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Things to Do with Chile Peppers

If you want to know everything there is to know about every possible way to preserve any food you can think of (including chiles, of course), I *highly* recommend the Third Edition of Stocking Up, written by Carol Hupping and the staff of the Rodale Food Center (original (C) 1986, Fireside Edition 1990). Well-written, detailed, and complete... this book is one of the best investments you can make.

Roasting and Freezing
Hot Vinegar
Habanero Honey
Hot Sauce
Chile Paste

Drying is the easiest way to preserve many pepper varieties, and is my preferred method for making my harvest of hot peppers last through the year. Dried peppers do not take up valuable freezer space, are easily crushed or ground up for use in cooking, and "as far as nutrients are concerned, drying is superior to canning, because canning's high processing temperatures can destroy as much as 65% of the original food value, particularly vitamin C, thiamine, and riboflavin" (Ref 14 p. 118).

How well a pepper will dry by air-drying depends primarily on how 'fleshy' the pepper is and how high the relative humidity is in your area. In the western Piedmont of North Carolina, where the humidity is usually moderate to quite high, the thin-walled peppers like cayennes and tabascos will usually air-dry fine, if a bit slowly, and medium-walled peppers like serranos will air dry slowly. Thick-walled peppers like jalapenos and habaneros will often mold.

For proper preservation during storage, the drying process should remove about 90% of the moisture from the peppers; this "[creates] an environment hostile to bacteria, molds, and yeasts" (Ibid.), all of which need a certain level of moisture to flourish. Because the moisture removal process is limited by the concentration of moisture present in the air, you will be unlikely to obtain the necessary moisture reduction under even moderately humid conditions. That's okay; if the humidity is low enough that your peppers will air-dry without molding, you can air-dry them until they are as dry as they'll get, and then finish them up in a food dehydrator or an oven (see below). How to tell when they're dry enough? I use a simple test: if you squeeze a pepper and it cracks immediately, then it is dry enough; if there is some 'give' before it cracks, it's not ready. Dried peppers should be stored in air-tight containers, at least in areas having appreciable humidity.

Temperature and air flow are the controlling factors for dehydrating vegetables using an oven or a food dehydrator. Drying is, in Engineer-speak, a mass-transfer process: water moves from the flesh and innards of the pepper, where there is a high concentration of moisture, to the surrounding air where there is a lower concentration of moisture. This movement of the water molecules is a natural result of the fact that there are a lot of them in the pepper and not a lot of them in the surrounding air; nature prefers an equilibrium where there is an equal concentration of water molecules in both the pepper and the air (this is what allows you to smell someone's cologne from ten feet away a minute after they walk through a room). As the pepper dehydrates, the air immediately around it becomes loaded with water molecules, and the dehydration process slows, because the 'driving force' (the difference in water molecule concentration) between the pepper and the air is decreased. This is why air flow is important; by keeping "new" air moving past the surface of the pepper, the buildup of moisture in the air is prevented and the 'driving force' remains strong. Temperature plays a dual role in drying; first, increasing the temperature of the water in the pepper makes the water more volatile: hot water evaporates faster then cold water; second, hot air can hold more moisture than cold air, so that the air can absorb more water molecules before it becomes saturated.

For the dehydration of vegetables, the temperature should be between 95 and 135oF; temperatures below this range will not provide efficient drying, possibly giving mold time to form, and temperatures above this range will destroy important nutrients such as vitamins A and C (Ref 14 p. 132). Higher temperatures can also cook the outside of the peppers, "forming a dry skin that traps inside moisture" (Ibid.).

I generally use a food dehydrator with an integral heater for drying peppers; using an oven for the whole process just isn't energy-efficient (although it is okay for finishing off air-dried peppers). My dehydrator runs about 120 oF and provides good air flow. Drying time obviously depends on the peppers, but is usually 4-5 hours for the easiest peppers– those Scotch Bonnets are going to take a lot longer. Keep a good eye on the peppers' progress and rotate the tray positions periodically for even drying; pay particular attention during the last part of the drying process, as there is a fine line between 'dry enough' and 'burned'.

If you use an oven, use a thermometer to get the oven to the right temperature (don't trust the numbers on the knob– they lie) and leave the door partially open to provide some air circulation.

Dried peppers can be crumbled or ground up for cooking (see Grinding below), or can be rehydrated by soaking in hot water for 15 to 30 minutes.

