Red Hot! How to Harvest, Dry and Store Mature Red Chilescomments (1) September 1st, 2009
Woohoo! Chile season is in full swing and you should be harvesting and preserving those red, ripe fruits from your garden or buying them at the farmers' markets. Let Susan, an admitted aficionado of the capsicum, tell you how to harvest, handle, and what to do with your red hot chile peppers!
Dried chiles offer completely different flavor experiences than fresh, generally earthier, and with a chewy texture. Chiles are dried when they are red (sometimes shades of mahogany, deep red-purple, or reddish brown as a pasilla or orange as a habanero)--which is a sign of maturity--green chiles are not yet mature and do not dry well. Completely mature chiles can be very hot, therefore, wear rubber gloves when working with them.
|Preserving red chiles: Dry them whole; grind them for powder; infuse them in vinegar or alcohol; and use them for wreaths and ornamentation.|
|Mature, ripe chiles on tray for oven drying.|
Toward the end of the harvest season, when most of the chiles on the plants have matured to red, it is time to pick and dry chiles or to pull the plants and hang them to dry. The southwestern U.S. is the perfect place for drying chiles. Hot sun, dry air and warm nights with little chance of precipitation provide the ideal conditions. With low moisture and bright, even sunlight, peppers sometimes dry in less than a week. In climates where the temperature and sunlight are uneven and the humidity is high, chiles can be dried in the sun, but they must be brought indoors at night or if it rains. Peppers are likely to mold if they get wet or become damp during the drying process.
Small chiles dry well if the whole plant is pulled and hung upside down in a well-ventilated place. Smaller peppers can also be dried if they are spread in a single layer on screens or in large flat baskets, and turned every day so that they dry evenly. They can also be threaded through the stems with a needle or thin wire and hung to dry.
|Ristra of small chiles.|
A thoroughly dried chile should be free of moisture and feel leathery rather than brittle. Drying time will vary greatly according to the size of pepper, thickness of flesh, and weather conditions. In humid climates, chiles can be partially dried in the sun and finished off in a 150° F oven. To do this, spread them on baking sheets and turn them occasionally. This could take anywhere from 1 to 48 hours, depending on the size and moisture content of the chiles. It makes the house smell heavenly. Right now I have a pan drying in my oven--it has been there for about 36 hours--I remove the smaller chiles as they dry and the bigger ones are nearly there. Store dried chiles whole in labeled, tightly closed glass jars.
To save seed for next year, remove the seed from raw, mature peppers, rinse, and place on paper toweling or a small piece of screen. Place them in the sun, in a protected place to dry. When thoroughly dry, pack them into plastic bags, envelopes, or small jars, and label them. Store them in a cool place away from light.
Ground Red Chile
|Dried chiles and ground red chiles in molcajete.|
Chili powder is very different from ground red chile. It is an American mixture created in Texas in the late 1800s. It depends largely on dried chiles, enhanced by spices and herbs, mainly cumin and oregano, occasionally black pepper, dehydrated garlic and/or onions. The original chili powders were pure, and unadulterated with salt, anti-caking agents, or flour that characterize many modern blends. These blends whose formulas are closely guarded secrets, are still produced today. It is very easy to roast your own chiles, grind them, and experiment with herbs and spices to make your own version of chili powder. Homemade chili powder will keep in a tightly sealed jar out of direct sunlight for six months. A homemade blend makes a great gift for cooks and chileheads.
Small Chiles or Ornamentals: How to Use and Dry Them
The peppers can be used fresh or, when they ripen to red, they can be picked, dried in baskets, and stored in glass jars for future use. Harvesting will stimulate new growth. All of these little peppers are hot; most of them are fiery. Because they are so hot, they are most often used whole--simmered in soups or stews, briefly sautéed in stir-fries, or soaked in a marinade--then removed. The novice should be warned of the pungency of these incendiary little peppers.
Vinegars and Infusions
|Red pepper jelly is a sweet and hot way to preserve your pepper harvest.|
Choose fresh, unblemished chiles or small, bright-colored, dried ones. Wash the fresh chiles and make a lengthwise slit in each pepper, fresh or dried, with a sharp paring knife (otherwise they will float like a cork). Cutting the fresh chiles in halves or quarters will give more heat to the infusion. Any chiles can be used, but success is assured with the traditional varieties: serrano, cayenne, jalapeño, Santa Fe Grande, red hot cherry, Tabasco, Thai, and the ornamentals.
|Small chiles waiting to be dried or infused. Though they are little, they pack a powerful heat.|
Hot pepper vinegars are made in basically the same way, except the vinegar is generally heated. Place your choice of peppers in a large non-reactive, heavy-bottomed saucepan. If preparing pint jars, use about 1 cup of chiles per jar, and if preparing quarts, use about 2 cups of chiles per jar. Using about 1/2 cup less liquid than the size of the jar (ex: 1 1/2 cups liquid to a pint jar), pour the vinegar over the chiles. Let the contents of the pan come to a simmer, cover and let stand until room temperature. Transfer the hot chile vinegar into sterile pint or quart canning jars, leaving about 1/2-inch headspace. At this point you can add a few sprigs of your favorite herbs such as thyme, oregano, or sage, if desired. Seal the jars with sterile lids and rings, and set them in a pantry or a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 weeks before using. These infusions become hotter with age. Vinegars add zest to salads, sautés, and marinades, and are essential in making escabeche. Both alcohol and vinegar infusions keep for at least one year.
Now is the time to gather your red hot chile peppers and preserve them for the winter months ahead. Keep in mind that they make wonderful warming gifts--so get busy! For more recipes and preserving information, check out some of the books and articles written by vegetablegardener.com's resident chilehead:
|I feel rich once I have captured the essence of the capsicums by drying them. This is truly kitchen wealth.|
The Chile Pepper Book: A Fiesta of Fiery, Flavorful Recipes by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger, Interweave Press, 1994.
Chile Peppers: Hot Tips and Tasty Picks for Gardeners and Gourmets, editor Beth Hanson, contributor Susan Belsinger and others, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1999.
'From Hot to Sweet' by Susan Belsinger, GRIT magazine, September/October 2009.
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