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Fiery ferments to preserve your peppers: unlike store-bought condiments, these spicy concoctions are rich with nutrients and flavor developed through the process of lacto-fermentation.

It always starts innocently enough: You thought you'd grow red peppers, a half a dozen green chiles, maybe a Fresno chile or two, and of course you wanted to try to grow chocolate habaneras--oh, and you love poblanos, so put a few of those in, too. They've grown and grown--and you're staring at more than a peck or two of peppers. Now what? The standard preservation choices are freezing, dehydrating, or canning, but you could also freeze-dry them with the right equipment.

Let's talk about canning. Some vegetables confound even the most seasoned canner, and peppers are one of them. Before discovering fermentation, I was that girl who canned everything. I really did try to roast and can green chiles to make our own homegrown Hatch-style chiles. Because peppers are a low-acid vegetable, they require 45 minutes in a pressure canner. They looked beautiful through the jar, but they disintegrated into mush when I went to make my first chiles rellenos. If you want to can your peppers, you must pickle them first. You have to submerge the peppers in vinegar (as the key to safe preservation is to acidify, the definition of pickling) and then water bath can them. And while they're certainly delicious, one can only eat so many jars of canned peppers.

Benefits of Fermentation

Enter another preservation option: Create the right environment for an entire team of microbes to do the work for you (without handling hot pots full of boiling water). With fermentation, you can acidify any combination of peppers, spices, herbs, and other vegetables to make a variety of chutneys, condiments, pickles, or hot sauces. The microbes acidify everything equally, which gives you flexibility to explore and create the flavor you desire. After the fermenting vegetables reach a pH level of 4.6 or below, they're safe and stable for a long time. Shelf life depends on the vegetable, but pepper ferments can last unrefrigerated for a year or more in anaerobic conditions, as long as the ferment is sealed and not in active use. It's best, however, to store ferments in a refrigerator. This slows down the bacteria, stabilizes the ferment, and keeps the flavors intact and delicious.

Fermentation has become a lot of things to a lot of people in the past few years, but at its core it's a simple, inexpensive process that has been used reliably for thousands of years to preserve food. Here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, circling back to our roots. Now fermented foods are considered artisanal, using a combination of traditional methods and scientific knowledge to preserve food for its flavor, color, and nutritional value.

Lactic acid fermentation of vegetables is simply the best way to preserve the fresh bounty from your garden--it not only retains nutrients but also increases nutrients (and their bioavailability) and produces amazing flavor. When you place chopped, diced, or shredded vegetables and a little salt in an anaerobic environment inside a vessel and give it a little time, the lactic acid bacteria already on the vegetables will go to work. They'll consume the vegetable's carbohydrates--starches and sugars--and convert them into acids, digestive enzymes, and carbon dioxide while producing nutrients, such as B vitamins, including folate and riboflavin. And I can't neglect to mention the probiotics themselves, which do tend to get most of the attention with all the new research about the microbiome. How incredible, really, the process is--easy, safe, and effective at preserving vegetables in a healthy, tasty way.

Fermentation Tips

Equipment and weighting. For the recipes here, you'll need very little equipment to get started. If you've never fermented before and aren't sure you want to invest in any special equipment, rest assured, you can do this with just a jar and zip-close bag. You can use a plastic bag as a water-filled weight to keep vegetables submerged in the vinegary brine for both small and very large ferments. I know a few folks who use this same method for 55-gallon drums of kraut; they just use a much bigger, tougher bag. The important thing with this method is to leave space for the bag in the jar--fill the jar about 3/4 full of vegetables and brine and leave the top quarter of the jar empty for the bag.

After filling the jar with your ferment and pressing it down, top the ferment with a quart-sized zip-close bag--the heavier freezer-style bag is best. To do this, open the bag and place it in the jar on top of the vegetable mixture, pressing it onto the surface and around the edges. Fill the bag with water; you'll see it seal the ferment as it adds weight. When the water level inside the bag is at the same level as the top of your jar, seal the bag.

As your vegetables are fermenting, watch the ferment for air pockets. Whether they develop will depend on the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the vegetables while fermenting; some ferments may never shift, while others may develop air pockets. You can often adjust the bag, pushing a little to release the air. Periodically, you might need to remove the bag and press the ferment back down--rinse the outside of the bag with water and put it back on the ferment.

