Chipotle, Garlic, and Cumin Fermented Hot Sauce

[Above photograph: Vicky Wasik. Process photographs: Tim Chin ]

When it comes to fermenting chiles, most people assume that you’re using fresh peppers. But don’t sleep on dried peppers. With some careful preparation, they can be perfect candidates for lacto-fermentation. While dried peppers tend to be deficient in the surface microbes necessary to initiate fermentation, they do still have sugar to fuel that process.

Here I add dried chipotle morita chiles to a salt brine, along with a healthy amount of fresh garlic and toasted cumin seeds. The salt brine hydrates the peppers, freeing sugars that lactic acid bacteria can readily metabolize. In addition to its pungent flavor, the garlic provides a reliable source of inoculating microbes required to initiate fermentation (as well as some sugars). Over time, the peppers gradually acidify, and their smoky flavor suffuses with the brine, staining it a rich brown color. Because there is a smaller initial population of microbes compared to a fresh chile ferment, this ferment is slower, and can be left to bubble away for up to a month (or longer in some cases).

Finishing the sauce is as simple as blending it up. Blending the chiles, garlic, and cumin in a combination of leftover fermented brine and vinegar yields a smooth sauce with layers of acidity. A dash of sugar balances the acidity and smokiness of the sauce; it also helps to temper some of the latent spiciness. Finally, I take a cue from the commercial pros: Blending a small amount of xanthan gum into the sauce produces a silky, smooth, and slightly thicker texture that tends to stay emulsified longer.

This hot sauce is smoky, smooth, and savory, with a medium heat intensity. The cumin is warming but not overpowering, having mellowed over the course of fermentation; it plays nicely with the smokiness of the chiles. This sauce is close to Cholula’s brand of chipotle hot sauce in flavor and texture—just a touch funkier and more interesting.