The following 101 comes from HOMEGROWN member Joe, a Pennsylvanian with a heckuva HOMEGROWN bent. Joe, we couldn’t be happier to welcome you into the fold. Please keep the good ideas bubbling!
I am Joe Klinkhoff. I have been a cooker, a baker, and a fermenter as long as I can remember. I have brewed my own beer, wine, and tej (Ethiopian honey wine; way easier than mead); I have cultured my own yogurt, kefir, and kombucha; and I have fermented pickles, vegetables, kimchi, apples, and sauerkraut. I love baking my own breads and even had my brother build a brick oven in the backyard.
I also grow my own peppers from seed. I bought the plants the first year and have saved some every year since to dry for seed. Last year I also bought Holy Mole pepper plants. I’m hoping the seeds will sprout this year and produce fruit, but you can never be sure how hybridized purchased plants are. The seeds might grow into plants, but those plants might not bear fruit or might bear small fruit, etc.
My foray into fermented chili paste was the result of me wanting a nice chili paste to use in a Thai stir-fry. Stir-fry is a quick, simple, and fairly healthy meal for me (and leaves leftovers for lunch). Some web searching and general know-how and a large measure of winging it got me there. The two batches I created differed in texture and hotness, but both are wonderful for cooking or serving.
Batch number 1 (above left, bright red) was my test. For it, I used Thai super chilies and chopped lemongrass. The lemongrass was acceptable but, looking back, a mistake—very loose and liquid-y. I use it for soups and stir-frys: about a heaping teaspoon per pound of meat. It adds a nice heat.
The second batch (bottom left, brownish) was two-thirds Thai chilies, one-third Holy Moles, and a banana pepper that turned blackish purple when ripe. This paste is way more flavorful (extra ginger, extra garlic, a bit of lemongrass). I use this for stir-frys, chili, and soups, but I’ll also take a spoon or two, put it on a coffee filter to drain off some of the liquid, and serve it on top of hummus. MMMMM. When stir-frying, I use a little more than a teaspoon, but this batch has creeper heat. You don’t notice it right away, but it adds up.
SOME POINTERS BEFORE WE BEGIN
If you’re making a small batch, you can use a quart jar and fill what you can. If you have more than a quart, be sure to leave a full inch of headspace so the paste doesn’t come squirting out of the jar. If you're in between quart jars, use small jelly jars or pint jars, always leaving one inch of headspace. (Pictured at right is a finished jar of paste I've dipped into.)
I have had bits get moldy around the top of the jar. If the mold is yellow, reddish, black, or any color other than fuzzy white to blue-green: Sorry, it’s bad. If you get spots of fuzzy white or blue-green, just remove those bits with a spoon and discard them. (Sauerkraut gets the same type of mold.) Properly fermented chili paste will not support any pathogenic molds or organisms. If yours has been corrupted for any reason, I would rather be safe than sorry.
The method below uses straight lactofermentation. Think sauerkraut, deli barrel pickles, etc. The amount of garlic, ginger, and lemongrass is completely up to you; you can even skip them. One note: Lemongrass is TOUGH—much tougher than ginger, so if you use it, cut it into 3- or 4-inch pieces and add it to the jar of paste to ferment. With my second batch, I removed the lemongrass when I moved the paste to the fridge. With my first batch, I left the lemongrass in, and fermenting has not really softened it up (yet).
» 1 pint plain yogurt, with active cultures (important!)
» 1 coffee filter, any type
» small sieve
» 1-3 Tbsp canning salt (also important!)
» 1- or 2-oz piece of ginger root
» 2 to 3 (or 5 to 6) cloves of garlic
» 6- to 8-inch lemongrass stalk
» 2-3 quarts fresh-picked hot peppers, any and all varieties
» 1 quart wide-mouth canning jar (or more) with ring and lid
» food processor
WHAT TO DO: THE DAY BEFORE
First we need to separate the whey from the yogurt to use as our inoculant, which will get the paste fermenting.
1. Line the sieve with the coffee filter.
2. Suspend it over a bowl or plastic container. You’ll need to make room in the fridge for this assembly.
3. Pour half of the container of yogurt into the filter.
4. Put the bowl-and-strainer setup into the fridge. By the next day, you’ll have two things: yellowish but clear whey in the plastic container and a smallish amount of Greek yogurt in the coffee filter. (Top this with fresh fruit and granola, and enjoy a snack. You deserve it.)
5. Reserve the whey in the container and leave it refrigerated until you’re ready to use it.
You could skip the yogurt whey and use salt/natural lactofermentation, but the whey is so easy to obtain, and the fermentation kickstart it provides is a real boon. Plus, if you don’t go the yogurt route, you have to mess around with putting something in the jar to keep the ground vegetables under the brine until they start fermenting.
