Monday, September 17, 2012

Preserving a Peck of Potent Peppers.


It happens every year.

Enamored with names like 'Burmese Looking-to-the-Sky' and 'Chinese 5-Color,' I purchase too many seeds of too many varieties of hot peppers.

'Scotch Bonnet' and 'Fish Pepper'--really, how can I resist?

I can justify the purchases and the work in growing them—they're for my business, of course. But then I begin planting our family garden, and suddenly I'm squeezing pepper plants in every available extra bit of sunlight that I can find.

This year, 30 hot pepper plants consumed the garden.

Our abundance of hot peppers would make sense if we often cooked exotic, spicy meals. Occasionally, we try interesting recipes. But the reality of life with two younger children means that mealtime relies on tried-and-true basics. After all, it's enough work to cook dinner after running the kids to horseback riding lessons, soccer, chicken shows, or play dates. Preparing a hot-and-spicy meal that no one will eat isn't worth the effort.

Still, the peppers overrun the garden. Bags upon bags of hot peppers line the shelves in the refrigerator. Every time I walk to the back garden, I return with a shirt full of hot peppers.

Thankfully, college son and his girlfriend love hot peppers, so I always count on them to take a bag back to school. They even made hot sauce a few weeks ago.

While I haven't attempted hot sauce yet, I decided it's time to take charge of the plethora of peppers. After all, I can't stand wasting perfectly good produce, especially food that I've nurtured from seed. 

It's sacrilegious.

Plus, earlier this year, I set a goal to learn how to preserve food. Faced with my bounty, it was time to live up to my self-imposed challenge.

In case you, too, possess an overabundance of hot peppers, here are five ways to use your spicy loot:

First, PLEASE NOTE: Treat yourself to plastic gloves before you begin working with hot peppers. Trust me. There is nothing worse than cleaning and cutting hot peppers, then later removing your contacts. 

It. Is. Excruciating.

Also, handling lots of hot peppers, particularly the seeds and membranes, can burn your skin. Please, please—wear the gloves, even if you think they're dorky.

For all types of preparation, make sure to wash the peppers and dry them well prior to use.

Drying peppers in the oven is simple—but quite honestly, it took a long time. An unexpectedly long time. Much, much longer than any instructions mentioned. And our house smelled rather...spicy, to put it nicely.

I used the setting on our oven for dehydrating. Honestly, you don't need a special setting. Set your oven to its lowest temperature. If you do not have a convection oven, leave the oven door slightly open to allow air circulation.

Arrange peppers in a single layer on a baking sheet. 

Initially, I began the process with whole peppers. However, because several varieties were not drying well due to thick flesh, I cut them in half to help aid drying.

Most recommendations I found suggested drying the peppers in the oven for 12 hours. After 12 hours, I halved the peppers. Still, I found that the peppers required another 24 hours in the oven.

Dehydrating peppers in the oven is extremely easy—but it definitely ties up your oven.

If you have a food dehydrator, a friend recommended setting up the dehydrator outside to avoid the noxious fumes that might make your children run away from home.

Once the peppers finish drying, let them cool. You can either store the dried peppers whole or crushed. Because I needed to save space, I chose to crush the peppers. Again, be careful with the process. 

I placed the dry, cool peppers in a Ziploc bag...

...then crushed the peppers using a rolling pin. (It's very therapeutic!) Even with the peppers contained in the bag, enough dust and fumes escaped to cause a pretty nasty coughing fit. You might consider wearing a mask.

While slightly hazardous, the end result looked good—a nice jar of pepper flakes, ready to use.

I'm not sure why I find canning so daunting. My first attempt at pickling peppers seems successful. I suppose the true test comes this winter, when we open the jar. Still, the process is simple.

From my newly purchased kitchen Bible, Ball Blue Book of Preserving:

Pickling Hot Peppers
(Yields about 5 pints)
1-1/2 pounds banana peppers
1 pound jalapeƱo peppers
¼ pound serrano peppers
6 cups vinegar (I used white—cider vinegar can affect the color of the peppers)
2 cups water
3 cloves garlic, crushed

Leave peppers whole or cut into 1-inch pieces. Mix peppers together. Combine vinegar, water, and garlic in a large sauce pan. Bring mix to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove garlic. Pack peppers into hot jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Ladle hot liquid over peppers, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Adjust two piece cap and tighten on jar. Fill a large canner or stock pot with water. Heat water until boiling, and place jars into the pot, making sure the water covers the entire jar (including the lid). Process for 10 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

Ball's food preserving website is a marvel—check it out for other great recipes.

Honestly, if I possessed unlimited freezer space, freezing would be my choice of preservation. It's so simple. Wash peppers, dry peppers, put in freezer bag, remove excess air, label with date, and store. 

That's my kind of food preservation!

The drawback of freezing: lose your electricity, lose your food. For people looking for food security, freezing might not be the best option.

But it's so easy...

I'm torn. That's why I'm trying lots of options this year.

Air drying

I've always loved gorgeous ristras hanging in kitchens, with dried peppers within easy reach for use. The key to making a ristra is to use peppers that can dry easily. You don't want to use peppers with very thick flesh, as they tend to mold instead of dry.

