Peppers, bacteria and time

Fermented hot sauce has become an annual ritual for me.

John I. Carney
6 min readSep 23, 2020

Last year’s batch, right after bottling. Because most of the batch was sold at a church bazaar, the name is a playful reference to a quote from John Wesley, the father of Methodism.

I did a post on fermented hot sauce two years ago, when I first got started. But I’ve learned a little more since then, and changed some of my practices. So when a Facebook friend asked me how I make hot sauce, I didn’t just want to link her to that old post. And it’s been long enough that I thought I could get away with a new story on the topic.

Lactofermentation was used for centuries as a way of preserving vegetables. When you put vegetables into the right concentration of salt water, the salt inhibits the bad bacteria that would cause the food to rot, while still allowing lactobacillus to do its work. The lactobacillus produces lactic acid, which gives the vegetables a pleasantly tangy flavor and helps to preserve them. This is how pickles, sauerkraut and other such foods were originally made.

At some point, after vinegar became more widely available, it was discovered that you could pickle foods by soaking them in vinegar, a much quicker and simpler process. And that’s a good thing — I never turn down a pickle, by any method. But there’s something to be said for the complex, funky flavors that are created by fermentation.

Traditionally, veggies were fermented in a crock with a loose-fitting lid. That’s because lactofermentation produces carbon dioxide, and you have to provide a way for the gas to escape. But the trouble is that the loose-fitting lid also lets air in — which could mean mold spores. Alton Brown’s recipe for fermented dill pickles requires that you skim the top of the brine daily to avoid mold.

Today, though, you can buy a variety of “fermentation lids” which fit any wide-mouth jar. These lids have a variety of mechanisms and designs, but the basic idea is that they let CO2 out without letting air in. Here’s the type I use:

The little gadget at the right of the photo is a hand pump. To give yourself a little extra insurance against mold, you can use that pump to vacuum all of the air out of the jar once you’ve loaded it up (or any time that you have to open the jar for some…

John I. Carney

Author of “Dislike: Faith and Dialogue in the Age of Social Media,” available at