Making and Bottling Hot Sauce 101 for Beginners
This post is for people wishing to make and bottle sauces for personal use or to share with friends and family. Persons wishing to sell their sauces should contact their local health authority and follow the guidelines of their Authority Having Jurisdiction for licensing, permits, insurance, etc required for commercial sauce ventures.
Making hot sauces, BBQ sauces and many other types of sauces is a fun and rewarding adventure. The combinations of chiles and flavors are endless so there’s always something for every chilehead tolerance, from gently warming to frying your face off. It’s also a great way to preserve your garden's summer bounty.
Let’s start with some definitions-
“Nasties” is a term we use when talking about foodborne pathogens and bacteria that can cause sickness or death, and they are the reason for following good processing practices. Some of the most recognized nasties are e-coli, clostridium botulinum which causes botulism, and salmonella. A widely publicized incident of food poisoning from e-coli involved undercooked meat from a hamburger chain which resulted in the death of 4 children and sickened hundreds. “But,” you might say, “that was from meat, and e-coli is only in ground beef.” WRONG! Fresh, bagged spinach from California was found to be contaminated with e-coli and that outbreak killed one person and sickened hundreds more.
Nasties are not to be taken lightly. They are present on fresh produce, they can be on our hands, on the kitchen counter, cutting boards, that sponge that’s been used to wipe the counter and sink for weeks on end and never sanitized…
If proper sanitation and processing of foods is followed, these pathogen and bacterial risks are neutralized and food is considered shelf stable and safe. If proper procedures are not followed, nasties can grow and the potential for trouble grows right along with it.
“But I’ve been doing it this way for 40 years and never gotten sick.” That may be, but that doesn’t mean that this way is correct or safe. These are suggestions based on accepted food industry standards, designed to help the home sauce maker make a safe product. Feel free to use or discard these suggestions to suit yourself.
The pH scale is the level of acidity or alkalinity in a product. Without getting all scientific here, basically, the lower the pH number, the more acidic the sauce is, and the safer the sauce is. Neutral pH is 7.0. Levels above 7.0 are alkaline, levels below 7.0 are acidic. Target levels for pH in foods intended to be shelf stable are 4.6 for licensed food processors. It's my recommendation for home sauce makers to shoot for 4.0 minimum and below to allow for a margin of error in all the aspects of sauce making.
Some foods like onion, garlic, chiles, sugar, dairy and butter (used in many wing sauces) and most vegetables are considered “low acid”, meaning they do not have very much natural acid in them. When these items are used in sauces they will raise the pH level of the sauce, so other acids like vinegar, lemon or lime juice, and fruits, etc, must be added to the sauce to get the pH back down to a safe level.
Some foods, like most fruits, especially citrus fruits, some heirloom tomatoes, and vinegars are highly acidic and are used to lower or keep the pH level at safe levels. Newer varieties of tomatoes have been bred to be low acid and cannot be counted on to supply acid to a recipe. Boiling Water Bath processing used to be an acceptable way to process home grown tomatoes and tomato sauces. That is no longer the case. It is now recommended to pressure can tomatoes and tomato sauces.
More info here-
Most weekend sauce warriors don’t have a pH tester, or means of accurately testing pH levels of their sauces. In those cases, it’s best to follow approved recipes from these links or at least follow the guidelines below for acids:foods ratios. You can substitute any chile for the ones in the recipes to tailor the recipe to your taste or to what you have available.
Your local university extension service will likely have other approved recipes.
And here's another site with tons of recipe suggestions, but use common sense with these recipes as they haven't been created by food authorities.
Making a shelf stable product means processing the food in a way that it is safe to be kept unrefrigerated for an extended period of time. A shelf stable product can be created by-
-getting the pH level low enough that nasties can’t survive or grow by using acids (vinegar, citrus juices) or by fermentation, and then using the Hot Fill/Hold process or the boiling water bath process to create oxygen-free environments for sauces with pH’s below 4.0.
