Picking peppers and other ingredients for your hot sauce can be a very rewarding and creative endeavor, even if you live in an area with limited selections. But even with limited options, you may still wonder what and how to choose. This article will focus on two areas of hot pepper picking for lacto-fermentation: color choices (including some color compatible fruits, veggies, and spices) and pepper heat levels.
Before we get started, if you’re looking for saucemaking and bottling supplies, check out this article of suggestions.
Part of choosing compatible colors is that you want the color of your sauce to reflect the flavor and give someone an idea of the flavor before even smelling or tasting it. For example, you might not want a brightly flavored peach hot sauce to be dark brown.
Developing the right heat level for you or whomever the sauce is for is also an important consideration. Too mild and you’re underwhelmed, too hot and, well, a fiery mouth and difficulty tasting anything but the sauce. Of course, personal preferences are a strong factor and can determine how much sauce is used on what. (I personally prefer a very hot sauce but not so hot that I can only bear a drop.)
I won’t really go into techniques (e.g. roasting or smoking peppers before a ferment, barrel aging, etc.) if that’s what you’re looking for, though some ideas are touched on briefly, nor do I discuss specific measurements or proportions in recipes.
It’s my hope you’ll try to be creative and, perhaps with time and a few attempts needed, make something you can call all your own. It never hurts to start with a simple recipe though to get a feel.
If you want to skip this large overview discussion, just scroll down to see ideas for fruits and other ingredients to add to your hot sauces and a pepper heat chart.
Let’s start with some standard supermarket offerings. If you only have access to jalapenos and these are too spicy for you alone, you could add green bell peppers. Since green bells have a similar flavor to jalapenos (minus the heat of course), they will just take the heat down without doing anything drastic to the flavor.
Another quick comment is picking organic is always superior in fermenting. They are proven to have more natural yeasts, frequently have a higher nutritional profile, and haven’t undergone the same level of chemical tampering that can result in less active or stalled ferments. If availability or cost is an issue, it will still be worth your while to make your own hot sauces.
It’s also good to be aware many people are “pepper purists” and don’t add anything besides the salt brine (or sauces can be fermented as a salt mash, but that’s not my typical method… this is a site about brines after all!). In which case, you may really enjoy discovering new hot peppers or combining some for your own “superhot” sauces.
But if you are wanting to experiment or broaden the flavor profile, a popular choice to go with green jalapenos (or its spicier cousin the serrano), is tomatillos (and/or perhaps some green tomato), perhaps along with garlic, onion, and spices, to make a kind of fermented salsa verde hot sauce.
If you wanted something hotter than a jalapeno for your green sauce but don’t have access, adding a few red chili flakes from the spice rack can bump up the heat without doing anything disruptive to the color of your sauce (more about this below). After fermenting, as you blend the sauce it can be finished with cilantro and lime juice to not only add authenticity, but lower the pH. This increases shelf stability and adds to the lip puckering sour flavor which comes with fermentation.
Being white or light colored, the onions and garlic may give you a lighter or brighter green, but they aren’t going to result in a weird off-putting color. Think back to your childhood learning about primary and secondary colors. If you have red habaneros, and add yellow bells for instance, you can expect your sauce to become more orange-colored. The degree of reddish or yellow dominance is all in the proportions. But if you started to throw in a lot of green items, it might taste good, but you will end up with a brownish sauce which is hard to identify (and perhaps reduce overall appeal).
If you were trying to make an orange hot sauce in the first place, perhaps there’s an orange hot pepper available to you that’s less fiery than a habanero but still quite hot, like a manzano or aji amarillo. Or are you interested in going even hotter than a hab? Scotch bonnet peppers are not strangers to many standard supermarket chains.
If you have access to less common peppers, such as at farmers markets, international grocers, or even perhaps as an option for your backyard garden, I recommend you look online into specific descriptions of these peppers. For example, I was unfamiliar with manzano peppers until a South American market opened near my house and they caught my eye. They have a very unique, citrusy flavor, as well as very large, dark seeds, and knowing this at the outset from info online helped me decide how to prepare them.