To make a simple ristra, thread fishing line through a needle and make a large knot at the end of the line. Push the needle through the stem base of the pepper, stringing the pepper to the end of the line. Continue to add peppers, leaving enough space between peppers for good air circulation. When you have strung the peppers, tie off the line at the top. Hang the ristra to dry, which may take several months. 

Of course, using the hot peppers fresh from the garden is ideal. Here's an amazing Thai dish for you to try from one of my favorite foodie blogs, Orangette.

Do you have a favorite recipe for using fresh hot peppers? If you do, would you please, PLEASE share it?

Because when I was in the garden yesterday, I found literally hundreds of hot peppers, waiting to be harvested.


Next year, I promise—I will be strong and resist all of those intriguing chile names.

Two plants, maybe three. 

Four, tops.

(If you're in Upstate SC and need some hot peppers, come on over!)

Good luck with your peppers—I'd love to hear how you preserve your peppers.


XO ~



  1. The cayenne and Hungarian hot peppers are in the dehydrator (not in the house) and the jars of homemade salsa are canned and cooling on the kitchen counter.

    That's what I've done with our peppers today.

    The Ball Blue Book is indispensable, but I also recommend "Putting Food By." (You can find it on Amazon.)

  2. Oh man Julie, that is a lot of peppers!!! Love the dehydrated ones. Think your garland of peppers is really attractive. (Reading the comment above, I have the Ball Blue Book....what a great resource!!)

  3. They're gorgeous, what a wonderful array of colours, purple even!

  4. I'm planning on lots of peppers next year. Thanks for all the great tips if we actually get a good crop. I really want to try the air-drying tip. And I.feel.your.excrutiating.pain. Too well.

  5. I hear you. Resist the hot. I'm overrun with only a couple of plants, and have a batch of hot sauce fermenting downstairs right now. I'm letting them go red and then ristra-ing all over. I love your flakes.

    And yes, when I ground the peppers for sauce, it released a cloud of gas. Nasty stuff.

  6. What beautiful peppers! I also learned by a painful experience to put on plastic gloves when I cut into a hot pepper (I wear contacts also)! Oh, and putting the dehydrator outside--had to learn that one the hard way too! I absolutely love your ristra--I'll be planting a few new varieties next year just so I can copy that :) You might try donating the extra peppers to a local food harvest..

  7. so funny to click on this post when my son is still"recovering" from adding the Chinese 5 color peppers to his stir fry the other night . I warned him they were hot, I may have mentioned it as he picked them, washed them and was cutting them,..over and over again. The look on his face at first bite was priceless, and we are still giggling at his leap across the kitchen to find something to stop the burn! I was unsure what to do with the gorgeous bounty left on the plant as frost approaches, but of course!! I wil string them up..thanks for the info

  8. I freeze and oven-dry mine, plus make some hot sauces like harissa and Thai curry. I can't really take too much heat, actually, and I still have tons of dried peppers from the 8 plants I grew last year, and this year my 4 plants are doing well, too. Unfortunately, I can grow hot peppers but my sweet peppers languish!

  9. Julie what a fab post and blog...I cannot wait to read I learned so much about harvesting peppers which is good...right now I am roasting hatch green chiles...

  10. My preservation method of choice for hot peppers is canning, but I slice the peppers into rings as I find more product fits into each jar. In fact, my kitchen counter is the resting place for a pile of hot peppers waiting to be canned in the next couple of days. My favorites varieties are jalopeno, pepperoncini, and Hungarian hot wax ... not too hot and still wonderfully sweet. I love the leaves of the habanero pepper plant but find them a bit too warm for my taste.

    Love your photos!

  11. What a FABULOUS post. I love every bit of this. I cracked up that you are growing thrity varieties of hot pappers when you don't really use them that much. That is so something I would do. I love all the colors of these pretty peppers. What's not to love?

    A great wealth of information on all these different ways of preserving your bounty. I especially love the ristras. Wonderful!

  12. LOL, I've done the hot pepper work with bare hands before handling contacts - not fun, not at all. Yesterday I dealt with a bunch of Manzanos and remembered to wear the nitrile gloves, not a tear to be shed when it came time to put the contacts in! My new favorite way to preserve hot peppers is to dry them in a 200°F oven - yes, 200°F. They dry much more quickly. The key is to turn the oven off before the peppers are fully dry and let them finish drying in the falling heat or pull them out of the oven and let them finish drying on the warm baking sheet. Sometimes I have to put some of them back in a 200° oven for about 10 minutes to finish drying. I cut them in half and remove the cores, seeds and membranes first. It takes about 1.5 to 2.5 hours depending on the thickness of the peppers. The Manzanos took about 2 hours and some Aji Angelos only took about an hour. I also dry small tomatoes the same way. Those I cut in half and sprinkle with a bit of kosher salt but they take more time, about 8 hours or more depending on how large they are.

  13. Julie I had to learn the hard way to always wear gloves when handling hot peppers after taking a shower. Did it burn down there! Gives another meaning to the song "Ah feeling hot hot hot".