Grinding dried peppers is the easiest way to incorporate them into a recipe. Dried peppers can be ground by hand using a mortar and pestle, or they can be ground mechanically. I generally use a mortar and pestle (see below), although I have also used a pepper mill to grind some types of peppers on demand. To use a pepper mill, crack a dried pepper open and scrape out and discard the seeds, and then crush the pepper up into coarse flakes, removing and discarding the stem. Repeat until you have enough flakes to fill the mill about a quarter full, and pour the flakes into the pepper mill. Keep the pepper mill handy, and you can have fresh ground cayenne pepper (or any other variety) any time you want it with very little effort and no trouble.

There are a few different grades of ground chile that I use:

Quebrado: quebrado is coarse pepper flakes with some seeds included. This is what you will find in shakers on tables in most pizza parlors in the US; it is commonly referred to as "crushed red pepper". Quebrado is simple to make, even without a mortar and pestle; if your peppers are dried properly, you can make quebrado in a small bowl using the back of a spoon to crush the peppers. If you want to add heat to something that you are in the process of cooking, this is the way to go; quebrado is easy to make and the cooking process will extract the capsaicinoids and distribute them evenly throughout the food. As far as yield goes, one dried Scotch Bonnet or Habanero will yield about 1/2 tsp of coarse flakes; 2 Cayennes (normal "small" variety) will yield about 1/2 tsp coarse flakes; 12 Tabascos will yield about 3/4 tsp coarse flakes.

Molido: molido is finely ground chile pepper, without seeds. Molido is a bit more work to make than quebrado, and you need either a pepper mill or a mortar and pestle. In either case, you will want to start with coarse pepper flakes, sans seeds, as described above in the discussion on pepper mills. When I make molido with a mortar and pestle, I cheat and add a tiny amount of table salt to the mortar before I start grinding the flakes. Salt crystals are very hard and have sharp corners and edges, making them an excellent grinding medium. Rather than the short punch-like shearing motion that you would typically make with the pestle, I use a circular grinding motion and let the salt crystals do most of the work. If you want to heat up something that has already been cooked, molido works better than quebrado, as the finer particle size lets you get the chile pepper distributed more evenly through your food.

Hot Salt: The reason that you have to remove the seeds from dried peppers before grinding them into molido with a mortar and pestle is that the tough seeds will get in the way, preventing the pestle from making good enough shearing contact with the pepper itself (try it, you'll see what I mean). When I need finely ground chile in a hurry, and I'm going to add salt to the food anyway, I will add a lot of salt (1/4 tsp or more) to the mortar and grind the chile, seeds and all, by crushing the pepper into coarse flakes and then grinding until it is powdered, adding more salt if necessary. The large quantities of salt crystals fill in between the seeds and allow you to grind the pepper by abrading it with the salt crystals themselves. The end result is red-colored salt with pepper seeds in it, which can be used in place of regular salt in a recipe, or can be sprinkled directly on prepared food after serving. This trick is especially useful with small peppers that have a lot of seeds like Tepins and Tabascos, as it saves you the trouble of seeding a bunch of tiny pods.

Canning is the process of sterilizing and preserving food in canning jars (e.g. Mason jars and Ball jars). There are two general methods of canning; one uses a boiling water bath at atmospheric pressure, and the other uses increased pressure to boost the boil temperature, which speeds the process and kills those species of bacteria that can survive boiling at 212 F (one lethal example is Clostridium botulinum).

In either case, you should read, understand, and follow the instructions for your pressure canner, and you should use the times and pressures provided by the manufacturer of your canner, rather than relying on the information provided in a recipe on the Internet. Canning is serious business; one taste of food contaminated with botulism toxin can kill you.

I use the pressure canning method, usually using one of two basic recipes. I usually can serranos, jalapenos, waxes, and New Mexico/Anaheims.

Pickling usually refers to the process of preserving vegetables and fruits using vinegar or another acid. The use of acids such as vinegar to preserve foods is common, as many pathogens cannot survive under low-pH (high acidity) conditions. This is why you see citric acid, acetic acid, phosphoric acid, and others on the ingredient lists of so many of the foods that you buy. When used to preserve food by lowering the pH, an acid is referred to as an acidulant.

There are two basic pickling processes. Brining involves aging foods in a salt solution and allowing the selective growth of benign acid-producing bacteria. Fresh-pack pickling is essentially canning using vinegar rather than water, although there may be a short brining step before canning.

The two recipes mentioned above are fresh-pack pickling recipes, as the chiles are processed under pressure in vinegar.

Freezing peppers is probably the second easiest way to preserve them, and is the best way if you want them to be as fresh as possible.

