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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!


mate's picture

I m scared of that too. I m having a great hot domestic grown sauce, i will put maybe little xantham before i cook it ,,but just a little
clif's picture

Don't have any Xanthan gum at the health food store here but do have Guar gum which is also used as a thickening agent... will that work to stabilize the solution and prevent settling?
john's picture

Hi Clif! Guar gum should work fine, though we have no experience with it personally (planning to rectify that as I type). Just like cornstarch or xanthan, make sure the powder is thoroughly mixed in with a small amount of the sauce. Having never used guar, it's hard for me to recommend an amount to add, but I would start small: 1/8 teaspoon per pint of liquid. I have read that guar doesn't hydrate as quickly as xanthan, so mix the slurry in, wait an hour or two to test the thickness, and add more if necessary.
Maggie's picture

Uh oh! I prepared my peppers, and filled the jar with some Piesporter that I had. Went back to reread this article and saw the warning against sulfites. Checked the bottle, and dang! It contains sulfites! What will happen? Should I strain the mash and add some new wine without? What will that do to my salt concentration? Please help!
john's picture

Hi Maggie! I know that some commenters on this post were very concerned about the wines-with-sulfites issue. After all, it's there to arrest fermentation in the bottles so they don't explode on shelves. Despite this logical and valid concern, we have successfully fermented the peppers in sulfite-laden wine... go figure. I would see what happens.
Maggie's picture

Thanks, John! I waited a little while and after no activity, I threw in a handful of freshly decanted sauerkraut. That should get ''er going! I hope!
Richard from Canada's picture

My ferment bubbled like mad and required tending a few times a day during the first two week. It now seems to be doing very little. Do you consider that it may be time to finish with vinegar and then bottle?
john's picture

Sounds like it's done Richard!
Richard from Canada's picture

I took the quart bottle down by about half and added some "good" ferment water -- filled with critters, I am told -- from a batch of squash. That did the trick. It kickstarted the mix to further fermenting. I ascribe the slow fermentation to a different wine that I used that may have been higher in sulfites. Sulfites inhibit bacterial action, I understand. In any event, everything has cooked along and I will bottle tomorrow, after about 15 days, give or take, because the liquid is nicely murky and the "fizziness" has pretty much stopped. I am delighted that we talk to each other. I am a total noob and hearing from others ups my confidence. For other noobs: my results have been quite rewarding -- Canadian Thanksgiving was such a hit, with "pickled" butternut squash, carrot/ginger slaw and, of course, my first batch of hot sauce. As a result I am starting to experiment with different kinds of peppers with the addition of fruit, in one case mango and in the other some sliced, smallish golden delicious apples from my front yard. All this turning me into a total geek genius, despite fermentation's 4,000-year history. It's all in the tasting. I already have "orders" from various family members, which I consider gratifying. (And nobody's dead and I am not the subject of a health inquest, ha ha.) Apparently all this stuff is "good for you." Bonus. Mostly, right now, it is good for my head and heart. The rest can take care of itself, ha ha.
meg's picture

That's awesome that it worked out so well, Richard! We love fermenting things. It's just really fun and never ceases to amaze us. We also really appreciate the feedback--it's nice to know when something we post is helpful! One resource, in addition to our favorite fermenting books, is a Facebook group called Wild Fermentation. If you're on Facebook, I highly recommend it. Folks are always posting their experiments, and it's a wonderful group to ask all your pressing questions in. You have to be added to the group, but if you request to be added, they'll let you in. Happy fermenting!
John Webber's picture

Had mine going for 9 days and still not bubbling much, no mold and I followed the recipe exactly. Why not bubbling? we are at about 65 degrees.
john's picture

Hmm... "Why not bubbling?". This is the toughest question to answer when it comes to ferments. It could be a variety of things. One thing to try: add something rich in lactic acid bacteria to the pepper mash--juice from unpasteurized sauerkraut is a good option. That might jumpstart the ferment. If the temperature is getting low, you might consider putting the mash on top of the refrigerator too.
mikestan's picture

I recently tried a similar method, except that I smoked the chilies before grinding and fermenting them. Nothing happened. Does pre-cooking them (in any way) kill off the bacteria and yeasts that start fermentation?
john's picture

