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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!


meg's picture

Thanks for this info! You learn something new every day.
Scott Clementson's picture

Hey there. I make beer, wine, Mead, kombucha, but it this hot sauce is new to me and I'm unsure of the mold level. I've skimmed white mold off everyday for over two weeks now. I'm assuming it's done fermenting but do I need to wait until white mold stops forming or can I skim and add the Apple cidre vinegar. Basically my question is.. Do I ferment until white mold stops forming or will it always form until i stabilize?
meg's picture

It depends, Scott. Sometimes the white mold persists and sometimes it will go away after a while. Normally, the way we decide when a ferment is done is when we like the level of sourness, so you should taste a little bit and see if you like the flavor. If so, go ahead and proceed with the recipe.
Tom's picture

Why not green peppers?
john's picture

They just don't turn out as well. I'm not sure why. Feel free to try--report back if you do!
D Williamson's picture

Ugh! I misread and added 20% kosher salt to my mash. I surmisee that this will keep the fermentation process from occurring. Is there a remedy? Thanks!
john's picture

I wish there was! The lactic acid bacteria will not do their thing. You could make it into a paste maybe? Add to sauces, marinades, a braise?
JordanShiveley's picture

Hi, great discussions I have very much enjoyed reading this.we are making our first batch of hot sauce for the restaurant that I work at and I was wondering what you thought about using a hi powered blender like a Vitamix instead of the food mill. I would think it would be better with less waste? Is there a reason I'm missing for not doing this.
john's picture

Nothing wrong with using a Vitamix, but if you're after a thinner, Tabasco-like consistency, it will be a gigantic pain to filter out the pepper solids and push them to extract the juice. The food mill is definitely our preferred tool since it squeezes the juices out of the mash and allows some of the finer solids through. If you're after a puree type of sauce, like sriracha, it will work well.
Kenny's picture

Can I roast the peppers and garlic in the oven and still ferment?
john's picture

I'm not sure! The heat will kill the lactic acid bacteria on the chiles, but you may be able to add some back in after roasting by inoculating it with a little yogurt... might be worth a try!
mongcong's picture

DON'T throw away those seeds and skins. Spread them out on a cookie sheet and dry them in your oven set at the lowest setting. Toss the dried goods into a spice/coffee grinder and spin away. You'll end up with one of the best hot powders in your pantry. Spicy and flavourful and the sour comes through as well. Every bit of the pepper gets used...WIN!
john's picture

Joe's picture

We were thinking of trying this with all the jalapenos coming out of our garden right now. Would it be stable at room temperature, or would it need to be refrigerated? I ask because we like to give things like this away as presents, so it might need to be shipped to friends and relatives, etc.
john's picture

The end product will be quite acidic, and is pretty "shelf resilient," but we've always refrigerated our sauce because... I'm not sure why. If you don't mind the extra trouble, you can ensure shelf-stability by processing the sauce in 1/2 pint mason jars as you would for pickles.
Maarten's picture

Awesome website! I started a few years ago with growing some peppers and now it's a real passion. I think most of you live in the US while I'm from Belgium. The climate is not that good for growing peppers (the season is a bit to short), but i got a nice big greenhouse where i grow a lot of them. I tried to make fermented hot sauce a few weeks ago with a mix of different peppers. I made a mash and only added 2% of seasalt. After 2 days bubbles started to appear and the mash got a bit higher. 5 days later the mash was down again and no more bubbles. Does this mean the fermentation is done? Is it usefull to keep it in jars a bit longer? How come the mash didn't rise that much with me? Does temperature or light have something to do with the short period? It was in a dark place but not too warm cause it's Belgium :)
john's picture

Temperature will definitely affect how long the fermentation process takes. If you see no bubbles or activity, there's no benefit to keeping it in the jar longer. I'm not sure what happened to your ferment... how cold was it? Does it taste sour?
Jason J Borque's picture

Well this is my second year making this sauce. I grow tobacco peppers in my garden which in the past hasn't turned out as well as hoped but this year I have so many peppers I'm not sure if I will have enough bottles! I must be honest I've never exactly followed the recipe just used it as a reference mostly I've followed my nose and watched for fermentation to stop. This year I tried adding peppers as they ripen a small amount at a time and at about the 4th addition I noticed there were no more bubbles so I allowed it to sit for about a week and then bottled. I use pink sea salt and white vinegar with great results. My main harvest is just now starting to turn colors because of the best growing season I've seen in a long time here in se tx, so I'm not sure how to proceed efficiently since I only get a handful of ripe peppers at any given time, but hopefully ripening is about to speed up.
john's picture

Fermentation is definitely one of the least recipe-like procedures we've tried to cover. You are right to follow your nose! Every batch acts a little bit differently. About efficiency, I understand your predicament: fermenting a few ripe peppers at a time sounds infuriating. Perhaps you could keep small mason jars out for fermenting ripe peppers and just add fully-fermented mash to a collection jar in the refrigerator? Just adding more peppers to the ferment sounds convenient... too bad it didn't work out so well!
Thomas's picture

