My first foray into making Lousiana pepper sauce started with a search for red chiles. Tabasco chiles were introduced to Louisiana in the 1800s and became the favorite chile for bottled pepper sauces. The recipe included the elaborate step of fermenting the ripe red peppers in oak barrels. Pepper pickers carried a stick painted with the shade of red that the peppers needed to reach. The ripeness was important because you need a decent level of sugar to get the fermentation process going.
The chile plants in my garden don’t produce green peppers until the early summer. There aren’t any red peppers until July or so. But luckily for my purposes, chiles grow all year round in southern Mexico. So I took a trip to the Farmer’s Marketing Association on Airline where Mexican produce is trucked in daily. I didn’t find any red Tabasco peppers, but there were red poblanos, red serranos and lots of red jalapeños. I know red japaleños have lots of sugar and I love the flavor, so I decided to use them to make my first fermented pepper sauce. I tasted a couple to check the sugar level–they were sweet and very hot. I bought ten pounds.
After washing the chiles in a couple of changes of water, I cut off the stems, chopped the chiles and ground them up in the food processor. Then I put a layer of the mash in the bottom of a 7.5 liter Gärtopf fermenting crock with a sprinkling of pickling salt. I figured six ounces of pickling salt for the 8 and a half pounds of mash I ended up with ought to be about right.
The mash filled the crock about two thirds full. We’ll call it five liters. I let the crock full of mash sit outside uncovered for a couple of hours to allow some wild yeasts to get the fermentation going. Some people add whey from yogurt or hooch from a sourdough culture to kickstart fermentation, but we have plenty of wild things floating around in the steamy jungle air of Southeast Texas, so I just let nature take its course.
The crock comes with two flat stone weights that you are supposed to put inside the crock to keep the sauerkraut or pickles you are fermenting under the brine so they don’t mold. I tried to balance the weights on top of the pepper mash, but it didn’t work so well. The weights just kept sinking in the very liquid mash.
The crock also comes with a lid that sits in a channel that you keep filled with water to create a fermentation lock–the gas bubbles can escape, but oxygen can’t get in. Lifting the lid to see how the mash is doing completely defeats the purpose of the crock’s design, but I can’t help myself. Last time I looked, there were lots of bubbles, but the weights had capsized into the mash. One was sticking up out of the drink like the Titanic after it split in half. I think I better revert to the Alton Brown technique of placing a ziplock bag full of water inside the crock to keep the mash submerged.
Any advice from veteran fermented pepper sauce makers would be welcome!