You're correct mikestan, though we applaud the idea of fermenting smoked chiles! Were they hot-smoked or cold-smoked? You might be able to ferment cold-smoked chiles, but any kind of prolonged heat will kill lactic acid bacteria. If you are able to keep your smoker below 100F, then it might work--if you don't have them smoking for more than an hour or two. The lower you can hold the temperature, the longer you can smoke them.
Clif's picture

Thanks for the response. I had already gone ahead and used the Guar gum and had very good results. It took nearly nothing of the stuff to help to stabilize the sauce. I had never fermented my own hot sauce but it turned out great. I keep my house a little warmer than most and the fermentation seemed to go very quickly. About 10 days total. After about two days it was bubbling like crazy and looked like an over carbonated pepper soda, but after about 5 more days it had slowed down and it was not very active any longer and the white yeasts would cover the top of the stuff overnight. I got a little nervous so, I went ahead and scraped the top and stirred a few times but, because I couldn't really see any more bubbles hardly, and the white yeast was growing on the top so quickly, I decided to call it done on about the 10th day. Also I didn't add wine or any other liquid, just some garlic, peppers, and the salt @ 2% then I blended the ingredients in to a slurry and allowed it to ferment. But that caused the slurry to rise to the top and it was never completely covered by liquid, even after I would stirr it, it was never covered by liquid but was a very wet slurry. After I  strained it through a double layer flour sack I added rice vinegar because it has a more neutral flavor.  My question was, since I didn't follow your directions exactly... Did I needed the extra liquid to continue to ferment for a longer period of time or, if there were other indicators to look for to know when to stop the fermentation. No complaints though, it turned out great. I was just wanting to go for a longer ferment to develop a more complex flavor.  Any advice would be appreciated. 
meg's picture

You definitely don't need the extra liquid for a longer ferment. One thing you might try is fermenting the peppers and garlic whole (stem the peppers and cut a slit in them so they don't float so badly) in 5% brine until they're as sour and funky as you want them, then drain them (reserve the brine), scrape out the seeds, and puree, adding just enough brine to blend them well. Then add any vinegar or other flavoring you want. By fermenting the peppers whole, you would probably be able to do a longer ferment and keep them under the brine easier. We've done this a couple times this summer, and it works well. Also, in the fall, there are tons more yeasts in the air than at other times of the year. I find it harder to ferment in the fall without getting a lot of yeast activity. Technically, yeasts aren't a big deal, but they can negatively affect that flavor of the ferment if they get too active. Hope this helps!
Bill's picture

Interesting article. My friend sells wine and says wine without sulphites is very difficult to find, and expensive. Must the wine be sulphite free? Thanks
meg's picture

It is not necessary to find sulfite free wine. Jim, the pepper farmer, used wine with sulfites, and we have used his method with run of the mill wine. If your peppers need a jump start to fermentation, I would add a little juice from another fermented product, like sauerkraut. You could also remove the seeds from your peppers, cover them in 5% brine, and let them ferment whole, then puree after fermentation has slowed.
Fabrizio's picture

Hello John, I did a batch 10 days ago, it start to ferment after 2 days and after 5 it stop, the bubbling wasn't a lot, few where coming up shaking the jar.. I tested the ph with the ph paper strips and looks fine. Do you think is done already or I should add some alive cultures like I read in the comments? I made it with onions garlic ginger rosmary and pepper corn.. The smell is great. Thank you, I really enjoyed this blog! Fab
meg's picture

Hi Fabrizio! It might be done already. If the pH is acidic, and it smells good, you could probably finish it now.
Holly Jo's picture

Any advice on using overripe hot peppers for this recipe? The last of my garden peppers are getting a little soft. They aren't molding/rotting, but definitely past their prime. They are too far gone for normal canning, and I'd love to salvage them with this recipe. Thoughts?
meg's picture

They should work well for this recipe. As long as they're not moldy they'll be fine.
mat's picture

I just recently made my 1st batch of hotsauce, without much research. I added the apple cidar vinegar at the very begining of the fermentation. Will this prevent fermentation? It has been a few days and i havent really seen any bubbling. Should i leave it to see if it will ferment or should i cook it and bottle?
meg's picture

