by Stephen Scott
(Reprinted with permission from the Terroir Seeds Knowledge Library.)
Fermented chile paste is one of my favorite toppings or condiments: I use it on eggs and sandwiches, and in soups, stews, and of course, stir-fry. Most of the chile pastes found in Asian markets will be fermented to some degree, with those made in America less so. Fermenting your own puts you in the driver’s seat, as you get to choose what flavors go into the process and how hot or mild the result is. After you’ve made a batch or two, you’ll reach for your “special sauce” before anything else!
We’ve just made a different type of fermented chile paste and wanted to share the process with you. This is completely different than our other chile fermentation recipe, Fermented Pepper Sauce. This method is still a lacto-fermentation, but instead of depending on the natural lactobacillus bacteria on the chiles, it uses organic whole milk yogurt to jump-start the fermentation process. What we’ve found is that this method really adds to the complexity and roundness of the flavors while decreasing the heat considerably. This is so delicious that a small dollop goes well on top of real vanilla ice cream!
This is a very quick recipe – our fermented chile paste was finished in just about four to five days, instead of a couple of weeks to a month for the more traditional lacto-fermentation. We hardly saw any bubbling in the air pockets, with none on top. Because of the yogurt culture providing the fermentation engine, we didn’t need to cover the chile mixture with water and then strain it out later.
The chiles we used were heirloom Anaheim and Serrano chiles, with only about ten percent being Serranos. I used the Anaheims for the mildness and well-rounded flavors, with the Serranos providing a different flavor dimension and some good heat. I just cut the stems off of the Anaheims, but seeded, de-veined, and de-stemmed the Serranos, and the initial mixture was still pretty shockingly hot! The heat was an immediate, front-of-the-tongue heat, which is typical for Serranos. The initial odor was unmistakably sharp fresh chiles and garlic, but after one day it smoothed out and had a very pleasant odor. After two days it started to smell very mellow with sauerkraut overtones and the chile/garlic combination fading. When it was finished the two odors were pretty well balanced, with the flavor being remarkably smooth, rich, and long lasting. The heat had really mellowed to a very moderate background that never intruded or was uncomfortable, only adding to the experience.
Fermented Chile Paste
2 – 3 quarts fresh chiles, any type you prefer
2 – 3 cloves garlic, or for more garlic flavor, use the whole head
1 – 2 ounce piece of ginger, optional
Fresh lemongrass stalks, chopped – use the bottom parts that are more tender, optional
1 – 2 teaspoons organic sugar, optional
1 – 2 tablespoons Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce, optional
1 – 3 tablespoons natural salt, such as Redmond RealSalt or Himalayan salt
1/4 cup organic whole milk yogurt (you want as many live cultures as possible)
Make sure the half-gallon fermentation jar is extremely clean — wash with very hot soapy water and rinse very well.
Wash and de-stem the chiles, removing the seeds and veins if you want. Remove any bad spots. The seeds and veins contain the capsaicin, or heat. Milder chiles won’t add much heat, but hotter ones will. I usually remove the seeds and stems from the really hot chiles for a better flavor that more people can enjoy.
Peel the garlic cloves.
Add the chiles, garlic, and ginger, lemongrass, sugar, or fish sauce to the food processor. Pulse until finely chopped into a paste. Use your judgment as to how fine of a paste to form. Stop and scrape the bowl down to make sure everything is chopped well. If the mixture gets thick and won’t move in the bowl, add 1/4 cup water to make it looser.
Add the salt – if the processor is full, add 3 tablespoons, if over half full, add 2 tablepoons and if half full, add 1 tablespoon.
Add yogurt and pulse again to mix.
Transfer the paste to the 1/2 gallon jar for fermenting. Replace the screw lid loosely to keep insects out but allow pressure build-up to vent.
Place the jar where you can observe it daily while it ferments, but not in the refrigerator yet.
Daily, remove the lid, stir, smell, and taste the mixture. You will see some bubbles and possibly some mold forming. White mold is good — do not be worried with white mold! Any other color is cause for concern, usually due to the jar not being extremely clean or the chiles not thoroughly washed. Stir any white mold into the mixture.
Store in the refrigerator to slow down fermentation and enjoy!
When the flavors are to your liking, it is done. If left alone, the fermentation will continue for a month or more, but don’t feel you have to wait on it.
Make sure that you have at least one full inch of headspace between the top of the chile paste and the lid, otherwise it can bubble over and make a mess.
We started with fully ripe heirloom Anaheim and Serrano chiles – the Anaheims for flavor with the Serranos providing a nice heat.
Preparing the chiles
The next step was to remove the ‘heat’ from the Serrano chiles by removing the veins and seeds. These contain the capsaicin which is a yellow oil in the seeds and along the veins.
Seeding the serranos
A butter knife worked well to slip into the chile and remove seeds and veins all at once. Note the disposable gloves to protect my hands now and eyes later!
In the food processor
After the chiles and garlic were chopped up in the food processor, the yogurt and salt were added, then pulsed to mix in well. Be careful when pushing the chile mixture down to keep your face away from the opening, as it can be quite pungent, depending on your chile selection!
Transferring to the clean half-gallon jar
After the yogurt and salt are added, the chile mixture is transferred to the fermenting jar. We started with the quart jar, but it was too full so we transferred to a half gallon to give it enough space.
Fermented chile paste
After about 5 days, the fermented chile paste was ready to go. The aroma started to mellow after the second day, and by the fourth it had a sauerkraut odor with undertones of chile – surprisingly delicious! We transferred the paste back into a quart jar to store in the refrigerator.
Ready to eat
The final product glamor shot!
Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, soil building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist, and co-owner, with his wife Cindy, of Terroir Seeds in Chino Valley, Ariz. He has been involved with heirloom seeds, environmental education, habitat restoration, soil health, and building local food pathways for more than twenty years. He’s an author, speaker, and educator on seed, soil, food, and health and how they relate to and strengthen each other. Their motto is “From the soil to the seed to the food you eat.”