WHAT TO DO: CHILI PASTE DAY (THIS SHOULD BE A HOLIDAY)
1. Wash your jar and lid with really hot water then dry them both well.
2. Pick and wash your chilis. Dry them as well as possible. Cut out any bad spots. We want good, fresh, clean peppers. Now, if you want HOTTER chili paste, just nip the tops and stems off, leaving the peppers with the seeds inside. For a slightly milder paste, split and seed the peppers. (Mine contains the seeds.)
3. Peel the garlic cloves. Wash the ginger, peel it if you feel you have to (I never do), and cut it into chunks. Put everything into the food processor bowl. Pulse until finely chopped.
4. If the processor is FULL, add 3 tsp salt. If it’s mostly full, add 2. If it’s half full, use 1 tsp. Pour all of the reserved whey into the processor, maybe ½ to ¾ cup. Turn processor on and let it run. We want the vegetables reduced as small as possible and the salt dissolved and distributed. If the slurry seems too thick or is not processing completely, add a bit of water—no more than ¼ cup. The gist is, we want the slurry processing fully into a paste. You can stop now and then and scrape down the bowl if you need to. The finished product should be very, very tiny pieces of all the good stuff in liquid—not soupy but fairly thick (say, the consistency of salsa or slightly looser). For some reason, it will thicken. The garlic does something, somehow.
5. Scoop the paste into the clean jar, leaving a FULL INCH of headspace at the top. Put the lid on the jar and, just as you would when canning, screw the band on until just finger-tight.
6. Put the jar in an out-of-the-way but easily accessible spot to ferment.
WHAT TO DO: FERMENTATION
The fermenting process can take up to a week or a week and a half. The goal is not to refrigerate your paste until after the heavy fermentation is done. The paste will continue to ferment as time passes, though more slowly. I have also noticed that the paste gets hotter with time.
1. Check the jar EVERY DAY in case you inadvertently tightened the lid too much and gas is not escaping. If the lid has domed at all, unscrew the band a bit to release the pressure.
2. You will notice the product will swell and get very bubbly/foamy. Use a chopstick or wooden skewer to stir it down and release the gasses. Re-lid and tighten the band finger-tight.
3. Always make sure the rim and band are clean. Any food particles that get trapped in the ridges can lead to mold.
4. When you notice the paste is no longer actively foamy or bubbly and does not need to be stirred down, you may refrigerate it and eat it. ENJOY!
A FEW FINAL NOTES
Below is more information on my two preferred chili plants for paste making.
Spacing: 18-24” between plants, 24-36” between rows
Depth: Plant seeds ½” deep. Start indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost date. Plant the same depth outdoors as in pots.
Sun/shade: Full sun
Fruit: Beautiful 2-3” peppers, with up to 300 fruit per plant.
Days to maturity: 75 from transplanting
Soil requirements: Rich, well-drained soil
Comments: Very hot (75,000 to 100,000 on the Scoville scale); perfect for Asian dishes.
Height: 2-3 ½’ high
Spacing: 1’ between plants, 2 ½-3’ between rows
Depth: Start inside 8 weeks before last frost date. Plant at least 1/4” deep. Transplant outside 2-3 weeks after last frost.
Sun/shade: Full sun
Fruit: Slender, 7-9” long and 1 ½” wide at the larger end
Days to maturity: 85
Soil requirements: Normal, loamy
Comments: Great for mole sauce and Mexican cooking, as well as for drying and grinding. A pasilla variety, mildly hot at 700 on the Scoville scale. Good resistance to Mosaic virus.
I always use Stonyfield Yogurt, which is organic and contains six live-active cultures: S. thermophilus, L. bulgaricus, L. acidophilus, bifidus, L. casei, and L. rhamnosus.
Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation is a must-have for any foodie or fermentie. The book’s website includes a forum where folks post about their most recent fermentation projects.
Got a question for Joe? Or your own hot tip to add? Post comments below and keep the conversation rolling! You might also be interested in 101s on drying chili peppers, starting sourdough bread, and making kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha, and Greek yogurt. And then there are the HOMEGROWN groups dedicated to homebrewing and fermenting. You can always find more things to cook, preserve, make, craft, plant, grow, and ferment in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
PHOTOS: (PASTE IN BOWLS AND IN MASON JAR) JOE KLINKHOFF; (MIXED PEPPERS IN BASKET) LORISES, COURTESY OF FLICKR'S CREATIVE COMMONS; (THAI SUPER CHILIES) KRISTA76, COURTESY OF FLICKR'S CREATIVE COMMONS; (HOLY MOLES) UH, HUH MELFY, COURTESY OF FLICKR'S CREATIVE COMMONS