Hi Mat. I would just cook and bottle it now. I think adding the vinegar at the beginning will inhibit fermentation. But I'm sure the sauce will be delicious anyway! There's more than one good way to make hot sauce. Happy cooking!
Marty's picture

Hello, I was wondering if there would be any problems substituting beer for the wine in you recipe? Thank you Marty
meg's picture

It sounds like it's worth a try, but we haven't tried it and so can't vouch for it. If you try it, let us know how it turns out! You may need to add some good bacteria from another source (like sauerkraut juice) to jumpstart fermentation.
emptyspaces's picture

This is a great guide...but don't discard your spent pepper mash after you run it through the food mill. Instead, you can use it for lots of things, like making hot chili oil by infusing it in your favorite cooking oil. Or freeze the mash into ice cube trays & grab one every time you make stir fry.
tolvin's picture

could one use craft brew instead of wine ?...
john's picture

Why not? Give it a try Tolvin... Though I'm sure commercial beer has some additives to arrest fermentation, just like wine. That hasn't stopped our ferments from working thus far, but just thought I'd put that out there before you decide to try fermenting a ton of chiles in beer.
Poindexter's picture

I will TRY to make this short. I grew 14 varieties of peppers in my garden from mild to cayenne & jalapeno on the hotter side and put some of the peppers in cider vinegar to use with food. I found your page bought some habanero peppers for heat and decided to ferment a small batch of each separately and mix for different blends. They have been working for four months and I have cleaned the mold off of the top and added additional Riesling to compensate for evaporation. The fermentation has continued and I am ready to convert the mash. Since I could not clean the top every day, mold has crusted on the top of some of the jars. Also some white "sludge" seems to be on the bottom. My thought is to salvage the best peppers from the middle with the liquid and continue. What is the effect if some of the mold makes it into the pepper sauce? Should I get the liquid out before disturbing the peppers? Any advice before I ruin the mash, or is it too late?
john's picture

Four months! Holy crap. You've tapped out our expertise Poindexter. As long as none of the mold has been black, it's probably "safe"... but "good" is a completely different story. Have you tried any? If you have and it seems worth saving, I would try to get as much out of the bottles as you can without disturbing the sludge, which is probably dead lactobacillus (guessing here)... they will cloud your sauce. Please let us know how it goes!
Bill Wilson's picture

I've been fermenting some carolina reaper peppers, I'm afraid it will be so hot only a few drops can be used is it possible to dilute it some, if so with what?
john's picture

Yikes Bill! I can see your concern. I would play around with small amounts of the strained/squeezed mash until you find your ideal heat level. Try adding water, a little at a time, until you're close to where you want it. Balance it out with vinegar (and sugar syrup or honey if that appeals to you). Honestly, sometimes the end product just has to be used differently than what you originally envisioned. Reapers are just freaking hot! Be prepared to settle for a sauce that you add by the drop to your chili.
Francisco's picture

I bought some mixed peppers and I added some roasted garlic, onion, cumin, and a large amount of vinegar and water. It has a thick chunky consistency and it smells fairly vinegary. I have been fermenting it in a bowl I santized with vinegar and covered with plastic wrap. It has been fermenting for about a week or so. It shows a little separation and some spots or liquid which I heard was a good sign. I have read different recipes that say you must cook to avoid botulism. I have read others that say you don't have to cook it. I have also read to strain of not to strain. I am ordering bottles off of eBay to bottle it. I obviously don't want to make anyone sick. What is the proper way to ferment and bottle? How long should I ferment? I have tasted it throughout the process and it tastes good. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!
john's picture

Hello Francisco. Frankly, I'm not sure ferementation could occur in the situation you describe. Typically, all you want to add at the beginning is salt. The mixture becomes acidic as it ferments. Starting out with a highly-acidic mixture would seem to hinder fermentation, in which case all you have is an infusion... which can still be delicious, though it should be refrigerated. Bringing the sauce to a boil will help it from fermenting further (lactobacillus is killed by heat), but nothing short of pressure canning (i.e. heating the sauce in sterilized bottles to 250F) will kill botulism. You could pressure can bottles, but if I was planning to give an infused sauce to people, I would probably strain it, bring it to a boil, cool, pour into bottles, and tell them to keep it refrigerated.
Patrick Bartling's picture

