You’ve no doubt seen the iconic bottles of Tabasco sauce at your favorite diner or greasy spoon. Tabasco is the brand name for a hot pepper sauce produced on Avery Island, La. Ever wondered how it’s made?
Although the recipe for the original sauce is top secret and, as legend has it, guarded by an army of 10,000 ravenous crayfish somewhere deep in the bayou, the ingredients list is surprisingly short: peppers, vinegar, salt. The one ingredient that doesn’t appear on the label but should is “time.” Tabasco sauce’s deep flavor comes from its three-year fermentation in white oak barrels. (Vegetable ferments are based on the science that the veggies contain benign microbes that will flourish under the right conditions, and suppress other microbes that cause spoilage.)
While reproducing the exact flavor of Tabasco sauce is difficult to do, you can approximate it in your kitchen using freshly picked hot peppers. The original recipe calls for Tabasco peppers (Capsicum frutescens var. tabasco), but you can use any type of hot pepper you like. I make mine using a jalapeño variety, which is milder on the official Scoville spiciness scale but more than hot enough for most palates.
Spicy peppers can be dangerous (think “pepper spray”). Take precautions to protect your skin, eyes and nasal passages from irritation. With super-hot peppers, you should definitely wear gloves and a mask.
Step 1: Pick Your Peppers
To make a fermented hot sauce, you need to pull liquid from the peppers in the same way that liquids are extracted from cabbage to produce sauerkraut. This means starting with red-ripe peppers. The experts at Avery Island use a red stick (called a “baton rouge”) to gauge whether peppers have reached the right stage of red ripeness, but as an amateur sauce-maker, you can be more flexible. If you’re using homegrown peppers, chances are you won’t have them all ripening at the same time. There’s no harm in throwing some green ones into the mix. They may bring the spiciness and redness of the final product down a notch, but only enough to be noticed by a connoisseur. You can also use ripe peppers of other colors if you’d like.
Step 2: Make a Mash
Chop off the stems, then grind peppers into a medium to fine mash with a food processor. Pour your pepper mash into a ceramic crock, or a glass or food-grade plastic container.
Step 3: Add Salt
Salt does two important things: It helps extract water from peppers (think about what happens when you salt a cucumber) and enhances the peppers’ flavor. The ratio of mashed peppers to salt is not an exact science, but 30:1 — roughly 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt per cup of mashed peppers — should work. Mix in the salt and pack the mash down to the bottom of your container. As the water seeps out it should cover the mash and prevent it from being exposed to air, which is crucial to proper fermentation. If you’re not pulling out enough water to cover the mash, add some salted water.
Step 4: Allow the Mash to Ferment
Let your mash ferment for at least a month to allow the flavor to become complex and interesting. Store your crock at room temperature and cover it with a towel to keep out dust. Check on it from time to time to make sure the liquid is covering the mash. After letting your mash ferment for 3 to 4 weeks, add white wine vinegar, to taste, and age for about another week to allow the flavors to blend.
Step 5: Strain the Mash
Straining your sauce removes the seeds and gives it a smooth, pourable texture. Tabasco sauce is quite liquid, but I like my version with some pulp. If you don’t have a food mill or strainer, pour the mixture into a bowl lined with cheesecloth, twist it up into a ball and squeeze until the juice is extracted. (Wear gloves if using this method.)
Step 6: Bottle Your Sauce
Your hot sauce should easily keep for several months, but it’ll be so good that I doubt it’ll last that long. Store it in the refrigerator or can it if you wish.
Step 7: Enjoy, and “Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!”
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