface, especially if you leave it alone for a while. You should stir the mash daily, keep it covered, and skim off white mold as soon as you notice it. What percentage of salt did you use? Is your mash actively fermenting? How long has it been fermenting if it is active? I feel like I need a little more info.
Thomas's picture

You don't need to use a cloth, actually it's counter productive. Seal it and if explosive fermentation, use an airlock. This type of fermentation is anaerobic.
Thomas's picture

How do you guys keep the sauce homogeneous? In mine, vinegar and chili sauce are separating very quickly. That doesn't happen in Tabasco... any input? cheers.
meg's picture

We experienced the same thing with our sauces. It doesn't bother us for home use--we just shake up the bottle before using. But if we're giving the sauce away as gifts, we add xanthan gum to stabilize it and keep it homogenized. We use 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum per quart of hot sauce. Make a slurry with the xanthan and water and slowly add it to your sauce--you may not need the full amount. If you add enough, the mixture will stay homogenized, but be careful: adding too much makes the sauce, well, gummy and gloppy.
linette's picture

I have already sent a question and received a return message requesting additional information. I replied and have discovered my messages have been returned to me and not sent so I'm resenting everything again through the site. meg has commented on: "Fermented "Louisiana-style" Hot Sauce" ----'s not the best idea's not the best idea to leave the mash uncovered. Believe me, the mash will ferment, and even if it seems like it's taking too long to start fermenting, you can jump start it by adding whey or sauerkraut juice. White mold isn't dangerous, but it grows under the surface, especially if you leave it alone for a while. You should stir the mash daily, keep it covered, and skim off white mold as soon as you notice it. What percentage of salt did you use? Is your mash actively fermenting? How long has it been fermenting if it is active? I feel like I need a little more info. ---- What percentage of salt did you use? I honestly don't remember how much salt I used. I know I followed the ratios in the directions. Is your mash actively fermenting? It was in the beginning but now I don't see any bubbles coming up and its been 12 days since I started it. How long has it been fermenting if it is active? I'm not sure it is any more. :( Oh and I don't think it smells that good either, but my husband thinks it smells fine. I'm thinking of just starting a new batch. So my new question is have I ruined everything?
meg's picture

Well, it sounds like your pepper mash has fermented and is done fermenting now. Sometimes, pepper sauce ferments really quickly (and it makes sense that it would considering it's summer time), and sometimes it takes longer. There's no correct amount of time you should ferment it--it all depends. It's really hard to know what "good" smells like when it comes to fermentation because some people love the sour smell of fermented food, and others don't. One smell to look out for, though, is that rotten garbage smell--if you smell that, throw it away. But I doubt yours smells like that, otherwise you probably would have thrown it away by now ;) What I would do is scrape all the mold off it that you can. White mold is not dangerous, but you don't want it in there. Then, proceed with the recipe--use a food mill to grind up the mash, and add vinegar. Store the finished sauce in the fridge. Obviously, if it doesn't taste good, don't eat it, but you're probably fine.
Thomas's picture

Thanks, I'll try. You are right, shaking is OK, but i disturbs me to see it separated :D Last time i used maizena, it got a funny thick, slippy consistence. I'm gonna try to find some of that Xanthan gum. CHeers.
meg's picture

Yeah--xanthan gum can make things gloppy too. Just add a little and wait before you add more. You won't need much.
Nujjy's picture

Started a batch for myself. I used a 2% brine weight of chillies + water. I noticed a tonne of bubbles just after 1 day. Thing also stinks to high heaven, hope it hasn't gotten bad. Listeria doesn't sound like its much fun. Not sure if I should toss this one out.
meg's picture