Before freezing peppers, I wash them thoroughly and steam blanch them using a tall pot, about 1/3 full of boiling water, and a metal strainer. Put the peppers in the strainer, set the strainer in the pot, and set the lid of the pot on top of the strainer to hold in most of the steam. After six minutes of steaming, dunk the peppers in a pot of ice water and stir them around until they are thoroughly chilled. Once the peppers are well chilled, drain them, dry them off, put them in a plastic freezer-weight bag, and freeze them.

This sounds like a good bit of work, but it is a lot faster and easier than canning. The reason for blanching the peppers is to keep the flavor of the peppers from deteriorating, and my results are generally good.

The scalding and subsequent cooling also provide the added benefit of collapsing the peppers, so that you can fit more of them in your freezer <grin>.

Roasting and Freezing:
A Reader was kind enough to send me a detailed description of a very easy and convenient way to roast and freeze chiles, and has allowed me to share her method. (Thanks, Sue!)

... However, for our own personal use years ago, we roasted our chiles on a charcoal grill after our "meat" was done and the coals were hot. We simply placed the chile on the grill and gradually turned it, until the chile was the color of grey/green and sometimes the peal was black and popping. When we felt that it was done, peal loosen, then we simply wrapped them in a wet newspaper or plastic bag for a while, which helped to loose the peal. To freeze, we then used a long piece of plastic wrap, laying one of two chiles and rolling it a turn or two in the paper and then laying another couple of chiles until all the plastic had been used. Place that in a piece of foil and freeze. When you are ready to use, simply take out of freezer, run hot water over the chiles, and take off whatever you want by loosening your roll of chiles with the hot water. The hot water not only thaws, but also helps to peal the chile. You can then take off the stem, slit the side to take out the seeds, stuff or use in a casserole. ...

Sue Clark

Hot Vinegar:
Every year, I use a few dried peppers to make up a stock of hot vinegar. I use a good bit of vinegar for cooking, and hot vinegar is an easy way to add a bit of "bite" to a recipe. It is also particularly good on french fries and other types of prepared potatoes, as well as salads and cooked greens.

Hot vinegar is easy to make. I usually use white wine vinegar, but you can use pretty much any type of vinegar. The only restriction on the type of dried pepper that you use is that the peppers must fit into the vinegar bottle.

The acidity in vinegar may kill some types of pathogenic bacteria, but it won't kill all of them, so I always pour the vinegar into a saucepan and boil the peppers in it for about five minutes to kill any bacteria on them. Since boiling vinegar can fill your kitchen with some really irritating fumes, I strongly recommend that you keep a lid on the saucepan. Once the boiling is done, allow the vinegar to cool, and then pour it back into the bottle, along with the peppers.

Cayennes are good for making hot vinegar. So are Tabascos and Tepins, if you want *really* hot vinegar.

Habanero Honey:
This is a quick, easy way to use up some of that bumper crop of Habaneros. Get five or six one-pound bottles of honey (preferably a good local clover honey) and 20 to 25 fresh Habanero pods. Wash the pods well, and then, wearing gloves, slice four of the peppers into 1/2" wide strips. Using tongs, put the strips into a one-pound jar of honey and use a butter knife to submerge them and to dislodge any air bubbles that have gotten trapped in the honey. Allow three to four weeks for the honey to extract the heat and flavor from the peppers. The result is well worth the wait: a burningly hot honey flavored with that fruity chinense flavor. Use liberally on toast and biscuits, in glazes and marinades, and in the Homestead Hotty Toddy.

Hot Sauce:
If you grow peppers, chances are you have a whole shelf of hot sauces in your refrigerator. No reason you can't make your own; fresh sauces are easy enough to make. Generally, I'll chop and then combine the ingredients and liquefy them in a blender, and then pour the sauce into a saucepan, cover, slowly bring to a boil over medium heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Then I'll strain the sauce through a standard kitchen sieve and pour it into a clean, sterilized hot sauce bottle. It'll keep for months in the refrigerator; if the sauce separates into layers, just shake it before using it. Two examples I came up with are Peach Habanero Sauce and Bird Pepper Sauce.

Chile Paste:
My favorite Thai condiment is Garlic Chile Paste; I have always kept a large jar of store-bought chile paste in the refrigerator, at least until I found out how easy it is to make with a food processor. This is another great way to preserve bunch of chile peppers, and you can use pretty much any type of chiles that have on hand. Chile paste freezes really well, so you can make a bunch during heavy harvest periods and enjoy it all year long. The basic recipe is Homestead Basic Thai Chile Paste; but you can get really exotic with something like Homestead Old-School Thai Chile Paste.

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