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Last fall I tried my hand at making a homemade hot sauce. Essentially: roast peppers, blend with vinegar, garlic, salt and other spices, put in jar for three weeks, strain and you have hot sauce.

The sauce was great, but after about a week of sitting in a jar in my fridge it separated and became rather unsightly. Of course, after shaking it up it returned to normal. Is there a way to keep a sauce like this from separating?


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up vote 18 down vote accepted

Whenever you see a sauce separate, it's because you have an Emulsion, which is two or more immiscible liquids. In cooking, these liquids are typically water and fat.

To stabilize an emulsion, you use an emulsifier. The most common food emulsifier is lecithin, and the most common natural source of lecithin is egg yolk. If you don't want the taste of egg or your food is not going to be cooked (i.e. a vinaigrette), then it you can actually go out and buy pure lecithin (soy lecithin is common to find).

As the wikipedia entry mentions, there are other natural emulsifiers such as honey and mustard, and often when you see recipes calling for mustard when it seems to be a strange ingredient to add (such as cheese sauce), the reason is to help stabilize the emulsion.

Additionally, the most common emulsifier used in packaged or processed foods is sodium stearoyl lactylate. It sounds scarier than it is; you can buy it in the store just like lecithin.

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I wonder if pectin could be used as an emulsifier in this case? – ThinkingCook Oct 5 '10 at 15:49
@ThinkingCook: It's possible, but pectin is also a jelling agent so you'd have to be careful. You don't want your sauce turning into jam. – Aaronut Oct 5 '10 at 16:00
Very interesting. I'll give that a try. Thank you! – Vecta Oct 5 '10 at 16:42
do you use prepared or ground mustard? – mfg Nov 3 '10 at 17:29
@mfg: Dried mustard is just prepared mustard minus the water, so either one is fine. Which one I would use depends primarily on what I have on hand and secondarily on the water content of the recipe. If the water content is minimal then I'll either use prepared mustard or make some by dissolving the dry mustard in some water. Mind you, neither one is a "preferred" emulsifier for me - I only use them in selected dishes where I want that flavour, like Mac 'n Cheese. – Aaronut Nov 3 '10 at 18:03

Xanthan gum will also work very well for holding this kind of sauce together. Somewhere around 0.2%-0.5% by weight should be right. Shear it in with a blender for a good long time. I'm a little concerned about the food safety of your sauce though. Are you certain it will remain good for weeks as you are planning?

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Shouldn't the vinegar preserve the ingredients for at least a few weeks? Those jalapeño peppers you buy in jars last for months in the pickling vinegar and I don't think they use any other preservatives. – Aaronut Oct 5 '10 at 17:45
You could leaved a sauce like this at room temperature indefinitely. The only thing you need to be aware of is that over time your hot sauce will become less hot as time goes by. – sarge_smith Oct 5 '10 at 18:16
I think it would depend a lot on the acidity level; when you buy canned jalapenos or commercial hot sauce they have presumably made sure the level is sufficient. I'm not saying Vecta's sauce isn't safe, just that it is something to think about. – Michael at Herbivoracious Oct 5 '10 at 19:14
The other concern here of course is the garlic, which carries botulinum spores. The spores are anaerobic; they grow when they don't have access to oxygen. This is why raw garlic should never be packed in oil, for example. – daniel Oct 5 '10 at 19:25
That's true, @roux. Pan-frying the garlic first on high heat will draw out the moisture and probably kill most of the spores (they are resistant to heat, but not immune above 120° C or so). Keeping the garlic in an acidic solution will slow the growth of botulism and keeping it in the refrigerator will slow it even further. I've heard that garlic oil can last years in storage - that may not be very safe, but the combination of fried/sautéed garlic, vinegar, and refrigeration probably makes the risk minuscule over a few weeks. – Aaronut Oct 5 '10 at 19:46

You'll probably need some kind of emulsifier. For a long-term sauce like hot sauce, you're probably going to want an industrial strength one, and I don't really have many suggestions there...I never make sauces where I can't just use mustard or egg yolks.

Or you can just try sticking the whole thing in the blender for a while; that'll do it with salad dressing (for example), and it might work for your sauce as well.

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i was thinking cornstarch would work in cream sauces for reheating in the microwave

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We have found that blending the sauce for an extended period of time keeps it from separating...I mean days of blending...Just leave it in the blender and when time allows give it a good blending and then let it sit...You will find after about 3 days of periodic blending the sauce will no longer separate.

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