There are a couple ways you can tell if a ferment is bad--if it smells like rotten garbage or if it has brightly colored or black molds growing on it. Usually, both of these symptoms will be present in a ferment that has gone "off." A sour, acidic smell is normal. It is very unlikely that you would run into listeria with a properly-executed ferment. Low pH, salt content, and the presence of lactic acid bacteria, which compete with and outnumber harmful bacteria are all reasons that fermentation is actually quite safe when done properly. Having said all that, if you don't feel comfortable with your pepper mash and it makes you nervous, throw it on the compost heap or in the garbage. There's nothing like peace of mind.
Nujjy's picture

Thanks for your reply Meg, haven't noticed any mould so far. My chillies have started sinking and are no longer bubbling. The smell wasn't so much rotten as it was funky, like washed-rind cheese. I should like to imagine it to have somewhat of rotten smell after all fermenting is just a controlled rot. I might start another batch. Haven't seen any mold yet. I used a larger salt content that what was recommended so that there would be less chance of this. Will wait and see.
Evan's picture

I am curious about the wine as well. I suspect it works in this application more from the alcohol than the added sugars. Even in white wine, the amount of unfermented sugar is minimal. However, the alcohol is probably useful for opportunistic acetobacter fermentation which will convert the alcohol into acetic acid. Acetic acid is the primary acid present in vinegar. I think you could use red wine as well, but it would adversely impact the flavor and color of the finished product.
Evan's picture

I have noticed comments here claiming that anaerobic fermentation will be maintain for the peppers submerged below the surface of the brine. This would only be true during vigorous fermentation when the carbon dioxide produced would prevent oxygen from dissolving in the brine. However, during such a vigorous fermentation surely the chile slurry would be floating on the top of the brine and becoming oxygentated. The only way you can ensure anaerobic fermentation here is with a sealed vessel and an air-lock. Fermentations can be aerobic, anaerobic, or a combination of the two in certain circumstances. With this heterogeneous mixture of solids and liquid, the combination is certainly possible. Remember, the active organisms here are microscopic, and tiny pockets of activity are possible is the slurry of brine and chile pieces.
Tom's picture

Help, please. I had followed everything to the letter and within four days I had great fermentation. I stirred the mix and the next two days the bubbles stopped.
meg's picture

I wouldn't worry too much. Late summer and early fall is a time when fermentation can happen at an astonishing rate. We just started a batch of hot sauce in early September (the 7th), and it appears to have mostly stopped bubbling at this point. One thing I would recommend, however, is to add a bit of liquid from sauerkraut or kimchi or some of the whey from yogurt--this will introduce lactobacilli and help get the pH of your pepper mash down a bit. Even though you aren't seeing active fermentation, your peppers are still fermenting. Just at a slower rate. Leave the mash in the jar, stirring occasionally, for at least 30 days. Then proceed with the recipe. There's still activity going on in there even if it isn't visible to the naked eye. Just watch out for brightly colored or black molds (bad) or a rotten garbage smell. Both of those things are signs that something went awry.
Tom's picture

Thanks Meg, that worked perfectly. I now have a wonder bottle of sauce that is rapidly disappearing because it's going on and in everything. I have another pint 2 weeks into fermentation. Today it was snowing in MA so I harvested any and all the chilis I had outside, red, green and in-between. I have started a green sauce of what I call first frost sauce. I'll let you know how it turns out in 4-5 weeks.
meg's picture

Great! I love a good success story. Do check in and let us know how the green sauce turns out. Snow already! I keep thinking it must be too soon for snow, but I heard from some relatives in NC who were snowed on this week.
TimbreHouse's picture

All good but after extracting every last drop of brine liquid DO NOT "(discard whatever is left)". Spread that "whatever" on a parchment lined baking sheet and find a warm, sunny spot for it to dry. Check every few days to further spread out and unclump until it's all completely dry. And Voila' - dried chili flakes - better than any store bought.
meg's picture

Great suggestion! Sounds like a fantastic project for that dehydrator we hope to have someday. Not that you need a dehydrator, but a girl can dream, can't she?
Elias Wetzel's picture

