My husband is a hot-pepper junkie. He puts Tabasco sauce on steamed broccoli, crushed red pepper flakes on his pasta, and diced Thai chilies in his scrambled eggs—and I’m not even going to tell you what he puts on a homemade pizza. Needless to say, every year our garden is home to several varieties of hot peppers. Over the years we’ve grown Bulgarian Carrot, Hungarian hot wax, Leutschauer paprika, Big Bomb cherry, Scotch Bonnets, Bird’s Eye chilies, and the mother of all hot peppers, Chiltepins, plus dozens of others.
Growing hot peppers is fun, but because many varieties are heavy-bearing, it can be difficult to figure out creative ways to use and preserve your harvest. Here are three easy ways to keep their spiciness on your plate all winter long.
1. Air Drying
For centuries, people have been stringing chili peppers together and drying them in the air. A long chain of drying chili peppers is called a ristra, and there’s definitely an art to making a proper one. While in a traditional ristra you’d use a cotton string to tie groups of peppers together in a long chain, I get results using a far less official method.
To make a ristra of your own, harvest a bowl of any type of hot pepper, selecting fully colored and mature fruits without blemishes. Leave the stem fully intact. I thread a sewing needle with heavy thread and pass it through the “head” of each pepper, piercing through the red flesh just beneath the stem cap. I sew several dozen peppers into a long chain, tie a loop on the end, and then hang the chain in my kitchen window to dry.
You can hang your ristra wherever you’d like, as long as the location is bright, dry and well-ventilated. Be sure to wear latex gloves when sewing your peppers (or handling hot peppers in any way, for that matter). The chilies are dry in a month or two, and I simply pull off and crust the peppers as I need them for cooking.
2. Oven Drying
For faster results, you can also dry hot peppers in the oven, microwave or dehydrator. Be careful when using this method, though, as the fumes released during drying can be irritating to some people. Ventilate the room as much as possible.
For oven drying, lay the peppers out in a single layer on a baking sheet and put them in a 140-degree-F oven, with the oven door ajar to allow the moisture to travel out. Turn the peppers over once an hour and shuffle them around on the cookie sheet. Drying time depends on the thickness of the pepper and the oven itself. It can take several hours to a day or more for the peppers to fully dry. You can also dry hot peppers in a food dehydrator if you have one.
3. Hot Sauce
Making homemade hot sauce is another way to preserve your hot pepper harvest. Different varieties of peppers, alone or in combination with one another, can yield different flavors and heat levels. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but be sure to make your hot sauce in a well-ventilated kitchen and protect your eyes from errant splashes and fumes with a pair of safety glasses or goggles. Here’s one of my favorite recipes:
- 12-15 hot peppers (whatever kind you have), stems and seeds removed, halved
- 1½ T. minced garlic
- 3/4 cup thinly sliced onion
- 2 tsp. olive oil
- 3/4 tsp. salt
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup white vinegar
In sauce pan, sauté peppers, garlic and onion with olive oil and salt for 5 minutes. Add water and cook 20 to 30 minutes, until peppers are quite soft and just a little liquid remains in pan. Cool to room temperature.
Use food processor to purée cooled pepper mixture until smooth. With food processor running, slowly add vinegar. Strain mixture through fine mesh if you don’t want chunky sauce.
At this point, you can transfer the purée to a sterilized glass jar, close it with a clean, tight-fitting lid, and put it in the fridge where it will keep for about 4 months. Another option is to pour the purée into an ice-cube tray, filling each compartment only halfway, and freeze it. When the blocks of hot sauce are frozen solid, remove them from the ice-cube tray, toss them into a zipper-top freezer bag and store in the freezer for up to a year. Pull out a cube whenever you want to add a little spice to a dish.
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