Notes from the Garden

Fresh PeppersFermentationHomemade Sriracha

Huy Fong foods has cornered the market for Sriracha sauce.


That statement could imply that an aggressive corporate marketing strategy has pushed a mediocre product onto choiceless consumers. However, in the case of the bright red Rooster Brand Red Pepper Sauce in the green-capped squeeze bottle, the marketing is great, but the product is worthy of its success. It’s really good, really available, and really cheap.

If it’s good, cheap and readily available, why would someone go to the trouble of making a homemade (or in my case, a homegrown) version? Of course, a custom version could use carefully homegrown organic peppers and garlic, and organic sugar and sea salt. And omitting the sodium benzoate preservative is a clear bonus. But for me, the real answer is that Rooster Brand Sriracha is cheap and good, but it isn’t ALIVE.

So, starting in freezing February, I carefully start a crop of chile peppers in my hoop house, and nurse them through the nasty spring ice and winds. Planting in the open starts in early May, and the first harvest of ripe red peppers finally comes in early August (the BEST peppers don’t come in until late September). In the meantime I’ve harvested and cured the garlic. It’s a long process. But it’s worth the wait.

Pick ‘em, wash, add sugar, salt, and garlic, and grind into a paste, then leave it at room temperature to culture; with each weekly harvest until frost I keep Sriracha batches going. This great fermented Sriracha recipe is my inspiration. Some kind of delicious magic happens as the microbes colonize the thick, salty paste of chiles, sugar and garlic. Little CO2 bubbles lift the paste as the wild yeasts and bacteria convert the sugars and carbohydrates into complex organic acids and other compounds (whose flavor clearly beats the straight distilled vinegar Huy Fong uses to lower pH). The sharp sweet of the paste slowly turns to tangy mellow.

I never cook it. I just wait for it to mature, strain it, and store it in the fridge. The fermentation, as it matures, stabilizes the sauce into an ecosystem of competing organisms and their chemical byproducts. That ecosystem eliminates the need for preservatives or sterilization. I’ve kept bottles for way more than a year with the flavor and complexity only improving.

It’s more than just preservation, though. The microbial colony brings with it something intoxicating, almost addictive. Maybe it’s because those microbes come from MY garden. It’s partly the flavor, but it’s also a feeling. I’m starting to think my gut needs that stuff in winter. It’s a tonic, my medicine.

So for me, even when there’s a cheap ready-made alternative, there is no match for fresh, live organic ingredients, careful processing, and a little love. A dollop on a fried egg in mid-winter only gets me dreaming about starting next year’s pepper process all over again.

–Robert McSweeney (Research Advisory Team)

Fresh Garlic Washed in the East River!

Locavores in the Lunchroom