I was just wondering what i should do if I didn't take the white stuff off the the top and stirred it in? Thank you for your time and great recipe.
meg's picture

It should be fine. The reason we don't recommend stirring it in (I know some folks actually tell you to stir it in) is that it can affect the flavor of the pepper mash and it may cause more white mold to grow faster. Having said that, unless the white stuff on top of your pepper mash was really thick, it's probably just fine. In the future, though, I definitely suggest scraping it off and throwing it away.
eli's picture

Thank you for your time!
Sean's picture

Hey John...I'm about to start the process. 3 questions...Can I just put a paper towel and a plate over my mash as it's fermenting? And I'd like to infuse a garlic flavor in this batch. Can I add a few smashed cloves or slices or chopped garlic to the peppers at the very beginning? And can I mix chilli's with cayanne's? Thanks for your help!!
meg's picture

Hi Sean! You can just put a paper towel and plate over your mash. We like the paper towel and rubber band trick, as it ensures that no gnats or fruit flies can get in, but now that cooler weather is on the way, that probably won't be as much of an issue. Yes--you can add garlic. That sounds amazing! And yes, you can combine different types of chiles. Happy fermenting!
Robert Walton's picture

I tried this and fermented a 2 quart jar of red habaneros from my garden. Just ran through the food mill this morning and added a touch of salt and a little less raw apple cider vinegar. It's great. I'm looking online for bottles, this is not going to serve well form a mason jar. I'm thinking to do another batch maybe of mixed chiles that I pick before frost. Would there be any problem to add some chopped garlic to the mash? I like garlicy hot sauces, not sure what the ferment would do to that flavor combo? Are there any other things that would be good add-ins? I'm making some fruit vinegar that has pepper and allspice added, I may mix that in with the next batch to make a really custom hot sauce.
meg's picture

Chopped garlic would be excellent. I wouldn't go crazy--too much garlic may have antimicrobial properties. But you could certainly add some garlic. As far as other things to add to hot sauce, I'll bet you could add different types of fruit with great success. With all the natural sugars in fruit, it would ferment like gangbusters and add some nice complex sweetness to your sauce.
Jared's picture

I have a couple of questions. I currently have about 6 quarts of peppers fermenting for my hot sauce. What temperature should should my mash be for proper fermentation? I'm running between 66° and 70°, at varying times. I'm not seeing any bubbles and it's been about five days, so it may not be fermenting. Also, I have some strange white things at the top of my mash before I stir it every day or so. They don't look like mold. maybe they're part of the peppers? I have attached some photos to show you what I'm talking about.
meg's picture

It's not unusual for a ferment to take longer to get started, especially as temperatures start falling. We started a batch last month that seemed to take forever to start bubbling, but when it finally took off it really went wild. Try stirring in the whey from the top of a container of yogurt with live cultures or some juice from sauerkraut or kimchi. That can kick it off. I know that some people modify the temperature or try to keep ferments warmer to speed up fermentation. I believe the optimum temperature for mesophilic bacteria is between 75 and 115 degrees F. However, I never modify the temperature. I prefer to just let the fermentation happen at its own rate. Sometimes this means my ferments take longer, and sometimes they happen very quickly. I realize this isn't very "scientific" of me, but I've never had a ferment fail. I see what you mean about the white bits--it could be natural yeasts or something from inside the peppers, although I'm not sure. It doesn't look like something to worry about, though.
Stella's picture

THanks I really enjoyed reading all the commentary and discussion on this very interested topic of fermented chilli sauce recipes.
Katie's picture

Shelf life? Does it needs to be refrigerated? How should it be properly stored?
meg's picture

Think of it like Tabasco--you can store it at room temperature, preferably in a dark, cool place like a pantry. Just like Tabasco, the sauce may turn brownish if not consumed within a couple years, but really the shelf life is indefinite. You can store it in the fridge if you have any reservations about it, but we just store ours in the pantry.
Phil's picture

