Preserving Chilli Peppers

Chilli Harvest - 2nd September 2012
Growing lots of chilli plants and harvesting lots of ripe chillies is all well and good, but what use is it when you don't know how to preserve your crop? If you wish to continue enjoying the fruits of your labour then you'll need to know how to preserve your chilli harvests. The three main methods of preservation that most chilli-heads use are freezing, drying and pickling, and on this page we'll take a look at all three methods.

Although freezing, drying and pickling are the three main methods of preservation used by chilli growers, some people may only choose to adopt one of these methods (typically freezing), while others may choose to make use of all three. This will largely depend on personal preference and the amount, type, size and thickness of the chillies. For example, Rocoto peppers freeze really well and are also very tasty when pickled, but due to the thickness of their flesh, drying them can be a tricky and time consuming process. Superhot varieties are good for spicing up many types of food, but do you really want to pickle them? Well, some people might, but personally I don't. I'll just stick to freezing some and making chilli flakes from others. Whichever method(s) you choose to use, hopefully there will be some information on this page that is of help to you.

Preserving Chilli Peppers - Art

How to Freeze Chilli Peppers

Freezing is probably the most popular method of preservation used by chilli growers for preserving their harvests. It's quick and easy, and if stored correctly chilli peppers can last for several years in the freezer. The first thing you should always do when selecting chillies for freezing is to inspect them carefully to make sure there aren't any which have turned mouldy or have soft discoloured areas on them, indicating that they may have started to rot. If you come across any like this then just discard them. The next thing you should do is give them a good wash. This will remove any dirt or grime that may be present. After giving them a good wash, place them into a colander and set them aside for a while to allow most of the excess water to drain away. Using a clean kitchen towel, pat them dry to remove as much of the remaining water as possible and then set them aside on another clean kitchen tea towel for several hours or overnight. This will ensure that the chillies are fully dried before you start bagging and freezing them.

Once the chillies have dried you can then start bagging them. I always put each variety into its own bag, but some people like to mix them up. Whether or not you choose to remove the stalks (peduncles) from the chillies before bagging them is entirely up to you. It makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. Personally, I always remove them because it allows me to fit more chillies into each of the freezer bags. Ideally, you should always double-bag chillies when storing them in the freezer because it helps to reduce freezer burn and the build up of ice. Contrary to what some sources claim, it's not necessary to freeze chilli peppers on trays before bagging them. The only reason why anyone would need to do this is if the chillies were still wet before being frozen. Obviously, as the water freezes and turns to ice it would result in the chillies sticking together in the bags, making it difficult to separate them. However, this won't happen if they are dry before being bagged.

Once the chillies are frozen you can just chop them up and use them as you normally would. Most varieties are easy to chop from frozen. However, thick-walled varieties, such as Jalapeño and Rocoto, can be difficult to chop straight from frozen and should therefore be left for a few minutes beforehand to allow them chance to thaw slightly. Frozen chilli peppers thaw out very quickly, but once fully thawed they don't hold their shape in the way they once did when fresh. However, the flavour and heat is still the same, which is what we're really looking for. Before freezing Rocotos and other thick-walled varieties, some chilli growers like to slice them in half along the axis and remove the seeds before freezing the two halves. This makes it much easier later on when you want to use them. De-seeding frozen Rocoto peppers can be a fiddly process on times, but I've developed a knack of doing it by using a potato peeler.

Frozen Chilli Peppers
Frozen Chilli Peppers

Removing the placenta (the pithy portion inside the fruit which holds the seeds in place) from any chilli pepper will remove a good amount of the heat because this is the part which has the highest concentration of capsaicin, the chemical in chillies which makes them hot. If you wish to tone down the heat of your chillies before freezing them you could remove the placenta and the seeds beforehand. However, if you have lots of chillies to freeze then this could turn into a very fiddly and time consuming process. For most varieties, this portion is easy enough to remove even from frozen. Here at we believe that removing the placenta from chilli peppers is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water. It's a sacrilege! Don't do it.

Another method used for freezing chillies, albeit somewhat lesser known, is the ice cube tray method. It's the same method people use for freezing fresh herbs. You chop your chillies of choice into small pieces and then pack the pieces into the individual cavities of an ice cube tray. You then add a small amount of water into each of the cavities and place the tray into the freezer. Once frozen, you remove the individual chilli ice cubes from the tray and then store them in a freezer bag. From there, you can just add one or two of the spicy ice cubes into your food, where they will thaw out and cook along with everything else. Personally, I find this method to be too fiddly and I never use it. In my opinion, it's easy enough to just chop up one or two frozen chillies and then add them to food as and when they're needed.

