Win some, lose some: The Homemade Sriracha Experiment

Day 4 of the sriracha fermentation process and I have one disaster and one success.

The disaster: I was gone all day yesterday and didn’t check the sauces last night and unfortunately, bad bacteria took the opportunity to take over the red sauce. There was a thick layer of fuzzy mold in the top and a smell of fruity acetone in the jar. I scraped the mold off just to see what the condition of the sauce was underneath and it was still brilliant red but smelling of pepper garlic alcohol. I think that a combination of very ripe and juicy peppers and a warmer than desirable fermentation temperature got the best of me. I’m going to try it again soon though because up until last night, the mash smelled amazing. Chalk this one up to environmental factors. I’d consider using a narrower mouthed jar next time too to see if that helps, but the lack of temperature control in my apartment is probably a much more critical factor. Once the radiators go off and I can get some more red chiles I’m going to make another batch because it. smelled. awesome.

The green sauce, on the other hand stayed much more stable. A little bubbling but nothing like the jar of red sauce and there wasn’t any mold on the surface. The color softened a little from the original bright green but stayed pretty bright. I added the vinegar and simmered the sauce for 5-8 minutes before blending the mash into a smooth puree and sieving it. The green sriracha is tangy and garlicky and hot hot hot with a little ginger kick that I’m really happy about. I think it will be great in soup and beans and maybe even with some skirt steak with chopped cilantro and onions as a little fusion take on chimmichurri sauce.

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Gingery Green Sriracha 

makes about 1 1/2 cups

3/4 pound green jalapeños

2-3 cloves garlic

1 knob of ginger (about 1 ounce)

1 teaspoon natural sea salt

2 tablespoons raw sugar

1/4 cup distilled white vinegar

Snip off just the long end of the jalapeño stems and coarsely chop the whole chile into 5 or 6 pieces; coarsely chop the garlic cloves and ginger. Along with the salt and sugar, put the chiles, garlic, and ginger into the bowl of a food processor. Make sure you cover the spout so you don’t burn your eyes. Pulse the jalapeño mixture until it is a rough purée without any uneven chunks.

Pour the jalapeño purée into a clean glass jar and loosely cover with a lid. Don’t tighten the lid so that the gasses that form during fermentation can escape. Place the jar in a cool (if you have it) dark place and allow it to begin to bubble and expand.  It should smell like garlic and chiles but pay attention to any sharp alcohol smells or excessive mold sprouting on the top. Allow it to ferment for 2-3 days, stirring occasionally.

Pour the fermented mash into a small sauce pan, mix with the white vinegar and bring to a boil. lower the heat and cook for 5 to 8 minutes at a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow to cool off. Pour it into the bowl of your food processor or blender and process until very smooth, 2-3 minutes. Sieve the smooth puree through a fine mesh strainer to remove bits of skin and seeds. Scrape the mash through the strainer until there is just a little dry pulp left in the sieve.

Use a funnel to pour the strained sauce into a bottle or jar; I used a squeeze bottle I got from a restaurant supply store, but a glass jar or recycled sriracha bottle would be great too. Refrigerate.

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Hot Apartment Hacks- how to keep your hot sauce cool

We live in an old row house apartment building with radiators that are controlled by a thermostat in the hallway upstairs. The heating system seems to have a mind of its own and while we can go turn the heat down if we need to, it comes on sometimes during the day if a lot of people are opening the street door or it gets really cold outside. It can be excessively toasty in our place; overheating can cause problems when we brew beer, it can cause bread dough to rise too quickly, and it can cause over-fermentation of hot sauce or yogurt or kefir. Since I can’t control the temperature in the apartment very well, I figured out a way to control the temperature of the beer fermenter hot sauce jars with a very crude evaporative cooler, also known as a swamp cooler.