Some of the reason for choosing hotter and hotter peppers is because you want to add fruits or other produce and components, and still end up with a very hot sauce. Green jalapenos are very hot for me raw but I can eat them, well one anyway. Wouldn’t this “tame” pepper then be perfect for me?
But when you consider that you are placing everything in a saltwater brine (which will dilute the heat), and potentially adding other items like fruits, veggies, herbs, sugars, acidic juices or vinegar, the end result is going to be something less hot than what you might be imagining. For this reason, I usually go about half serranos, (which are about double the heat of jalapenos in terms of the Scoville index). I also don’t mind some seeds making their way into the ferment though I do tend to remove them (these don’t really have heat of their own by the way, but can carry away some heat when removed because the material around them is the hottest part of the pepper).
Provided here are two resources: The first is a brainstormed list of non-pepper items compatible with specific colors, just to give you some ideas. It is very far from exhaustive or prescriptive. As discussed before, items in the red camp, for example, can be interspersed with those from the yellow or orange camp, but greens can take on weirder colors if mixed with the reds and oranges. The greens and yellows might provide for some interesting creations. It’s really up to you.
I haven’t included brown, purple, or other less common color peppers at this time (and indeed there are several great ones), nor the many excellent produce options, from blueberries, to blackberries, mushrooms, cocoa nibs, soy or fish sauce, coffee, beer, bourbon, the list can go on forever, not to mention all the herbs and spices). Tasting components on their own is always a good idea, as well as building things together slowly and with a goal (or goals) in mind (e.g. the flavor you want, what you plan to do with it, etc.).
The last comment I’ll make is that there’s always questions about adding items like fruit to a ferment versus adding them after you’ve completed your ferment. In fermentation the sugars in fruits are largely converted to acids and gases (which are released), meaning you’ll typically get notes of that flavor but in slightly transformed and more sour ways. For this reason, many people opt to add such items after completing the ferment at blending time. Clearly different people have different preferences too; some love more the subtle and sour flavor of a fruit in the ferment (I see this a lot with pineapple), while others prefer it added after.
As noted elsewhere on this site, you just need to be careful about adding new ingredients and sugars at the end because this can re-activate a ferment. Adding campden tablets which kill the bacteria, or a less extreme approach like adding acids such as vinegar or citric acid, and/or heat processing the sauces in jars are frequent solutions.
I tend to mostly avoid all of this by long ferment times (e.g. 3+ months), or if shorter, the sauces can be kept in a refrigerator which really tames a ferment. At the same time, it is advised to open and begin using a sauce pretty soon so that the headspace is reduced and the chances for pressure build-up are minimized.
The other resource below is an illustration of the “Scoville Scale” (there are many of these artistic adaptations available online), which is a rating system for each pepper’s heat intensity. At the time of writing this, I have a number of interesting, less common pepper variety seeds which I look forward to planting in the spring. Several of them I’ve never tried.
Tomatoes, sweet red peppers, red onions, red or purple carrots, guava, cranberries, watermelon, raspberries, cherries, strawberries, red or purple grapes or raisins, red juices (e.g. pomegranate, cranberry, etc.), blush or red wine, rhubarb, saffron, sumac, annatto seed, red curry powder, paprika or smoked paprika
Orange tomatoes, sweet orange peppers, carrots, mango, apricot, peaches, nectarines, oranges, persimmon, papaya, pumpkin, orange or yellow melons, 5-spice powder, turmeric, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, brown sugar
Yellow tomatoes, bananas, sweet yellow peppers, carrots or yellow carrots, pineapple, apples (yellow, peeled, etc.), pears, yellow cherries, yellow melon, lychees, white wine or yellow fruit juices, ginger, yellow turmeric, ground mustard, coriander, curry
Tomatillos, green tomatoes, onions, green onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, kiwi, lemongrass, spinach, honeydew, melon rinds, black pepper, Mexican oregano, coriander, cilantro, lime juice, lime zest
The last resource is a pepper guide with reference to the “Scoville Scale,” which is an imperfect though popular and reasonably helpful heat index. Let me know if you have any other ideas or questions for future consideration or inclusion! And happy saucing!