-OR- any sauce, regardless of pH can be preserved by Pressure Canning. For sauces with a pH above 4.6, the only safe processing method is pressure canning.
pH 4.6- or pH 4.0-
pH 4.6 is the cutoff for safe pH levels for professional processors using tested and approved recipes with good quality pH meters for pH testing during and after processing. Since this information is for home sauce makers, the target pH level should be at least pH 4.0 or below. That allows for inaccuracies in testing equipment for those who have a pH meter and variations in the natural pH of food items used. pH levels can vary from one batch to another, so targeting pH 4.0 or below will give you a safety margin. Once again, if you do not have an accurate method of testing, it is suggested to follow established recipes in the links above, or the suggested ratios listed below. Litmus strips will work for a general guideline of where the sauce is at, but should not be relied upon for an accurate pH reading.
Wash, Rinse, Sanitize-
A safe sauce starts with clean equipment and a clean work environment. Wash, rinse, and sanitize everything you will be using including the counter and cutting boards.
Wash- hot soapy water
Rinse- use fresh hot running water. Don’t use a sink or pot full of water for rinse water. After the first couple items are put into the rinse water, the rinse water gets too much soap in it and then it’s not actually rinsing the soap off the following items.
Sanitize- for this you can use a sink or pot. Use one of the following methods or products-
- Bleach- use unscented household bleach, use 1 teaspoon (or 1 capful) bleach per gallon of cool/lukewarm water. Do not use hot water, the heat destroys the effectiveness of the bleach. And when using bleach for other cleaning around the house, do not add bleach to a bucket of soapy water, thinking to wash and sanitize all in one step. The soap binds to the bleach and renders it ineffective. Follow the same steps of wash/rinse/sanitize for household cleaning as for equipment cleaning.
- One more note about bleach- NEVER EVER mix bleach with ammonia or an ammonia based cleaning product. It will create a deadly gas. If this happened in a confined space, it can cause death.
- No-Rinse Sanitizers- these are available at beer brewing and wine making supply houses. Follow manufacturer’s instructions.
- Heat Sanitizing- This method works good for sanitizing bottles, obviously not appropriate for plastic utensils or caps. If using new bottles, rinse the bottles to remove any dust, then put the bottles in the oven at 200F. It’s hard to say how long to keep the bottles in the oven, but the point is to get all the bottles up to 200F or more. Usually 30 minutes is good enough, but if the bottles are stacked up you may want to check the bottles in the middle of the pile to make sure they are hot. This step can be done ahead of time. Then just turn the oven off and leave the bottles in there until it’s time to process, or remove the bottles and cover to keep clean. It's convenient to put bottles in a roasting/baking pan for easy handling.
One Other Note for washing equipment- after wash/rinse/sanitize…air-dry the dishes. Do not use a towel to dry the items.
Canning processes- pressure canning, boiling water bath (BWB), and hot fill/hold
- Pressure canning- this is the least used process for most home sauce makers It requires a pressure canner and canning jars with metal lids and rings. Manufacturer’s recommendations should be followed when pressure canning. It is an excellent method of food preservation, but is a little more involved.
- Boiling Water Bath- This process is sometimes used for preserving sauces. The cooked, heated sauce is put into canning jars and fitted with metal lids and rings. The jars are immersed in water in a large pot or kettle. The jars should be sitting on a metal rack to keep them up off the bottom of the kettle. The kettle is brought up to a full rolling boil and kept at a full rolling boil for 15 minutes minimum, depending on the jar size. The jars are then removed from the kettle and allowed to cool. Check for proper seal on lids when cool.
- Here is the Ball canning website with more detailed instructions on both the pressure canning and BWB processes.
- Hot Fill/Hold- This is the most common process for hot sauces. The cooked, heated sauce is put into sterilized sauce bottles, the bottle is capped and immediately inverted and kept inverted for a minimum of 3 minutes. This allows the (180F or greater) sauce to come in contact with the inside of the cap and will sterilize the cap.
Bottles, Caps and Dropper Tops
Bottles- The most common sizes are 5 oz, 8 oz, and 10 oz woozy bottles. Sometimes a 1.7 oz woozy is used for samples. The wider mouthed 12 oz sauce bottle is available in a few different styles.