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The concept is that evaporating water is a couple of degrees cooler than the room temperature air; this is the same principle behind why our bodies sweat to cool themselves. We found that by placing our fermenter bucket in a larger basin with a couple of inches of water in it, then smoothing a damp towel up the side of the bucket to act as a wick for the water so that it was evaporating over part of the surface area of the bucket, it kept the beer at a more even temperature and kept the yeast from heating itself up as much as it eats up the sugar.

When I checked on the sriracha yesterday, it was already bubbly and expanding in the jars. I hadn’t expected it to be working for a couple more days but since it has been so warm in here, I wasn’t surprised. I don’t want it to ferment so quickly that the complex flavors that develop during a slow and moderated fermentation to get lost and the whole mash to go sour so I put the jars in larger plastic boxes and poured a little water in the bottom, then wrapped one side of the jars in a wet paper towel. Most of the water had evaporated out of the plastic containers today, so I topped them up. That’s a good sign that they’re working.

I’ll continue to stir the mash and keep an eye and nose on the jars for the next couple of days but it smelled good and there wasn’t anything too funky going on yet. I’ll keep checking on it over the next few days and add water as needed.

Shhhhh….Super Secret Valentine’s Gift Experiment

As much as an experiment that I’m posting about on a public blog and which is fermenting odiferously away in our pantry/wine cellar/storage closet, whiffing more and more garlic and chile fumes into the apartment by the hour can BE super secret, I am making a pair of sriracha sauces for my Valentine.

We are the sort of family that has a significant percentage of refrigerator door shelf space allocated to bottles and bottles of hot sauce because each one has a specific and non transferable purpose and we really really need all of them. From classic Tabasco and Caribbean scotch bonnet sauce for black beans to earthy harissa that I use in a lot of my braised sauces and smoky hot chipotle in adobo, amarillo paste from Peru to the green-capped Rooster brand sriracha sauce, we keep adding to our collection.

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Garlicky sriracha is a favorite. It goes so well on so many things and I’ve been wanting to try to make some at home for a while. So I used the impetus of upcoming Valentine’s Day to go ahead and make it. It seems like gifts that can be consumed are a sure hit, particularly since we don’t really like accumulating a lot of stuff.

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I used two recipe sources: this write-up on Serious Eats  and another on Viet World Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen. Both compared fresh sauce vs. fermented and had used several different types of chiles. While I’m not trying to duplicate the Huy Fong “Rooster” sauce, I wanted to be along the same lines so I decided to use the red jalapeños and fermentation method they use for the first red sauce. I had bought green jalapeños intending to try to ripen them before I ran across the red ones at Manhattan Fruit Exchange so I used those for a green sriracha with a little ginger addition.

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Yesterday I did the first step, processing the chiles and garlic and then putting them in loosely covered jars in the closet to get the sauce to ferment.

When I checked them this afternoon, some of yesterday’s vivid color had begun to soften and I could smell a mellower garlic and chile fragrance. The puree had separated from the liquid a little and started to bubble and expand. I had expected it to take a couple of days to start fermenting but with it being so cold here, the radiators have been on a lot which makes the apartment a little warmer than normal. Warmth quickens dough fermentation so I’m pretty sure that’s why they’re so active. I stirred and re-covered them and put them back in the closet but I may put them beside a window tonight to cool them down a little. I don’t want to get them too cold and put the bacteria to sleep so I’ll have to keep an eye on it- maybe do a condensation cooler like we do to regulate the temperature of our beer while it ferments.

Here’s a picture of the fermenting sauce:

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So, y’all just keep this surprise between us until Friday and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes and write up the process I used, including the recipes and variations.

Charred Tomatillo Salsa Verde

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We had a friend over for tacos last night. I know he has excellent taste in tacos (despite an admitted penchant for Dorito  Tacos Bell Grande)in part because one of the first times we ever “ran into” someone out in NYC, we ran into him at our favorite Manhattan taqueria, the eponymous Taqueria LES, which makes great barbacoa and lengua tacos and chile salsa. Consequently, I wanted to bust out a few of my favorite taco night accoutrements for an especially appreciative audience.