When is it done? Unlike cookies that you put in a 350-degree-Fahrenheit oven and know they're done after 15 minutes, a ferment's doneness can vary by days. This is normal and nothing to worry about--just watch it and pay attention to the changes, and you'll know when it's done. You'll see certain signs. You might note that it changes color, such as vibrant greens becoming a dull olive; it may smell pickle-y; or it might taste acidic and sour, no longer like salted, wilted veggies.

The temperatures for successful fermentation fortunately match most households--somewhere between 60 and 75 degrees is perfect. Of course, in summer your kitchen may get warmer, but don't worry--that means your ferment will be very active and will finish quickly.

I created these pepper ferments to preserve peppers at their peak. I thought up the Pico de Gallo Salsa Starter so we could make fresh salsa year-round using our canned tomatoes. The Fermented Green Chile Base came about because we had so many poblanos, jalapenos, and green chiles all ripening at the same time. I love cooking with that trio of peppers--so why not ferment them together?

These ferments range in spiciness-mild to hot. They're a convenient flavor base for a pot of chili or a spicy table-ready accompaniment to nearly any dish.
Fermented Green Chile Base


* 8 poblano chiles,
stemmed and seeded

* 8 green chiles, stemmed
and seeded

* 8 jalapenos, stemmed
and seeded

* 8 large cloves garlic

* 2 large onions, roughly

* 2 tbsp whole coriander
seed, roasted and crushed

* 2 tbsp whole cumin seed,
roasted and crushed

* 1 generous tbsp salt

Heat index: Mild.

This recipe uses the three most common peppers
in Southwestern cooking, and it's wonderfully convenient
to have on hand whenever you make chili; the
flavorful chile peppers, vegetables, and spices are
already prepared and ready to add to the pot. The
batch size seems large, but you'll use at least 1 to 2
cups per meal. For about 45 minutes of work, you'll
have 6 to 8 future pots of chili.

We wanted this recipe to be perfect for a family
meal--a hint of heat to add some excitement to
the dish, but not so much that children or non-heat-lovers
would feel smoked out. For more heat, feel
free to increase the jalapenos and reduce the green
chiles and poblano peppers. Yield: 2 to 2 1/2 quarts.

Directions: Combine the poblanos, green chiles,
jalapenos, garlic, onions, coriander seed, and cumin
seed in a food processor and process until roughly
chopped, or dice everything by hand. Sprinkle in the salt.

Pack the mash into jars, pressing out any air pockets as you go.
Leave about 1 inch of headspace. You should see some brine above
the pepper pulp. Screw the lids down tightly.

Set the jars aside to ferment, out of direct sunlight, for 10 to 14
days or as long as 3 months. For the first week or two, check daily
to make sure the mash is submerged. (Tiny air pockets in the ground
pulp will make it float on top of the brine. Just "burp" out the
carbon dioxide as needed, momentarily loosening the lid and gently
shaking the jar when you see separation.) Start tasting the ferment
on Day 10. It'll be ready when it has an acidic, vinegar-like

Store this ferment in the refrigerator, where it will keep for 12

Pico de Gallo Salsa Starter


* 2 onions

* 1 poblano chile

* 10 jalapenos, ora
combination of chiles

* 1 bunch cilantro

* 6 to 8 cloves garlic

* Zest and juice of 2 limes

* 1 1/2 tsp salt

* 1/2 tsp freshly ground
black pepper

Heat index: Medium.

Bring the freshness of summer bounty into your kitchen throughout
winter. This simple starter can be used as a base for any kind of
salsa fresca, from tomato to watermelon. It also works well stirred
into avocados for guacamole. After
fermentation, to make salsa, add
1/2 cup of the starter to 3 cups
diced fresh tomatoes (or whatever
fresh ingredients you dream up).
Yield: about 1 quart.

Directions: Dice and mince
the onions, poblano, jalapenos,
cilantro, garlic, and lime zest by
hand, or pulse in a food processor
to achieve a chunky fresh-salsa
consistency. Mix in the lime juice,
salt, and pepper.

Pack the mixture into a jar,
pressing out any air pockets as you go. Press a zip-close bag
against the surface of the ferment, fill the bag with water, and zip
it closed.

