Did you know that Tabasco hot sauce is aged in oak barrels for up to three years? Do you know what aging really means and what it does to hot sauce?
Here I’ll talk about how aging hot sauce is really just fermenting it. I’ll get into the use of oak barrels and the why and how of fermenting hot sauce in oak barrels. Plus, I’ll give some tips along the way for those of you who want to experiment with this at home.
Fermenting (or Aging) Hot Sauce
Aging hot sauce involves letting hot peppers ferment for extended periods of time in an airtight container.
When good bacteria are given the right environment and time to ferment peppers in hot sauce, quite a few things happen. It changes the flavor of the hot sauce, adding more layers and complexity.
Hot sauce also becomes more acidic, and its color starts to change. And, fermentation can actually make your hot sauce more mild (unless you’re using the right peppers).
Why Use Oak Barrels for Fermenting Hot Sauce?
Tabasco is an extremely popular example of hot sauce that’s been aged in oak barrels. And furthermore, it’s aged in oak barrels that have been first used to age whiskey or bourbon.
Why is this done? It creates a whole new flavor profile compared to regular, non-fermented hot sauce.
Once oak barrels have been used for aging whisky or bourbon, the wood holds on to those flavors. Then throw in a hot sauce blend and give it time to ferment. The whiskey-infused oak has time to interact with the hot sauce while it ferments and impart its flavor.
The end result? Bold, complex, and perfectly balanced flavors.
Compare this to regular, non-fermented hot sauce for which the base ingredients are hot peppers, vinegar, salt, and water. Remember how I said fermentation alone enhances the flavor? Now throw in whiskey-aged oak on top of that, and you’ve got a hot sauce that’s going to develop so many more layers of flavor.
Believe it or not, it doesn’t end there. You can even use charred oak barrels, which can give you even stronger flavors. Charring oak opens up the wood, so it can impart more of its flavor when used for aging whiskey.
Interested in giving this a try with your favorite hot sauce blend at home? Read on to the next two sections.
How To Ferment Hot Sauce in Oak Barrels
If you’re thinking about making your own barrel-aged hot sauce at home, you might have thought about how you’re even going to get an oak barrel that’s been aged in whiskey or bourbon.
Unless you maybe know someone who works at a distillery, these are pretty hard to find (and are also expensive).
No need to worry, though, because you don’t necessarily need a whiskey-aged barrel. A plain oak barrel can still be enough on its own for fermenting some good hot sauce.
But if you really want that whiskey or bourbon flavor, you can pretty easily accomplish this yourself at home too. You don’t have to age whiskey in the oak barrel for months, the way distilleries do. Simply rinsing the barrel with whiskey before adding your hot sauce can be enough.
Also, your options don’t stop at whiskey. Experiment with bourbon and even tequila for a more distinct flavor!
All in all, a used barrel is going to give you more flavor. Whether it was used for fermenting alcohol or has been charred, it’s up to you!
How Barrel-Aged Hot Sauce is Made
Making barrel-aged hot sauce is a fairly simple process. The key step is waiting for the mixture to ferment.
Typically, chili peppers are first chopped and blended to form a pepper mash. Then two of the base ingredients for any hot sauce, salt and water, are added. Hot sauce experts will often dissolve the salt in the water first before adding it to the pepper mash. Running the pepper mash in a blender until smooth is often done here, too.
Then it’s as simple as grabbing your oak barrel and a funnel, and pouring the hot sauce mixture into the barrel. From here, the hot sauce should be given ample time to ferment in the oak barrel.
How long the fermentation step takes is really up to personal preference, but in general, the longer you wait the better. 4 weeks is a good average estimate, but to give you an idea of how much it can range, Tabasco ages their hot sauce for up to three years.
After the fermentation period is up, the last of the key ingredients for hot sauce, vinegar, is added. Vinegar adds acidity but also stops the hot sauce from fermenting any further.
Depending on the type of consistency desired, the hot sauce might be strained at the end to create a smoother texture.
For those of you looking to try this at home, here are my favorite oak barrels for aging or fermenting:
- Sofia’s Findings American Premium Oak Aging Barrel
- Red Head Barrels Premium Charred American Oak Aging Barrel
- American Oak Barrel American Oak Whiskey Aging Barrel
Oak Chips in Hot Sauce (an Alternative to Barrels)
Using oak chips instead of an oak barrel is a creative alternative that many home hot sauce makers use.
Fermenting in an oak barrel can be more expensive and also messy, which is why smoking chips or oak chips are often used instead.
Aging hot sauce with smoking wood chips is really easy. You can follow your usual steps for fermenting hot sauce, and just add the chips to the jar for the fermentation step.
Let me get into some helpful tips to follow if fermenting hot sauce with oak chips.
If you have some plain pieces of oak, try toasting or charring the oak first (ideally over a fire for the best flavor) before adding them to your hot sauce. Or, you can soak the wood in your desired liquor (whiskey, bourbon, tequila, etc.). You can also buy these pre-made (charred or whiskey soaked). See my favorites below.
When charring the oak yourself, try a lightly toasted batch and a more charred batch. See which one gives you a flavor you like more.
For the amount of chips to use, if you have a pint mason jar, about 5 or 6 chips should be a good place to start. You can always go more or less for the next batch.
Experiment. Remember that a lot of this is all about experimenting. For each batch you make, have a separate test batch to try one aspect a little differently. It all comes down to personal preference.
Here are my favorite smoking chips that you can buy for your next fermented hot sauce batch:
- Jack Daniels Whiskey Barrel Barbecue Smoking Chips. Need I say more? These chips come from the Jack Daniels whiskey aging barrels themselves!
- Western Barbecue Smoking Wood Chips. I love these because you have a lot of different flavors here to experiment with.
Hopefully now you really understand the true meaning of barrel-aged hot sauce. It’s all about the process of fermentation and layering in new flavors to your hot sauce.
What I really love is that you have options here, too. You can go the more traditional route and use an oak barrel, or you can use oak chips if you’re just starting out or looking for something a bit more manageable.
As I always say, it’s all about your personal preference and experimenting with different flavors and methods.