We had this tomatillo salsa to eat while we were drinking margaritas and finishing up cooking the carnitas-style pork tacos with a red cabbage cumin slaw and pineapple salsa and a nopal poblano rajas taco with avocado cream and cotija.

The interesting thing about this recipe is that it functions as two-in-one in a way, depending on how long the ingredients are cooked. The version in the photos is on the less-cooked end of the spectrum, giving a lighter, tangier result. Cook the tomatillos and onions longer and it concentrates their natural sugars and flavor, darkening the color and making a richer, sweeter salsa. I’ve used the more cooked version as a base for pork chile verde as well as a salsa for chips. It’s sweet, tangy, and delicious. But this lightly charred version is the bright flavor I craved during the stultifying heat we are living in this week. It’s also pretty much as long as I could stand having the oven on in the kitchen.

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The grill is also a great way to achieve the smoky char that deepens the flavor of this salsa so intriguingly. Throw the peppers and onions straight onto the grate, but the tomatillos will burst, so keep them on a pan of some kind so all of the tomatillo juice isn’t lost.

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If you decide to go with the more cooked version, you will want a bit more lime juice to balance the sweetness of the tomatillos and onions. And of course, the number and heat level of the chiles you use is dependent on your heat tolerance. This version has a medium heat level- add or subtract accordingly.

Charred Tomatillo Salsa Verde

2 pounds tomatillos

1 large onion

3 serranos

1 jalapeño

1-2 limes

1/2 bunch cilantro

4 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon cumin

salt to taste

Remove the husk from the tomatillos, rinse and dry. Slice the chiles in half stem to tip and cut the onion into wedges. Peel the garlic cloves. Arrange everything on a baking sheet in an uncrowded  layer. Do this step in 2 batches if space is an issue, rather than crowding the pan.

Heat your broiler up and place the tray of vegetables under the heat source. Keep and eye on them, turning the vegetables or shaking the pan occasionally if they are browning too unevenly. Once everything is beginning to soften just a little and some of the surface has a little bit of a char on it, remove from the oven and set aside to cool for a little bit.

Cut the larger stems off the cilantro and roughly chop the leaves.

Juice a couple of limes and assemble your spices

Scoop the tomatillos, chiles, onions and garlic into the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to break the chunks down and allow the mixture to move and mix. Add about half the lime juice and the cilantro leaves and spices and pulse a couple of times. Once you have reached your preferred consistency ( I like it on the chunky side) pour the salsa into your container and taste for salt and tanginess. If it needs more tartness, stir in more lime juice. Otherwise you’re halfway to a margarita.

The flavors really improve after sitting for at least 30 minutes so I would recommend waiting until then to make any major adjustments to the seasoning. If you prefer more heat at that point, stir in a pinch or two of ground cayenne or chipotle.

Chipotle Salsa Roja

For a classically trained chef (in the French tradition, which is what most of us think of when we hear that term) there is a foundational canon of techniques, sauces, stocks, and cooking “systems” like mis en place that form the elements from which many meals are built. For a home cook like me, a streamlined version of this approach is how I cook without recipes. If I can make a good stock, my risotto, soups, and braises will be delicious and richly flavorful. If I can make an emulsion, I can make mayonnaise,  béarnaise and hollandaise sauces.  Making a roux is the first step to bechamel (and then mac and cheese) or to gumbo.

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The globalization of food cultures, particularly in the great American melting pot, means that now home cooks can borrow  foundational elements, not just from classic European chefs, but from the kitchens of great cooks all over the world. I grew up in Atlanta when I was in a small minority that ate soy sauce, tofu, tangy plain yogurt, and stir fries, and yet maybe 10 years ago, I saw a three-year old in a supermarket in Atlanta pitching a fit for his mom to open his tray of sushi. There are 10 different kinds of hummus and salsa in any given grocery store. We are familiar with pesto, curry,  tom yum soup and enchiladas, tzatziki and tagliatelle and paella, at least by name.

