This time of year, hardly a day goes by when I don’t can, freeze or dry something from my garden. Of the hundreds of jars and bags that I squirrel away for winter, the most prized of them all contain peppers. Frozen, pickled or dried, stored peppers deliver more flavor, by weight, than any other garden goodie.
Learning how to preserve peppers did not come easy, yet my trials and errors have led me to many interesting discoveries. First, it’s important to match the preservation method to the peppers themselves. Generally speaking, peppers with thick walls, like big bells and pimento peppers, are prime candidates for freezing, firm little banana peppers and jalapenos can stand up to pickling, and thin-walled cayennes and other hot peppers are easy to dry. Beyond this framework, the true art of preserving peppers begins. Depending on the type of pepper you have, you can char, grill, smoke or pulverize your glossy beauties before stashing them away in your freezer or pantry.
Stocking Up on Sweet Peppers
Most sweet bell peppers, pimentos, and other large-fruited sweet peppers have thick walls that soften as the peppers ripen to red, yellow or orange. (See The Long Wait for Ripe Peppers if you’re confused about color.) You can freeze or dry sweet peppers, but not until after they have been cooked through, which is usually done by blanching in boiling water or steam. Blanching and then freezing is the best way to preserve peppers whole, for stuffing, but there are several better options worth considering.
Roasting peppers enhances their flavor, and it also qualifies as a top way to prepare peppers for the freezer, in lieu of blanching. Roasting peppers is a simple two-step process. First, broil or grill whole peppers until they begin to blacken on all sides, turning them frequently with tongs. When the skin is well blistered with some black spots, quickly move the hot peppers to an empty pot with a tight-fitting lid, and let them steam there for fifteen minutes. Most of the skins will slip off after the peppers cool. When cut into strips and frozen, you have succulent roasted peppers for winter pizzas and pasta.
Instead of working with whole peppers, you also can slowly smoke halves or cut strips of sweet pepper over a slow wood fire until they are just done. I save pruned apple wood for this purpose. When cool, your smoked peppers are ready for the freezer, but they won’t last long because they are so good.
Authentic chipotle peppers are made by smoking red-ripe jalapenos until they are shriveled and dry. This way to preserve peppers is not practical at home, but I have found that I can amplify the flavors of mature green jalapenos by smoking the slices for less than an hour over a wood-fired grill. You need only a wisp of a fire, just enough to barely cook the peppers, which have a natural talent for picking up flavors from smoke. When cool, the smoked pepper slices can be frozen or dried in a dehydrator.
Making Pickled Peppers
Smallish peppers like bananas and jalapenos are good candidates for pickling, but pickled peppers need help if they are to stay crisp. Historically, pickled peppers began with several soaks in strong lime water before the peppers were canned in a vinegar brine. These days most people use food grade calcium chloride, sold as Ball Pickle Crisp, to keep rings of pickled peppers from turning mushy. This specialized salt, which is generally recognized as safe in the US and UK, will prevent mushy pickled peppers, but it’s not exactly organic. I think the most natural way to pickle peppers is to do it in the refrigerator, by steeping sliced hot peppers in a 50:50 mixture of vinegar and water, with 1 teaspoon salt per pint. The peppers stay crisp because they are never heated, and after a few days in the fridge they taste like pickled peppers.
Drying Hot Peppers
Most small hot peppers have thin walls, which makes them excellent candidates for drying. As long as the peppers are botanically mature (evidenced by fully-formed beige seeds inside), they can be dried even if they have not yet changed to red. Drying peppers indoors is a simple matter of stringing whole peppers together by passing a needle and thread through their green caps, and hanging them in a warm, well-ventilated space for about two weeks. It’s a good idea to finish drying peppers in a warm oven for about 30 minutes before packing them away in airtight jars.
Alternatively, you can split peppers in half for drying in a dehydrator. Be sure to wear protective gloves when cutting hot peppers, and turn on a fan to insure good air circulation.
When dry to almost crisp, hot peppers can be pulverized into hot pepper flakes in a food processor, or steeped in vinegar to make a hot pepper sauce for sprinkling over cooked greens and other veggies. Dried hot peppers are also great for making homemade chili paste. To make the best chili paste you’ve ever eaten, place a few dried hot peppers in a dry pan, and toast them over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, for four to five minutes. Then cover with warm water for an hour. Add some salt and a couple of cloves of finely minced garlic, pulverize into a paste, and you have the condiment that has made Szechwan food famous. It’s one of the best reasons I know for learning how to preserve peppers.
By Barbara Pleasant