So I'm new to this fermenting business. I've read everything I can find and watched every video I could find. My question is when is your ferment done? My pepper mash looks and smells great atm. In the first couple days I had separation in my jar and it seemed to be going perfect. I got the layer of mold about day four. I took that layer off and stirred my ferment. Since then I haven't notice a lot of doubles forming like i did before I stirred the mash. Now on day 9, no new mold and no separation. Is the ferment done do I need to finish it or due I just let keep going? Can I add some live cultures and maybe give it a boost?
john's picture

Sounds like it's done! I would just proceed to the next step rather than try to extend the fermentation time.
Jay's picture

Hi all, over the past three or four weeks, I have gotten two fairly large batches of hot peppers into fermentation. This year, I produced a pretty good quantity of Thai dragon, Caribbean fire, habanero, jalapeño, Hungarian wax, yellow, cajun belle, and serrano. I had so many peppers this year that I had to split the batches in two, first batch was fermented with the 2% salt, and a bottle of sweet mead, and the second batch was fermented with the same salt percentage and a bottle of sweet Riesling. Both went nuts for a couple of weeks, and have since settled down. To add a little bit more complexity, I threw in 6 1cm medium toast French oak cubes to each half gallon Mason jar (I have 6 jars going). We will see how this turns out flavor wise. The flavor is beautifully balanced so far. Flashes red hot, and then subsides fairly quickly. This is my first hot pepper fermentation, and I couldn't be happier. Thanks for the wealth of useful information! - Jay
Dianne Blazowski 's picture

I have been fermenting homegrown peppers and I used a recipe without wine - just kosher salt and water. It is done bubbling, but I'm still getting white mold on the top. When do I process the mash, will it continue to get the mold ?? I want to send some to a freind and am worried about safety.
john's picture

Once you process the sauce, the mold will stop growing on the surface. Just scrape it off as best you can.
billn65's picture

In order to get a Tabasco like consistency, can the sauce be fermented, pureed in a food processor and then strained through a couple of layers of cheesecloth? I have made this with the ghost chilies before and didn't strain it, although it was great, sometimes you have a need for a more vinegar based sauce without the pulp.
john's picture

That should work fine, though it might be tedious. A food mill with a fine-holed plate will remove pulp quickly and efficiently.
Dustin's picture

The exact sort of information I was looking for thanks! Note that pepper seeds do not contain any capsaicin. It's true that the seeds will pick up a certain amount from being in contact but the heat is coming from the flesh, pith and membranes. If one wants to reduce the heat removing the pith and membranes along with an alcohol wash is the way to go.
john's picture

Thanks for the tip Dustin!
Tracy's picture

I'm confused about one part at the end of this recipe. You say to put the whole mixture, peppers and brine, through the food mill, but after that you say to measure the brine. Does that mean the volume of the brine+peppers that I just food-milled, or does that mean the brine separate from the pepper chunks (in which case I should strain the mixture and measure the brine before food-milling it)? ... great recipe, I look forward to trying it!
john's picture

You got it Tracy! We just use the food mill to strain the brine into a measuring cup and mill the peppers into it afterward.
Calvin 's picture

Used red jalapeños and Fresno state. Added garlic, Reisling and salt. It's sitting on the counter in a barrel (after two weeks in glass jars). Will it be fine in a barrel or should I add vinegar now or Cook it?
john's picture

It really just depends on how active it is Calvin. If the mash has stopped bubbling, go ahead and process it.
Davitt Conroy's picture

Do you know of a good way or ingredient that will halt the fermentation process after a period of time. Im trying to make hot sauce and store it shelf stable until opening but I don't know how to fully stop the fermentation. Does it just have to run its course or can it be halted by adding something, xanthin gum, citric acid etc..
john's picture

The vinegar inhibits fermentation, plus the lactic acid bacteria will run out of sugars to eat (like you said). The xanthan gum is just for thickening.
Beth's picture

I just finished my first batch and fermented it in a gallon jug with an airlock top (about 3 weeks). Everything was great until I was out of town a few days and found a slight white mold film on top - I couldn't remove it since it had to be poured out of the jug so it got mixed in. I only used the 2% salt in mash while fermenting since it was bubbling nicely. Just bottled it with 50% apple cider vinegar. I have 6 bottles and it is beautiful. But will the vinegar/acidity of the peppers really kill that mold? Is it still ok? I'll be really sad if i have ruined it. Thanks!
john's picture

I wouldn't worry about it Beth. The white stuff is not a "bad guy" mold.
Mario's picture