Caps and dropper inserts (also called orifice reducer)- most sauces don’t need the dropper insert. Sauces with any kind of pulp don’t work well with the dropper insert. If the sauce is thin enough to warrant a dropper top, order the bottles with the dropper insert and No Liner in the cap. If the sauce does not need the dropper insert, order the caps With the liner. 15July16 update- some bottle companies no longer sell unlined caps, so use the usual lined caps with the reducers and make sure to hand-tighten snug down the caps well.
Reusing bottles- Good Processing Practices say to only use new bottles and lids. However, I do know sometimes bottles are reused. There is no risk in reusing bottles if they are properly cleaned and sanitized. The risk comes with the lid. NEVER reuse a lid with a liner! Food can get around and under the edge of the liner and can contaminate your hot sauce. If you remove the liner, there is usually a spot of glue on the lid. When heated sauce comes into contact with the glue, the heated sauce will melt the glue into your sauce. Yuck. If the lid you wish to reuse does not have a liner, pay particular attention to any ridges or notches in the lid to make sure the lid is completely clean and sanitized.
Most bottle suppliers will sell caps individually for those who have bottles they want to re-use.
3 of the most popular bottle suppliers are listed below, but there are many other suppliers out there.
Cooking pot- use a stainless steel, glass, un-scratched and un-chipped non-stick, or un-chipped enamel cooking pot, preferable with a heavy bottom to reduce the risk of scorching. Chipped enamel pots and scratched/chipped non-stick pans should not be used for cooking, bacteria can get into the chipped spots and contaminate the food. Do not use aluminum, cast iron, copper or other reactive pans for sauce making.
Choppers/blenders- any type of blender or food processor is a huge time saver. Use what you have, and wash it really well when done to remove the capsaicinoid oils.
Bottling aids- most use a ladle or scoop and funnel or a turkey baster to get the sauce into the bottles.
Other equipment- just use what you have for spoons, scrapers, whatever, just make sure they are in good condition and properly cleaned.
It’s cool to be all macho and chop up a pound of scorpion pods with your bare hands, but from a food safety point of view, it’s best to wear gloves. Nasties hang out under fingernails and around the cuticles. Cuts and scabs also harbor nasties and scabs can fall off into the sauce. eeew! Latex, vinyl and nitrile gloves are readily and cheaply available at Wally-World, home improvement stores, and many drug stores. Invest in a box, they are handy to have around the house for more than just chopping chiles.
Ok, now we can finally get to-
Making a sauce!
Gather up your ingredients and supplies, and get creative!
Blender First or Blender Last? Either will work. The ingredients can be coarse chopped, cooked, and then blendered. Using a food mill on a cooked sauce will give you an even smoother sauce with no seeds or pulp.
Blendering hot foods- if you decide to blender/food processor the sauce after cooking, be VERY CAREFUL when blendering the heated sauce. When you turn on the blender, steam is released and will explode out of the blender if you are not careful. It can hit your hands, arms and even face, causing burns. When blendering hot foods, put a clean dish cloth over the blender lid and hold the lid loosely so when the blender is started, the steam can safely escape. If using a food processor, keep the feeding chute open, cover the chute with a clean dish towel, and keep your hands clear of the chute to allow the steam to safely escape.
Seeds or No Seeds? It’s all up to you. Use a food mill on cooked sauces to remove all the seeds and pulp for a really smooth sauce.
What kind of vinegar or acid? Once again, it’s up to you! What ever you like! Be aware of the acidity levels of different vinegars if substituting one type of vinegar for another in a recipe. Rice vinegar has a lower acidity level than white vinegar. If rice vinegar is substituted 1:1 in a recipe calling for white vinegar, the recipe won’t have enough acidity. You may want to use other vinegars for their different flavor profiles, just remember to compensate if there is a difference in their acidity %. Lemon and lime juice are other common acids that work well in hot sauces. Extension Services have approved the substitution of lemon/lime juice in place of vinegar in their approved recipes, but not the reciprocal. Lemon/Lime generally have more acidity than vinegar. If the approved recipe calls for lemon/lime juice, substituting regular vinegar may not achieve the appropriate pH level that lemon/lime juice would have.