Have u ever tried a non-fermented pepper sauce? I blend a combination of peppers with vinegar, garlic, and even amounts of salt and sugar. It comes out great. Mainly do a combo of Cayenne, Jalapeno and Habaneros to adjust the heat levels. I use a Ninja blender to get it extra smooth.
Patrick Bartling's picture

Have u ever tried a non-fermented pepper sauce? I blend a combination of peppers with vinegar, garlic, and even amounts of salt and sugar. It comes out great. Mainly do a combo of Cayenne, Jalapeno and Habaneros to adjust the heat levels. I use a Ninja blender to get it extra smooth.
john's picture

Absolutely Patrick! We love making a sriracha-style sauce, as well as Mexican "salsas" that start with rehydrated dried chiles... those are our go-to sauces (we have a sriracha recipe on the site: ). "Raw" sauces can be nice sometimes too!
Patrick Bartling's picture

As far as the airlock is concerned u can just sea the container and have a plastic tube coming out of it with the free end weighted and submerged in a container of water. just remember to add water to keep tube covered as the water evaporates
john's picture

Nice! Thanks for mentioning that option Patrick.
Patrick Bartling's picture

Too hot? Just read the post on the sauce being too hot. I have seen carrots used to tame down habanero sauce, should work for the Tabasco. Hope that helps.
Michael Hamlin's picture

Would it hurt anything to freeze the peppers until I have a large batch to make the hot sauce? I figured I could go ahead and chop/seed them, then throw them in the freezer, then when I get enough, take them out and thaw them and add the salt and whatnot. Do you think this would be ok?
john's picture

Good thinking Michael... honestly, we're not entirely sure. The natural yeasts might get murdered by the cold. It's more than likely that fermenting frozen vegetables will grow things you will not like, and might possibly be bad for you. You could jump start things with something rich in lactobacilli... like active (not canned) sauerkraut would probably work best. If you add enough lactobacilli to the pepper mash, then they can dominate any baddies that might be looking for a new home. Just be sure to smell for off odors and check for growths on the surface every day.
Michael hamlin's picture

Is the salt a necessary part of this recipe? I like to do things low-sodium when possible.
john's picture

Yes Michael. It's essential for the fermentation process.
ct's picture

Doh! Misstep, perhaps two. So I blended the chilies, salt, garlic as opposed to rough chopping. Less to strain later, right? And then I mistakenly added vinegar (50% white, 50% apple cider vinegar) to dilute before the ferment. Vinegar was supposed to be added after fermentation finished. With the vinegar already introduced, can it ferment? If not, does it become a refrigerated vinegar 'quik' hot sauce? Surely there's a solution to saving a misstepped spectacular hot sauce, please sir, yes?
john's picture

It will not ferment, sorry ct. The quick, refrigerator sauce is the only good route left to you... you can also try simmering the sauce for a more sriracha type product:
Kenny Howse's picture

Hello John, Thanks for all the info it's very informative. I am searching and so far failing to find a hot sauce recipe that uses a Hot Pepper Mash as it's base ingredient. I bought a Scotch Bonnet Pepper Mash and now I'm stuck with it not really knowing how to use it. I've made quite a few hot pepper sauces from fresh ingredients but not yet from mash. Regards Kenny
meg's picture

Kenny, a hot pepper mash should just ferment on its own. Is there anything added to it, or is it just hot peppers? If there's nothing in it, you should add 1.5 to 2% salt (to do that, just weigh the pepper mash, then multiply that weight by .015 or .02 to get the weight of salt that should be added). Then, put an airlock on it and let it ferment at room temp until the bubbling slows down or stops. Then you can proceed how you wish--by pureeing the mash and adding vinegar, spices, beer or bourbon, etc.
BigTex's picture

By adding 5 drops of hydrogen peroxide to each cup of white wine before you add to your peppers, you will neutralize the sulphides that inhibit bacteria growth. Some white wines are absolutely loaded with preservatives.


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