Note: If you cannot find ramps, feel free to substitute garlic chives, which have a very similar flavor, shallots, or even leeks. In any case, you'll want about 1/4 to 1/3 cup minced onion....
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.
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) 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!