I’ve been pretty obsessed with the idea of fermentation. Keeping something in a jar on your counter in hopes it’ll become a bubbly science experiment excites me in a little kid sort of way. Five year old Marcella would never get away with making this kind of mess in my family’s kitchen. But 22 year old Marcella pays her own rent and can leave jalapeños in a cloudy brine on her counter for as long as she likes.
Now I didn’t just enter the world of fermentation and nail it. I wanted to ease into it. I started with a quick pickle. A quick pickle method emulates the flavor of those crispy summertime pickles you want to slap on burgers or just eat out of the damn jar. It’s basically a long, vinegar-based marinade. The sugar/vinegar combo gives it that pseudo-funky flavor but without all of the benefits of natural lactobacillus fermentation (big words, we’ll get there). The gist of a quick pickle is submerging the vegetable in a heated mixture of equal parts vinegar and water. Dissolve salt and sugar in the liquids and add aromatic spices like bay leaves, coriander, peppercorns and really whatever hearty spices you want to bring out. Then pour the hot mixture over the vegetables. The vegetables can get spruced up with some added raw garlic and other softer aromatics like leafy herbs or ginger. Let all the contents marinate in that jar for a few days before cracking it open and putting those crispy and delicious veggies on EVERYTHING.
Now fermentation is a metabolic process in which natural sugars are broken down and carbon dioxide is released. I remember a biology experiment in eighth grade involving a packet of yeast, juice and a balloon. As time went on the balloon fixed atop a bottle containing the juice and yeast started to fill with air – fermentation was happening and the yeast was, essentially, breathing. We also straight up made wine in class so that was cool.
The chemical process is initiated by yeast which exists in the air, not just in those handy packets at the grocery store. Lactobacillus fermentation breaks down glucose and transforms it into lactic acid. No, this doesn’t involve dairy (but yeah, it could). The transformation is what turns wheat and grapes into beer and wine respectively. It preserves these foods and actually makes them safe to eat even a year after purchasing them fresh. Also makes them funky as hell.
I chose to quick pickle jalapeños using the recipe above (plus turmeric) and ferment jalapeños to make my own hot sauce. I followed this hot sauce video but used jalapeños instead of fresno chilis. Yes, the brine will get cloudy and yucky looking. That means it’s working. However, and I cannot stress this enough, keep the peppers submerged otherwise that cloudiness could become mold, fuzzy stuff on top of exposed peppers.
The result is a tangy, spicy and funky sauce that seems to get spicier as it sits. The two pickled products provide that welcome kick to many dishes (some favorites are tacos, eggs and salads) but the difference is in the nuanced flavor. The fermented peppers are complex and spicy with the sourness of vinegar present but not overwhelming. The quick pickled peppers remain crunchy but the vinegar plays a crucial role in the bright flavor.
Both have their places. I definitely would make both again as they require little active time and the payoff lasts. Different spices and additions can breathe new life into these pepper, or different vegetables can be used to hold onto spring and summer’s bounty long into the winter.