I've been freezing chilli peppers for as long as I've been growing them, and I can attest that freezing is a preservation method that works very well. I've had some chillies in the freezer which were nearly three years old and they were still fine to use. However, after a year or so some of the thin-walled varieties, such as Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, tend to lose some of their heat, but not to any great degree. Ideally, you should try and use your frozen chillies up within a year, but if you're unable to do so then don't worry because they'll still be fine to use. Just make sure you keep them double-bagged and keep the bags tied. You can freeze any chillies, and if you have some in your freezer which are old then you can just throw them into a batch of hot sauce. This is what I do towards the end of each growing season with the remainder of the previous year's crop.

Preserving Chilli Peppers - Art

How to Dry Chilli Peppers

Drying is another method of preservation, and some would argue that it's the best method for preserving chilli peppers. Drying isn't a method I use to any large degree, but I do like to dry some of my chilli crop. During the summer months when the sun is at its hottest, I take advantage of the sunny windowsills around the house and dry some thin-walled varieties, such as Ring of Fire, Bangalore Torpedo, Malawi Bird's Eye and Chiltepin. This is obviously the least expensive method for drying chillies because sunshine is free! I use dried chillies to make my own chilli powders and chilli flakes. I also use them whole in Madras curry and occasionally in chili con carne. Thin-walled varieties can be dried very easily on sunny windowsills or in sunny conservatories. Once again, before selecting chillies for drying the first thing you should always do is inspect them carefully to make sure there aren't any which have turned mouldy or have soft discoloured areas on them, indicating that they may have started to rot. You should then give them a good wash to remove any dirt or grime that may be present.

Dried chillies should always have some flexibility. If they're brittle and can be snapped in half then they've been over dried. In all the years I've been drying chilli peppers on sunny windowsills I've never had any turn brittle, regardless of how long they were left in the sun for. This may be due to the climate in the country where I live. If you live in a hotter part of the world then you should keep a close eye on your chillies to ensure they don't become too brittle when being sun-dried. When drying chillies on windowsills I don't slice them in half along the axis beforehand, I just dry them whole. When sun-dried, the colour of the peduncles will eventually change from green to beige. When this happens, it's not necessarily an indication that the drying process is complete. Trying to describe what dried chillies should look and feel like isn't very easy. It's something that comes with experience. The best piece of advice I could give would be to take a visit to your local Indian grocery store and purchase a bag of dried chillies. The look and feel of those chillies is what you're aiming for when drying your own.

When drying chillies on windowsills or in a sunny conservatory you should turn them every couple of days to ensure that all areas get exposed to sunlight. You should also make sure that all of the surfaces used for drying are thoroughly cleaned beforehand. The chillies will gather some household dust during the drying process, but this is not a problem. You can just wipe it off once the drying process is complete. Drying chillies on windowsills or in conservatories can't be any worse than drying them on rooftops or in yards, which is how it's done in some countries. You can also make nice colourful ristras and hang them up in a window to dry. A ristra is an arrangement of chilli peppers held together by string. Obviously, if you live in a sunny part of the world you'll have no problem sun-drying your chillies, which is my preferred method for drying them.

You can also use an electric food dehydrator for drying fresh chillies. Electric food dehydrators are used for drying foods such as vegetables, fruits, meats, fish and herbs. There are different types available, ranging in price from about £60 upwards. Food dehydrating units consist of multi-tiered grid-like trays, a heating element with temperature control and a fan to circulate the air. They work by circulating warm air over an extended period of time, thus gradually drawing out the moisture from foods. Some units come with a built-in timer, allowing you to set the length of time for which you wish the unit to run for. When drying chillies in an electric food dehydrator it's best to slice some varieties in half along their axis before placing them in single layers on the grid-like trays. This helps speed up the drying process. Some thin-walled varieties can also be dried in whole form if desired.

Dried Chilli Peppers
Dried Chilli Peppers

When drying chillies in an electric food dehydrator the temperature should be set to a maximum of 140F/60C and the drying process normally takes between 6 and 12 hours to complete, depending on the amount of chillies and the varieties being dried. The temperature should never exceed 140F/60C. Most people just leave the unit running overnight, and by the following morning the drying process is usually complete. It's important that the warm air is able to circulate freely around the chillies to ensure that they dry correctly. For this reason, you should always make sure that none of them are overlapping or placed on top of each other before switching on the dehydrator.

It's also possible to dry chillies in an oven, providing the oven has a low enough heat setting. Before using an oven to dry chillies, you'll need to make sure that you can set the temperature to 140F/60C. Whenever I've used an oven to dry fresh chillies I've always sliced the chillies in half along their axis before placing them in single layers on baking trays. As with using an electric food dehydrator, it's important that none of them are overlapping or placed on top of each other before placing the trays into the oven. Using an oven to dry fresh chillies can take anywhere from 6–12 hours, depending on the amount of chillies and the varieties being dried. When using an electric food dehydrator or an oven to dry fresh chillies your home will be filled with the aroma of chillies, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on who you ask!