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The problem that I find with this accumulation of cultural wealth is that the definitions of these foods are often narrowed to a single version, often created for mass appeal rather than for its integrity to the original recipe. I don’t think there is always a black and white “right or wrong” way to cook something, but we’ll all eat better when we know the difference between a Cool Ranch Doritos Taco Bell taco and a barbacoa taco on a fresh sort corn tortilla. Culinary appropriation doesn’t necessarily bother me – I think it’s one place where borrowing and adapting between cultures makes sense and is more beneficial than not- but I regret when the definitions of a food become so assimilated into the tastes of aggregate culture that they become pale ghosts of the original.

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Salsa is one of these ubiquitous foods that I think has suffered from translation. Until relatively recently, the best salsa I could find in big supermarkets was pressured sealed (so very very cooked) tomato sauce with a tiny hint of onion, maybe a little pepper, cumin, or cilantro. Even fresh salsa is usually really pico de gallo or salsa fresca, a chopped tomato relish with onions, jalapenos, and cilantro. Obviously, I love tomato salsa, make it all the time, but as I once said to someone who posited that you should be able to find good Mexican food wherever good tomatoes are grown, equating good Mexican food to the availability of good tomatoes is like equating good Chinese food to the availability of baby corn. Mexican cuisines are much more tied to chiles than to tomatoes. Go to any taqueria and check out the condiments. There with the pickled vegetables, radishes, and pico de gallo, you’ll find a variety of chile based salsa, each reflecting the flavor profile of the different types of chiles used (as well as their heat levels).

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Drying chiles is a common and practical method of food preservation. When our garden in California was producing 20 pounds of serranos and poblanos week, our house was strung with garlands of ripening and drying chiles, trays of chiles in a very low oven to get the last moisture out of them so I could put them in jars. And every time I open a jar of these chiles, I get a wave of  deep, spicy, dusty berry fragrance.

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This is one of my favorite chile salsa, one of the “mother sauces” I have in my repertoire.  It’s a versatile condiment and sauce I use for chips, as enchilada sauce, to cook with eggs, or to mix into a bowl of beans.

The basic technique is the key, and easily adapted to your favorite chiles. This chart is great for dried chile basics and can help if you want to change it up for different uses. I like the smokiness of chipotles on just about everything, so this is my favorite basic recipe.

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Salsa Roja

Dried Chile Salsa

5 Ancho chiles (dried poblanos)

4 chiles California or Seco del Norte or Guajillo chiles

3 Serrano chiles

2-3 chipotles (canned in adobo or dried)

Boiling water

4-5 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1-2 tablespoons oil

Sea or kosher salt

Break up the chiles into large pieces, removing the stems. You can remove the seeds or leave them for a little extra heat. Put them into a heatproof bowl, like a 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup and cover with enough boiling water to make about 2 cups total. Use a plate, sieve or strainer to hold the chiles under water to soak for at least 20 minutes, until they have softened and rehydrated.

Pour the water and chiles into the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic and Mexican oregano. Process until the mixture is smooth, breaking down the pieces of chile. Pour the mixture into a sieve over a large bowl and use a rubber spatula to scrape and press the mixture through the sieve; this will remove the seeds and the thin tough skin from the chiles. Once all of the liquid and pulp has passed through the mesh you will be left with a dry paste of seeds and skin, which can be thrown away.

Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot enough for a drop of water to sizzle, carefully pour the chile puree into the oil and stir to blend. Bring the chiles to a low boil, stir to mix with the oil and reduce slightly the water in the salsa (you should be able to run your finger through it on the back of a spoon and it leave a line without running immediately). Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Salt to taste.

Pour the salsa into a jar and allow it to cool and the flavors to meld- overnight is best. Keep in a jar in the refrigerator indefinitely.