Great write up! Good discussion as well. I think I will try this method with the wine, though I will probably cover with a lid since lactobacillus is anaerobic. My current method has only worked with tabasco peppers and has always failed with habaneros: Wash and drain peppers Chop peppers Add 2% by weight canning salt Mash peppers with salt in a big bowl with a pestle Put mash into clean wide mouth mason jars Put a small jelly mason jar inside the widemouth jar to hold the mash down Put a lid on it and put it in a cool dark cupboard Burp it when the lid gets puffy, usually once a day, over the sink with gloves on After fermentation stops, run through food mill Take the product and add just enough salt and/or vinegar to stabilize Use it to make delicious things
kevin porter's picture

I did not have a scale accurate enough for the 2% brine. After reading various recipies I settled on a tablespoon of salt per pint of water to make my brine. Do you think this is adequate?
meg's picture

Oh yes! That sounds perfectly fine.
Sean's picture

Hi.. I'm in week 4 with my peppers in their jars. I stir everyday but havent had any white stuff like last time. I noticed today that they taste more salty than in the past week or two, plus they are all starting to get mushy and a bit more liquidish. They still taste ok and smell ok. They did'n't overflow and there are only a few small bubbles along the top edge of the it time to heat and add the vinegar?
meg's picture

Yes! Sounds like you're ready. A good sign that the mash is done or nearly done fermenting is when the peppers start to break down and liquefy.
Kathleen Ames's picture

Okay so I got brave and roasted peppers, tomatoes onions scallions together put them in big half gallon mason jars with a cup of kombucha brew and a baby SCOBY each. This is day two and I have a few bubbles do you recommend that I now just put it in the refrigerator due to the fact that the peppers were roasted I may not have enough natural sugar for complete fermentation? I love hot sauce and this is by far the best hot sauce is ever tasted and I do not want to lose this batch.
meg's picture

If you're really happy with the flavor, I would go ahead and refrigerate it. The original recipe we posted gets a longer fermentation, but there are lots of hot sauces that get a really, really short fermentation. The brief fermentation adds a little bit of tang, but the flavor of the ingredients is still front and center. I say, if it's at the stage you want it, you can stop the fermentation.
Alida's picture

Did I totally mess this up? I blended the chilies, salt, sugar, water and apple cider vinegar together all at once. I forgot that the vinegar goes in after fermentation. Will it still ferment?
meg's picture

Hmm. It probably won't ferment at this point, but don't throw it away! You can still make delicious hot sauce with it. Taste it and see what it needs--sugar, salt, vinegar, garlic, spices. Then tweak it until it tastes the way you want it to. I'll bet you can still get a delicious hot sauce out of it!
Jamie's picture

I've experimented with different recipes and just now read about the vinegar stopping fermentation. I just started to pints with vinegar and whey last night. Could I strain the vinegar out and replace with water or is it already too late? I can always make a batch of fresh if I can't, but I want as many fermented jars as I can get. Summer is almost over, not many peppers left to experiment with. Thanks!
Rikard's picture

You should update the recipe and write in that we must have a wine free from sulfites. I have followed the recipe but fermentation did not start for 2 weeks, then i came back here to see what could be wrong, and I see in the comments that the wine must be free of sulfites. I wish that it had been written earlier in the actual recipe. I just added a spoonful of sourdough hooch, holding thumbs in hopes that it will start fermentation in spite of the sulfites in the wine. Please update the recipe so that not more people get fooled to waste their precious chili harvest.
meg's picture

Hi Rikard. The reason we haven't changed the recipe is because, when we've made this, we have always used wines with sulfites, and it has always worked fine. I will change the recipe, though. You may also try adding a little whey from yogurt. Sometimes fermentation just needs to be jump-started.


Add new comment

Place in a pressure cooker:
     1 chicken carcass, neck, and giblets plus any scraps of meat still clinging to the bones
     (1 pound chicken feet)
     2 carrots, cut...