Place the jar in a corner of your kitchen to ferment. If you see
air pockets, remove the bag, press the ferment back down with a
clean utensil, rinse the bag, and replace it.

Allow the mixture to ferment for 7 to 14 days. You'll know it's
ready when the colors have muted and the flavor has an acidic,
lemon-like, or pickle-y flavor. When finished, place a clean, small
round of plastic or parchment paper directly on top of the paste.
Screw on the lid, and then store in the fridge, where this ferment
will keep for up to 12 months.

Variation: Salsa Verde

Heat index: Mild.

Unlike ripe red tomatoes, tomatillos and green tomatoes ferment
well and hold up in storage. For salsa verde, add 1 more teaspoon of
salt and 4 cups diced tomatillos, green tomatoes, or a combination
of the two to the Pico de Gallo Salsa Starter. Yield: 1/2 gallon.

Caribbean Salsa & Habanero Relish

These two habanero-based ferments are examples of the many flavors that pair well with habaneras. If the flavors sound enticing but you want a little less heat, try substituting Fresno chiles for the habaneras.
Caribbean Salsa


* 1/2 pound habaneras or other
Caribbean chiles, such as
'Scotch Bonnet'

* 1/2 large white onion, chopped

* 2 tsp minced dried thyme

* 1 tsp freshly ground allspice

* 1/2 tsp salt

Heat index: Hot.

The thing with habaneras is that the heat
comes on late. You always have enough time to
taste the rest of the ingredients and think you've
made it through without pain and sweat. The
other thing about habaneras is that they have an
incredibly strong, fruity quality. After sampling
this salsa, every one of our tasters argued that
there must be tomato in the ferment. Nope!

Yield: about 1 1/2 pints.

Directions: Chop the habaneras and mix them in a bowl with the
onion, thyme, and all-spice. Sprinkle in the salt and keep mixing.
The mixture should become moist quickly.

Pack the mixture into a jar, pressing out any air pockets as you
go. Press a zip-close bag against the surface of the ferment, fill
the bag with water, and zip it closed.

Place the jar in a corner of your kitchen to ferment. If you see
air pockets, remove the bag, press the ferment back down with a
clean utensil, rinse the bag, and replace.

Allow to ferment for 7 to 14 days. It'll be ready when you see the
colors of the ferment mute; the brine may become cloudy as well.
The ferment will have a pleasing acidic smell and taste pickle-y,
and it may have a bit of an effervescent zing. You can let it
ferment longer for a more sour punch.

Screw on the lid and store in the fridge, where the salsa will keep
for up to 12 months.

Variation: Habanero Relish


* 8 to 10 habaneras, or other
Caribbean chiles, such as
'Scotch Bonnet'

* 1 shallot, finely chopped

* 3 garlic cloves, minced

* 3 tbsp minced fresh chives

* 1 generous tbsp fresh thyme,

* 2 tbsp fresh parsley, minced

* 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

* 1/4 tsp grated fresh ginger

* 4 tbsp fresh lime juice

* 1/2 tsp salt

Heat index: Hot.

Assemble this ferment in the same way
as the Caribbean Salsa, but be prepared for
a decidedly different flavor. It's very herbal
and very hot, with no tomato notes. The
heat comes on late and continues to build
for quite some time. We like to put it into
a soup right before serving. It's also a nice
addition to flavor a creamy cheese, such
as our Buttermilk Cheese (see our book
Fiery Ferments, available on Page 64, for a
recipe). Yield: about 1 1/2 pints.

Directions: To prepare, follow directions
above for Caribbean Salsa.

Kirsten K. Shockey and co-author Christopher Shockey live on a 40-acre homestead in Oregon, where they've created over 40 varieties of cultured vegetables and krauts and have focused their efforts on teaching the art of fermentation. The recipes in this article are excerpted from Fiery Ferments, available on Page 64, and are used with permission of Storey Publishing.

Caption: Pour water into a zip-close bag placed on top of your ferment to help keep all vegetables submerged in the brine.

Caption: Add this jalapeho-poblano base to tomatoes for a quick salsa.
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Author:Shockey, Kirsten K.
Publication:Mother Earth News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2017
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