Antler and Fin Podcast: Fermented Habanero Hot Sauce and the History of Fermentation

This growing season has been somewhat of a nightmare for me. I’ve done everything in my power to stop these gophers but nothing seems to work! From traps to gas to poison, I’m at a complete loss. On top of that, it’s been so hot that even my tomatoes have decided to call it quits by dropping every flower. The one thing I can always count on though is my peppers! With an abundance of peppers, the best thing to do is make a hot sauce! Similar to pickles there are two types of hot sauces, fermented and vinegar. I love fermented hot sauces as well as fermented pickles. The microbiomes that are created are nothing but good for you and as we all know gut health is very important. Plus the fermentation process is very easy and makes everything delicious. So if you’ve never tried to ferment anything yourself this is a quick simple way to dive into the fermentation world. Just remember you can do this with other peppers as well if you don’t want it to have the fiery kick.

Read the written version of this recipe as prepared by Ara Zada

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About Fermentation History:

As a species, we’ve been fermenting food and drinks since Neolithic Age nearly 10,000 years ago, well before we ever learned the science behind how it works.

It probably started with dairy products in the hot North African desert where goat and camel milk full of micro-flora affected by the heat spontaneously fermented and became the world’s first yogurt. Clay shards from pots also show fermentation happening in China about 9,000 years ago. People there were brewing a fermented drink from rice, honey, and fruit. Fermenting these things together would have resulted in a fizzy and slightly intoxicating brew.

By 3,500 BCE, the Egyptians had to figure out how to use wild yeast to leaven loaves of bread. The techniques used then are still in use in modern Egypt today. People fermented the first cucumbers in 2000 BCE in modern-day Iraq creating the first pickle. Other vegetables shortly followed. 

China soon took over the race using fermentation to expertly pickle all sorts of vegetables. Tea leaves were first fermented about 2,000 years ago which gave birth to the very first kombucha, a fermented fizzy drink still popular today.

Fermentation of all kinds kept evolving until the 1800s when Louis Pasteur used a microscope to discover that live bacteria and yeast were the cause of fermentation. Before him, many scientists believed that living creatures particularly ones that were small or invisible to the naked eye could spontaneously generate from non-living matter fermentation would have fallen under this belief. His research led to the invention of pasteurization to help extend the lifespan of food products and significantly reduced deaths due to food poisoning. We now know what is happening during fermentation.

To sum it up in a quick and slightly rudimentary way there are three types of fermentation used to make or alter food.  Number one is lactic acid fermentation. This is the type of fermentation that gives us sauerkraut, pickles, sourdough bread, yogurt, kimchi, and some sour wild beers. In this type of fermentation, yeast and certain bacteria convert sugars and starches into lactic acid providing a signature sour taste. Number two is ethanol fermentation. Maybe my favorite type of fermentation. This one gives us wine and beer via yeast breaking down sugars and turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Number three is acetic acid fermentation. This type of fermentation uses products like grain and fruit which eventually turn into vinegar and kombucha after going through several stages.

Although Louis Pasteur helped to recognize what fermentation was and how it worked, his work started a food revolution where foods could more easily be stored long-term without the help of fermentation. Up until then, people had been using fermentation not only to provide more interesting flavor, but also to leaven, add alcohol properties, or increase nutritional intake. They were also using it to keep food from spoiling quickly. 

By the time the 1900s were verging into the 2000s consumption of fermented foods had reached an all-time low. Refrigerators, modern industrial processed foods, fast food, and prepackaged foods all replaced fermented foods in people’s diets around the same time. Researchers were beginning to explore the gut biome and investigate how fermented foods, or the lack thereof, affected an individual’s gut microflora. 

Our bodies are full of trillions of microorganisms mostly found in large and small intestines. A well-balanced gut biome with lots of biodiversity allows a body to perform its daily operations smoothly. These operations even include mental stability, immune protection, digestion, regularity, skin health, and many other important processes. 

Scientists have discovered that a lack of prebiotics and probiotics in a person’s diet can harm their health. Prebiotics are foods full of dietary fibers and resistant starches that make it through the digestive system to the lower gut where they are fed on by microorganisms living there. Examples include whole grains, whole fruits, and vegetables. Legumes, greens, nuts, and food lacking fiber, like so much in the western diet, get completely eaten up and processed before ever making it into the lower gut leaving those beneficial microorganisms to starve and eventually die off. Probiotics are food that are full of live beneficial yeast and bacteria like yogurt, kimchi, kosher dills, and fermented hot sauce. They can aid in balancing the good bacteria in the gut or can replace bacteria after an event that strips away good bacteria, like taking antibiotics, for example.

News soon spread about the miracle of health-based fermented foods and in the 2010s fermentation became a full-fledged health fad complete with miracle cures, expensive pills, hundreds of books, television evangelists, and quack doctors. The trend seems to be leveling out these days, thankfully. 

In the end, the consensus is this: prebiotics like fiber are very important. Probiotics ingested as traditional fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kombucha, hot chili pastes, and sourdough can be beneficial. They are a great and healthy addition to your diet. There are many pills, supplements, and miracle cures out there. Why take probiotic capsules when probiotic food is so nutritious and delicious?  

But wait, don’t get your pickles confused with…your pickles. Shelf-stable pickles are made by canning vegetables and water vinegar brine and then processing them in a water bath or pressure canner are devoid of bacterial life, good or bad. That’s exactly why they are shelf stable. These pickles can still be delicious and offer some nutrition but they’re not alive and probiotic like fermented pickles.

As a little aside, check the country of origin on your everyday shelf-stable pickles. If they are not from Canada or the US considered putting them back on the shelf. Maybe even consider not buying them at all and making your own.

About Adam Berkelmans:

Adam Berkelmans, also known as The Intrepid Eater, is a passionate ambassador for real food and a proponent of nose-to-tail eating. He spends his time between Ottawa and a cozy lake house north of Kingston, Ontario. When not cooking, he can be found hunting, fishing, foraging, gardening, reading, traveling, and discovering new ways to find and eat food.

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