Garden Lifestyle

Snake Oil: The Making of Fish Pepper Hot Sauce

Fish peppers make a killer hot sauce and Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen has perfected it in their own, prescription-strength hot sauce: Snake Oil.

Close-up of label of Snake Oil: Woodberry Kitchen's Prescription-Strength Hot Sauce. Click on other pix to enlarge and read captions.
Photo/Illustration: susan belsinger

Snake Oil. Sounds lethal. The label reads “Prescription-Strength Hot Sauce” and that it is… well it is certainly not for the faint of heart. It is wicked good and hot. The ingredients are organic fish peppers, apple cider vinegar and sea salt. It is sort of like Tabasco–only better–and locally made with local ingredients.

My inner connection to Woodberry Kitchen ( is my daughter, Lucie Sargent, who has worked there for over four years. I have had the opportunity to work with some of the mixologists creating bitters, shrubs and spirit infusions there. When I have eaten family meal there, I was amazed at the amount of fish pepper sauce the employees doused on their plates. And then I sampled it and I too, am hooked. It grows on you–and then your tolerance increases–it is addictive.
So I asked if I could help with the making of the hot sauce and take photos, and the “Preservation Society” called me when it was time to process the next batch of peppers. Woodberry Kitchen is unique in that it has a kitchen staff designated for just preserving food–they put up tons of vegtables, fruits, and herbs when they are in season–everything from whole-packed produce to pickles, preserves, and syrups to fermenting their own sauerkraut and chile peppers.
The restaurant contracts with local farmers to grow produce for them. One Straw Farm grows the bulk of their fish peppers. Last year, they received around 2,400 pounds of fish peppers from them–that is over a ton of chile peppers! They also get smaller quantities from smaller farms like Five Seeds Farm mentioned in my earlier blog on sources for fish peppers. Many of these purveyors also have CSAs and sell at local farmers’ markets.
Onto the process of making hot sauce… first off, we had to wash 20 flats of just-harvested fish peppers and remove any bad ones, which were few. Then we had to move them into the processing area, where the grinder was located. At this time, we put on heavy aprons, masks and double layers of rubber gloves. I had to stand on a small ladder to reach the hopper, where I fed the chiles from the flats into it. They were heavier than I expected and one had to pay attention so that the feed tube didn’t get clogged up. I did that for awhile and then we traded places and I got to rake the ground chiles out into the tubs, remove the full tubs and add new empty ones as needed. It is sort of a wet job and after awhile I started to feel a burn through my two layers of gloves. The ground chiles were transferred into an oak barrel and layered with sea salt; the ratio being 6% sea salt to the amount of ground chiles. Once the barrel was filled, it was covered with a lid and then set to age for one year. (My hands burned all night–though they had a bowl of milk to dunk our hands into to cool them off.)
Most of the mash is processed in September, chile harvest season. The next step in the process, is aging, until the kitchen decides to finish it, which tends to be around one year or so. After that time, the mash is milled with a fine mesh which separates the liquid from the solids, yet still gives a product with nice body. At that point this concentrate is mixed with the vinegar. They primarily use apple cider vinegar, although they have used others and are still experimenting with making their own vinegar to increase the locality of the hot sauce.
Next the bottling process is set up. The cases of jars are set up and a piston filler is attached to the counter. It works by siphoning the fish pepper sauce from a hopper and the sauce is pumped by hand into each bottle. This is time-consuming and labor intensive. Bottles are then capped and labeled. I do not think that the general public is aware of what goes into making these little bottles of fish pepper hot sauce–I sure do–and I appreciate it even more now. It is a great product, locally produced and truly handmade.
The standards of preparing good food from scratch with fine local ingredients is what makes Woodberry Kitchen stand out from all other restaurants; the food and beverages are a dining experience. If you haven’t been there, make a reservation right away and if you live out-of-town, put them on your destination list. And don’t forget to pass the fish pepper hot sauce!

Snake Oil is available for sale at the restaurant, $12 for a 6-ounce bottle of Prescription-Strength Hot Sauce.


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