Acid ratios- based on several of the approved recipes in the links above, most have an average of 1 cup white vinegar to 10 cups of veggies. However, I’m not a food scientist or process authority. This is just a suggestion based on approved recipes. Different ingredients will effect the finished pH of the sauce.
How long to cook the sauce? The minimum suggested cooking time is 10 minutes at a full rolling boil. The longer it cooks, the softer the pulp becomes and the thicker the sauce will get. You can simmer it for as long as you want. Keep it stirred so it doesn’t scorch on the bottom. If it gets too thick, add a little water, or other liquid.
So, your sauce is cooked and ready to bottle, now you are at the Sauce Crossroads. You can go right to bottling…or…put the sauce in the refrigerater overnight and taste-test it tomorrow to see how the flavors are and if it needs any tweaking.
Refer the Sauce- if you decide to refrigerate the sauce overnight, put the sauce in a flat pan or shallow bowl so it will chill down quickly. Again, use non-reactive glass, stainless steel or plastic. Don’t just stick the whole big pot into the refer. This goes for chilling all types of foods, not just sauces, especially things like thick chilis, gravy and soups/stews. Big pots of sauce/soup/stew won't chill down fast enough and Nasties will explode in the lukewarm environment. The soup/sauce needs to be thin (health departments require 2" deep or less) to allow the product to chill quickly and not allow Nasties time to get started.
If you do not have a flat pan or room for a flat pan in the fridge, use an Ice-Bath.
The Ice-Bath Technique- put the pot in a deep sink or larger pot and fill up around the pot with ice water, up to the level of the sauce in the pot. Stir the sauce regularly and replenish the ice as needed to keep it an icy slurry until the sauce is completely chilled. If at all possible, check the temperature of the sauce and make sure it's at or below 40F before putting into the fridge. See post #16 below for more details regarding cooling temps and cooling times for un-bottled sauces. This method requires a good quantity of ice, depending on the size of the pot, and frequent stirring of the sauce while the pot is in the Ice-Bath to be effective.
These cooling times/temps do not apply to bottled sauces. (edit- Once the heated sauce is in the bottle, a vacuum is created, and the cooling times/temps in post #16 are not applicable. The cooling times/temps in post #16 are for un-bottled bulk sauces and also apply to any other cooking you may be doing...soup, stew, chili....).
When you are ready to bottle, bring the sauce back up to temp and boil for 10 minutes. Proceed to bottling.
Bottling-( or canning in mason jars)
Use a funnel and scoop or measuring cup or a turkey baster to get the heated sauce into woozy bottles. Immediately cap and invert the bottle for a minimum of 3 minutes.
Hint for using a funnel- if the funnel is sitting straight on the glass top of the bottle, it will likely form a tight seal around the bottle. When the sauce is ladled into the funnel, it will not flow into the bottle because there is no way for the air in the bottle to escape..... Create an air gap under the funnel (by holding the funnel up, or by using a funnel with ridges that go all the way down the spout) and the sauce will flow in as the air flows out. Easy-Peasy~
The sauce must be at a minimum temp of 180F when bottling. A double boiler set up works well for keeping the sauce hot while bottling. Don’t use the double boiler to get the sauce up to temp, only to keep it at temp while bottling. Bring the sauce up to boiling straight on the burner while stirring to keep from burning, then put it into the double boiler set up.
Option 2 is pressure canning or BWB using mason jars, lids, rings.
So, that’s about it! Now you can sit back and enjoy your creations for months to come.
Once again, I’m not a process authority or food scientist. These suggestions are offered to help beginning sauce makers create safe foods to share. Anyone selling sauces via any venue (in person, on the internet, at a farmers market, to stores or restaurants...) should follow their local health authority regulations for proper licensing for their own protection as well as the safety of their customers.
Hope this helps, Let's Get Cooking!