Getting Started: Basic Fermented Peppers

In looking back at my history of fermenting things, it occurs to me that there are things I just don’t bother to make anymore. Cucumber pickles are one. I seem to always develop an unappealing mold layer, even when I use an airlock. (Even though USDA says to regularly remove surface molds on fermented cucumbers, I just focus on stuff I can reliably make with less trouble.)

Another fussier-than-normal ferment for me has been whole peppers. Years ago, I followed Sally Fallon’s recipe in Nourishing Traditions for roasted red peppers, fermented in a brine that included whey. They turned out phenomenally well, but obviously aren’t a “wild” ferment since I added a bacteria-laden acidifier (that would be whey).

I’ve tried peppers – whole, raw peppers – a couple of times here and there. They float, they grow mold, nada. But sometimes there’s a reason to revisit things that haven’t worked well in the past. This post will specifically focus on brine strength and submersion techniques for veggies that just want to float, and will feature an airlock – something I rarely use on vegetable ferments.

The Gift of Good Food

My brother in law has an amazing garden. It’s the most productive patch of food-bearing earth I’ve seen outside of a working farm, and as the season is coming to a close, he gifted me with a fat grocery bag of poblano and banana peppers, just at the time I’d eaten through my gallon of fermented radishes. Big batch of lovingly grown fresh peppers? Check. Appropriately-sized jar? Check. Time to give fermented peppers another shot.

Peppers fermenting in brineBrine Strength for Fermented Peppers

While most brines and krauts can be salted to taste, it seems like there are a few vegetables that just demand a more serious brine. Peppers are on that list. Instead of creating a brine in the 2% salt range, what I’ve gathered online is that successful recipes tend more toward 5% or even 7% brines for peppers (and cucumbers, while we’re on the subject of fussy ferments).

This blog has repeatedly addressed the fact that precision is not required in fermentation, and I want to stress that here as I get into a weird math that I’ve only actually cared about for the last couple of years.

The easiest way to calculate brine strength is to jump to the metric system. I know, I’m an American and it takes some getting used to, but really. There’s a reason the whole world counts this way, and it’s because it’s simple. Here’s how to make a 5% brine in the metric system: For 1000 mL of water (slightly more than a quart), dissolve 50 grams of salt. Pour over your ferment. I put the salt in a blender with half the water and let a machine stir it. Easy.

If you want to freehand it – and again, that’s completely fine – dissolve four tablespoons of salt per quart of water and pour over your peppers. The big takeaway: You want a strong brine. The peppers don’t care whether you’ve meticulously calculated it, and neither do the microbes. Don’t sweat it.

The Tricky Part: Under the Brine, All of the Time

These guys want to float, and even now, days later, they’re making no move to the bottom. I took a multistep approach to submerging them – starting with poking several holes in all of them – but so far, putting an inorganic layer between the peppers and the surface is how they’re staying submerged.

To quickly recap the why of submerging veg: For the vegetable fermentation recipes most westerners use, fermentation happens beneath brine. Beneficial organisms get a leg up in the salty environment, pathogens can’t compete, and the lack of oxygen under water keeps out nuisance organisms like mold. It’s a tried and true system, but not always easy to achieve with especially buoyant veggies like peppers.

When I ordered gallon-sized fermentation jars with airlocks (affiliate link) years ago, I found that they typically worked fine with the stopper stuffed in the grommet and I’ve rarely used the actual airlocks. However, these are love peppers from a love garden, grown using permaculture principles in a landscape that’s easily required hundreds and hundreds of hours of work over years. These peppers are a thing of beauty, make no mistake.

img-peppers-6 The first layer of defense to keep the peppers under the brine is two (food grade, obviously) plastic lids, of the sort that would go on a Mason jar.As the brine level rose to them and then above them, I jammed each underneath the jar’s shoulder at opposite points to really block access to the surface, and to keep them submerged too.

This doesn’t mean that nothing can get to the top, though. Seeds are a concern I have, since some of the peppers opened when I took the stems off. If I had used herbs or spices other than salt, the same concern would apply. Any solid at the surface can allow mold growth.

So while I rarely bother with airlocks for fermenting vegetables, for these guys, I decided to go all out.

img-peppers-5It took a day or so for the peppers to build up enough CO2 to start moving the airlock, but it’s been gurgling intermittently ever since. I made sure to leave very, very little headspace (as you can see in the picture of the jar lids functioning as weights), and the way this helps the process is:

  • Molds require oxygen to grow.
  • As a ferment kicks off, the early stage organisms produce a lot of carbon dioxide, CO2.
  • When you use an airlock, the CO2 that’s produced gradually pushes the oxygen out of the vessel.
  • If there’s little headspace between your brine and your airlock, there’s little CO2 required to create an environment that’s inhospitable to mold.

At this stage, all I can really do is cross my fingers with these guys. I’ve created a strong brine, submerged everything well, left little headspace, and to top it all off, stuck an airlock on the jar. This is one of those times where I just say, “Well, it ought to work.” I’ll let you know what I find when I check them in a month or so.

How will I use these? Honesty, as interested as I am in the peppers themselves for various culinary adventures, I’m eager to package a couple of quarts of this brine up to use for cocktails. What can I say – some like it hot.

What ferments do you struggle with, and how have you adapted your techniques for them?

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Stacie is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She’s been fermenting for most of a decade, and is an enthusiastic maker of beer, wine, kraut, tempeh, and natto, as well as an avid keeper of bees. And dogs and cats.