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Old 04-26-2004, 05:47 PM
Aeschines Aeschines is offline
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Homemade pepper vodka--botulism risk?

Perhaps you've tried Absolut Peppar. It has no actual peppers soaking in the vodka, but Inferno has two banana peppers in it.

I decided to make my own pepper vodka the other day. I bought a jug of McCormick (cheap but I couldn't see anything wrong with the taste), 1/2 lb. of habaneros, and some green hot peppers (serano?).

I made two versions. In a large Vlasic pickle jar I put the habaneros and filled it pretty full of vodka. The peppers float, so I turned the jar on its side so that they can soak. It's 2 days later and they don't seem to be rotting or anything, even though some of them are touching the air in the jar. I've also opened the jar several times (smells strong!--but not rotten).

OK, 2nd version: the green chilis + grape tomatoes. The grape tomatoes sank right to the bottom of the bottle. The green chilis, because they are elongated, are mostly underneath the vodka.

Questions:

1. Do I have to worry about botulism in these more or less air-tight containers? Or will the vodka (40% ABV) prevent that from developing, even if the peppers are sticking out of the liquid?

2. What experience will I have when I knock back a shot of the habanero vodka a few months from now?

Thanks for the help!
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  #2  
Old 04-26-2004, 06:26 PM
KP KP is offline
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This isn't my medical opinion, but I have seen that method in books and on culinary shows, using raw peppers, so I imagine its safety is proven.

Clostridium species produce very tough spores, which are often very resistant to heat, dehydration (e.g. alcohol) and other common methods of sterilization can be found in ordinary soil, but contamination poisoning is limited to a few situations because C. botulinus is an anerobe: it hates oxygen

Further, it is very common for liquors and wines to be aged for many years or decades, but I've never heard of C. botulinus growing in them. Vodka is essentially just water and alcohol, and it seems biochemically plausible that an anerobe like C. botulinus won't use use alcohol as a fuel -- but I wouldn't bet that *some* anerobe couldn't metabolize alcohol. Mostly, the high concentration of alcohol probably keeps the spores too dry to "sprout". Air-Drying, and curing with salt or sugar to decrease moisture are all age-old methods of preserving food.

Oxygen is so reactive that it's generally a toxin; it was a poisonous waste product early in the history of life. Then ancient microbes contaminated the environment with so much of it that many species evolved to make use of it. In fact, if you wanted to prove the existence of life on Earth from deep space, our highly reactive oxygen-rich atmosphere would probably be persuasive evidence. Kill all life on Earth, and all our free oxygen would eventually combine with other chemicals.

Even today, possible the majority of microbe species prefer to avoid oxygen. Its radicals, like peroxides, are used as a weapon against microbes by our own immune cells. Aerobes (oxygen-using) do have one advantage: they tend to have faster metabolisms because oxygen participates in energetic reactions with most common organic substrates. Foods spoil faster when aerobes get to them, and being Aerobes ourselves, we encounter more of them in the places we like to live.

Classic botulism comes from canned foods where the oxygen has been sealed out to prevent the growth of fast growing food-spoiling aerobic bacteria. It's not an infection, but a poisoning with a potent bacterial toxin that accumulates as the C. botulinus slowly grows. Infant botulism is an entirely different beast: C. botulinus spores from, say, honey, which wouldn't hurt most children or adults, can find a home in the relatively oxygen- and competitor- free infant gut, and grow there, eventually poisoning the baby from inside. (That's why you shouldn't give honey to babies, per the American Pediatric Assn. Even pasteurization and heat treatments might not kill all Clostridium spores; they're extra tough.)

In both classic and infant botulism, the Clostridia grow in a relatively oxygen-free environment. If we want to grow it in a lab, we fill the incubator with carbon dioxide. It hates oxygen. If if it liked oxygen, it'd be a very different threat.

If I were really worried about pepper-vodka botulism (and I'm not), I wouldn't seal all the air out. I'd make sure there was some airspace, and shake the bottle every couple of weeks to aerate it.
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Old 04-26-2004, 06:29 PM
Derleth Derleth is offline
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I think the alcohol will prevent any bacterial life from taking hold. Remember, rubbing alcohol is still used to disinfect wounds, and ethyl alcohol (what's in vodka) works just as well.
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Old 04-26-2004, 06:32 PM
Derleth Derleth is offline
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Bah. I took too long between opening the thread and responding.

Good work, KP.
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  #5  
Old 04-26-2004, 07:44 PM
Bippy the Beardless Bippy the Beardless is offline
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A couple of points is that if the alcohol doesn't penitrate the chilli then their is some possibility of it going off. Finely slicing the chilli before adding to the alcohol would stop this risk, and increase the speed with which flacour is taken up by the vodka. Acidity is a strong counter to botchalism, so whole peices of citric fruit in the alcohol wouldn't be problem causing, but I might worry about whole tomatoes as they aren't very acidic, and are not to my mind likely to soak up the alcohol rapidly.
You may also consider using dried chillis or sun dried tomatoes in the vodka, though I would avoid sulphurated dried items as the sulphur would affect the taste. A personal favourite is to add a split vanilla pod to vodka as an alternative to chilli vodka.
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