Well, i just started my first batch, sadly enough i could not find any sweet wine that was sulfite free, that's the price to pay when you live in a small town, anyhow, i used a unoak chardonay #2, habanero and ghost pepper, i added a little sugar to the mash, i hope this will work for me, any suggestion as what to do with Green Jalapeno pepper, i have lots. Thanks and continue the good work.
john's picture

PICKLES! We love doing a quick pickle with jalapeños, onions, carrots, oregano, bay leaf, and apple cider vinegar.
Jane Jenab's picture

I'm curious to know if/how you all use your mash after you've bottled the hot sauce. I grow all of my peppers and hate to throw any of them out, but I have jars of mash left over after my last bottling. Is it ok to add oil to them and keep them in the fridge for use in chili/sauces etc? I'm thinking of drying and grinding some as well. Any suggestions appreciated.
john's picture

After squeezing most of the flavor out of the mash, I'm not sure how useful the leftovers would be Jane. Of course, you can always try! Let us know if you find a good use for them.
Jane Jenab's picture

Actually, I have found several uses! I just tossed it into a couple of Mason jars and put it in the fridge, and pull it out whenever I need it. I have mixed with honey and used as a sweet/spicy spread for bread and cheese. I mix some into anything I'm making that is spicy, like chili, etc., or add it to burritos, etc. for some extra kick. I gave one jar to a friend from Indonesia and he mixes it directly with rice. He liked it so much he ate an entire pint jar in a week! It seems to work great with pretty much anything that could use a little extra heat, and I feel great for not wasting it!
Dan's picture

Thanks for all this ton of info. Honestly appreciate this . By the way my 1 pound mash fermented really vigorously for the first 11 days and has been silent since then. It was a blend of habenaro and red peppers. So can I add vinegar now or should I let it sit and age for a while. Will this aging phase AFTER fermentation is of any use at all and will it improve taste of the final product. I have heard Tabasco ages their mash for 3 years. Appreciate your feedback !
john's picture

I think they age the mash after adding vinegar, but I'm not 100% sure. The main benefit for Tabasco is the flavor the barrels impart. I don't think there's any benefit to aging the mash post-ferment and pre-vinegar.
Dan's picture

Thanks John.....turns out Tabasco ages the mash for 3 years and then transfers the contents to stainless steel vats with distilled vinegar for 28 days for the pulp to break down before straining and bottling. I guess one can add couple toasted American or French oak bits to create the classic Tabasco flavor at home. That's my next project .
john's picture

That definitely sounds worth trying! Let us know how it goes.
Peter's picture

Hi John, This is a great site. The information is so useful.. I live in Sydney, Australia and have just had my first go at this. Used the chilis growing in my garden. I've no idea what they are.....they're very small and not too hot. I added harbenero and bird's eyes to kick the heat up a bit. I left it a bit late to start and the daytime temperature here is now around 61F. Initially, it was looking good but now, the weather doesn't seem warm enough to get the fermentation going. I've been leaving it out in the sun to warm it up a bit and that works but only for about five hours. After that it just stops again. It's been going for about 10 days. What do you think? Is there a better way to get it to ferment, it's going to get a lot colder soon). It smells like a think it should; there's no scum. I added natural, live yogurt to the mash about 3 days wasn't working.
john's picture

Hello Peter. The colder temperature will just slow the process down. Perhaps bring it inside, or place it in a warm environment to speed it up? I suppose you could use a heating pad set very low (assuming you're in no danger of getting it wet). Or, just process it and enjoy! The worst-case scenario is that it will not be quite as acidic as it would be otherwise.
Paul Bollard's picture

I made a chilli mash back in October last year using a variety of chilli's including komodo dragon, Trinidad scorpion, birds eye and a few more. Its been fermenting for 7 months now but since its my first attempt at a fermented hot sauce I'm unsure when done is done so to speak. I know tabasco takes 3 years to ferment but what i want to know is is there a way to tell when fermentation is complete.
john's picture

That's a really long time. Fermentation is definitely over, and probably has been for a while. There are only so many sugars in the chiles for the lactic acid bacteria to feed on. Though it varies widely--temperature, sugar content of chiles, etc.--the ferment is usually over in less than a month and can sometimes be over in less than 2 weeks. I'm pretty sure tabasco ages there mash for 3 years in whiskey barrels after adding vinegar. This allows it to take on flavor from the charred oak. It is not fermented for that long. In general, when the mash stops bubbling, there's no more fermentation going on. I hope it tastes okay! I'm sure you're familiar with the phrase, but just in case: "if in doubt, throw it out."
Peter S's picture

Hello all, just stumbled across this page, and was inspired to immediately try Jim's fermented hot sauce. However, working in a commercial kitchen, I only had access to sweet cooking wine that does contain a very small percentage of sulphites. Will this stop fermentation altogether, or simply slow it down? All other things are equal, 2% salt to chilli weight, muslin cloth on a Kilner Jar etc. Many thanks, Pete


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