Fermented Vs. Unfermented Hot Sauce – How Do They Compare?

Fermented hot sauce and unfermented hot sauce are the two main options when making (or purchasing) hot sauce. The two processes result in very different products even though the ingredients are very similar. Let’s break down the differences between the two in simple terms, so you can best decide which is best for your need.

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Fermented vs. unfermented hot sauce: How do they differ?

Fermented hot sauces have been a staple in the kitchen for generations. Fermenting sounds complex, but really when done properly, it’s very simple. Fermentation is the decomposition of the pepper mash for the hot sauce by healthy bacteria and enzymes. This is typically done by submerging the pepper mash completely in salt brine, sealing it with an airtight lid, and placing the jar in a shaded space for a week, at a minimum.

An unfermented hot sauce is much simpler: pepper mash is combined with vinegar. A good starting point is a fifty-fifty mix of pepper mash and vinegar, but you can play with the ratio to get something that suits your taste preferences.

Because of the time required for fermentation, a fermented hot sauce will take at least a week to be ready. Some recipes involve much longer fermentation periods. An unfermented hot sauce requires only the time it takes to measure and combine the ingredients. Check out our simple jalapeƱo hot sauce as an unfermented example.

Many super-popular staple hot sauces are fermented, including two household names: Tabasco and Sriracha. See this mango habanero sauce recipe for an example of a homemade fermented hot sauce.

Does fermentation impact taste?

Fermented hot sauces are popular for having greater complexity in their flavor profiles when compared to unfermented ones. Fermentation has different effects on each hot sauce ingredient, resulting in a more layered and nuanced taste. Unfermented hot sauces tend to have all of the ingredient flavors up front and in your face, so to speak. There is not as much subtlety or complexity.

How does fermentation affect heat?

Fermentation tends to mellow out the heat from chili peppers, so fermented hot sauces tend to be milder and have more flavor. Unfermented hot sauces tend to be hotter since these sauces have not undergone a fermentation process to mellow out the chili peppers.

When should you use fermented hot sauce? And when should you use unfermented?

First, both fermented and unfermented hot sauces are delicious, and they are often used interchangeably. That said, fermentation does bring many new properties to a hot sauce, including umami notes. They tend to add depth to the eating experience that unfermented hot sauces typically can’t match. If you’re looking for a hot sauce to star atop a blander dish, fermented hot sauces are a strong choice.

Unfermented hot sauces are certainly easier (and quicker) to make at home. If you want to explore hot sauces for the first time, start with unfermented recipes and grow from there. Unfermented hot sauces also tend to be hotter, so if you’re looking for the bigger zing on the plate, turn here.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on November 7, 2022 to include new content.
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