Double Berry Habanero Fermented Hot Sauce

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

This recipe is a great introduction to the power of fermented hot sauces. The technique involves little more than making a coarse pepper mash—a roughly homogenous mixture of chopped peppers (and sometimes other fruits or vegetables) and salt. After undergoing fermentation, this mash gets blended with a little white vinegar and some seasoning—similar in style to classic Tabasco sauce. Here I chose habanero peppers, which—despite boasting an often overpowering capsaicin kick—have a pleasing fruity aroma and flavor.* To temper this heat, I opt for a combination of blackberries and blueberries in the mash. Berries are rich in sugar and surface microbes to jump-start lacto-fermentation; they also echo the fruity flavor of the habanero chiles. That combination of natural sweetness and sour pungency results in depth rather than pure, face-melting spice.

*Conventional cultivars of the habanero chile are spicy—between 100,000-350,000 Scoville units. But in recent years, in an effort to highlight the habanero’s unique flavor and aroma, researchers have worked to selectively breed peppers with milder spice levels. In fact, in 2007, a heatless version called the ‘Habanada’ was developed, which you can find here and there commercially or in seed form.

Habanero chiles are thin-skinned, thin-walled peppers that produce a relatively dry mash on their own. Berries lend moisture to the pepper mash due to their significant water content. A wetter mash means fewer air pockets (or none at all); fewer air pockets means less chances of unwanted microbial growth (kahm yeast or mold). Berries are also rich in pectin, which thickens the sauce slightly when blended. Finally, the berries give the finished sauce a vivid, crimson-purple hue.

Like Tabasco, this sauce is blended with distilled white vinegar after fermenting. That punch of acetic acid complements the lactic acid funk and sweetness, balancing any lingering harsh spiciness. If you want an ultra-smooth sauce with an attractive shine, it’s best to strain this sauce after blending. This sauce is perfect for any time you might use regular Tabasco—on eggs, tacos, and the usual savory fare. But it’s even amazing on fruits like pineapple, watermelon, or mango.