I throw this together at the last-minute when I’m headed out the door for a long day at work and I want something fast and hearty for breakfast:

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olive oil

2 eggs

salt

2 tablespoons salsa roja

2-3 corn tortillas

crumbly cheese like cotija or feta.

Heat a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in a small non stick skillet for a minute. Crack two eggs into the oil, sprinkle with salt and dollop the salsa over the eggs. cover the eggs with the tortillas where they will warm and wilt with the heat of the eggs while acting as a lid so the eggs will cook more quickly. I leave them for 2-3 minutes to get a set egg white and a runny yolk. Place a plate over the skillet and flip the skillet over on top of the plate. crumble the cheese on top and dig in. If you aren’t in too much of a hurry, diced avocado is also a great addition.

Keen as Mustard

After that last post for chili, some of y’all are probably rolling your eyes, nudging one another, and asking yourselves  “does she do EVERYTHING the most difficult way possible? I mean seriously, roast and grind the chiles that you freaking GREW YOURSELF and THEN chop the meat by hand? What is she, like a kitchen masochist?” The simple answer to that question would probably be “yes, sort of.” Just kidding.

I do enjoy the process (she says, not defensively at all). And I don’t really cook many elaborate things. I just like simple things to be really tasty and I like to understand what makes it so. And I’ve found over the years that some of the things that seem intimidating, like mayonnaise for example, aren’t that hard. Homemade mayonnaise takes 10 minutes to make and I’ve not yet had a batch break. So if you have the time and inclination to occasionally put in a bit of extra time, I think it’s worth the reward.

So, for things that seem like “why in the world would you make —– when you can buy it?”, I give you the biggest bang for your $2 and 5 minutes of kitchen time:

Homemade Coarse-grain Mustard

My basic recipe comes completely unedited or adapted from one of my favorite and most aspirational blogs,  Hunter Angler Gardener Cook by Hank Shaw. For simplicity, I’ll include the recipe as I made it here, but do spend some quality time wandering around his archives and you won’t be disappointed. His explanations of the chemical reaction that make “the magic” happen are especially helpful.

The nice thing about making your own mustard, other than it being dead simple and effortless, is its endless adaptability. I can’t wait to make some with apricot preserves, Belgian beer, black mustard seeds, smooth mustard powder, or balsamic vinegar. This one has a lot of heat, probably because I used really cold water, but a honey mustard with a bitter-sweet buckwheat honey sounds intriguing too.

Here are the basics:

makes about 1 cup

about 5 minutes active, 12 hours passive prep time

– 6 tablespoons mustard seeds

– 1/2 cup mustard powder

– 2 teaspoons salt

– 3 tablespoons vinegar (2 cider, 1 sherry)

– 1/2 cup very cold water

In a small coffee/spice grinder (or with a mortar and pestle) blitz the whole mustard seeds until they are about 3/4 cracked, but not powdered. Mix the mustard seeds, mustard powder and salt. Pour the vinegar and cold water over it and mix thoroughly. Spoon into a jar and refrigerate for 12 hours before consuming.

After I stood, gazing in disbelief at the jar as I put it in the fridge this morning at how ridiculously EASY it was to make, I let it sit and stew all day. Pulling it out for a taste tonight was the real litmus. And it is really good! Sinus-clearingly hot, fresh and spicy, it tastes like a chewy pretzel’s soul mate. I’m not making pretzels by the way. I buy those. What do you think I am, a glutton for punishment?

P.S.-

Since I had an extra 5 minutes after writing this post, I made another half batch of mustard:

Figgy Mustard

-3 tablespoons mustard seeds

-1/4 cup mustard powder

-1 teaspoon salt

-1 heaped tablespoon fig preserves

-2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

  -2 teaspoons fig balsamic vinegar

-1/4 cup room temperature water, to minimize the heat.

After sitting overnight, it is a lovely spicy/sweet mustard that will be perfect on some broiled smoked sausages.