Although fresh chillies can be successfully dried in an oven if one is careful, when using an oven it's also much easier to over dry them, resulting in a brittle product with a slightly toasted aroma. When using an oven, you'll need to check on them frequently, especially after the first couple of hours. Nowadays, I only use the oven to complete the drying process of chillies which I've had laying around on windowsills. Towards the end of the growing season when the sun is less intense, some of the chillies I've had drying on windowsills may still not have dried completely. In such cases, rather than risk losing them to mould, I just finish them off in the oven at 140F/60C. It always works well and takes about 1–2 hours to complete.

Dried chillies should always be stored in airtight containers. I store mine in food bags and then store the food bags inside an airtight plastic container. You can also use airtight glass jars or whatever you have available. Contrary to what some people believe, dried chilli peppers are not a poorer substitute for fresh chillies, and nor do they lose any of their heat or flavour during the drying process. Drying is a perfectly good method for preserving chilli peppers, and often times the chillies will take on a different flavour to the one they once had when fresh.

Preserving Chilli Peppers - Art

How to Pickle Chilli Peppers

Pickling is another great way of preserving some of your chilli harvest. Pickled chillies are delicious on sandwiches or with Indian curries, chili, rice dishes, pasta dishes and pretty much anything else you can think of. They taste great with nachos and can even be used to add another layer of flavour and heat to your favourite salsa. As is the case when freezing and drying chilli peppers, before selecting chillies for pickling the first thing you should always do is inspect them carefully to make sure there aren't any which have turned mouldy or have soft discoloured areas on them, indicating that they may have started to rot. You should then give them a good wash to remove any dirt or grime that may be present.

You'll also need to wash and sterilise all glass food jars and plastic or metal lids to ensure there are no nasties lurking, such as botulism! To do this, I first wash all lids and glass jars in hot soapy water and then rinse them off. I then place the jars into the oven, set the temperature to 150C and switch it on. It's important that the glass jars are placed into the oven before switching it on because this allows them to heat up gradually with the oven. If you place cold glass jars into a hot oven there's a good chance that some of them may crack, rendering them useless and also making it dangerous to clean up. It's also important that none of the jars are touching each other. Once the oven has reached the set temperature I leave the jars in for about 30 minutes without opening the door. After this time, I just switch off the oven and leave them there until needed.

To sterilise the lids, I place them into a pressure cooker with a sufficient amount of water to ensure that each one is covered. I then boil them at full pressure for 30 minutes and allow the pressure to come down naturally. Once the pressure has dropped I just leave them in the cooker with the lid on until needed. Plastic or plastic-coated metal lids will melt in the oven, so therefore I use this method for sterilising lids. Whenever I make chutney, pickles or hot sauce, any utensils I'll need to use after the cooking process, such as spoons, funnels or plastic jugs, are soaked in a Milton solution (1% sodium hypochlorite and 16.5% sodium chloride) for a minimum of 30 minutes. Making up the solution and putting the utensils in soak is one of the first things I always do, and I just leave them in soak until needed.

Botulism is a life-threatening condition caused by toxins produced by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria. The toxins attack the nervous system and cause paralysis. Although rare, instances of botulism have been linked to food canning, and therefore it's an issue not to be taken lightly! It's more of a concern with low-acid foods (foods with a pH above 4.5), but given how we're using undiluted vinegar, which has a pH of 2–3, and that the pickled chillies are not going to be stored in an anaerobic environment, it's going to be less of a concern. However, when canning any products, such as jams, marmalades, chutneys, sauces, jellies, pickles, vegetables or fruits, it's always advisable to practice proper cleanliness and sterilisation. It's also important that once your glass jars and lids have been sterilised that you don't touch the insides with your fingers or any unsterilised utensils. You can never be too overzealous.

Although Clostridium botulinum toxins can be deactivated by boiling, the spores are much more heat-resistant and can survive for several hours even at temperatures of 100C. Therefore, when sterilising glass jars I always set the oven temperature to 150C because this will destroy any spores and deactivate any possible toxins that may be present. Water in a pressure cooker boils at 121C when at 15 pounds per square inch (PSI) of pressure, making it a very effective way to sterilise plastic or plastic-coated metal lids. I'm not advising anyone on how to sterilise glass food jars and lids, but the above methods are what I always use when making chutneys, pickles and hot sauces. In some cases, after filling and sealing the jars I submerge them in water and boil them vigorously for about 30 minutes.

Pickled Chilli Peppers
Pickled Chilli Peppers

When it comes to making the pickling solution different sources have slightly different suggestions. Some suggest mixing together vinegar, water, sugar, salt and spices and then bringing the solution to a gentle simmer for several minutes until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Others suggest mixing together vinegar, sugar, salt and spices and then leaving the solution sit for several weeks to allow the flavour from the spices to be infused into the vinegar. Personally, I prefer to keep things simple. Not only do I not dilute the vinegar with water, I don't add spices or simmer the solution either. All I do is add half a teaspoon (5g) of coarse sea salt and one rounded teaspoon (10g) of granulated sugar to 500ml of distilled white vinegar and then stir the mixture until both have dissolved. This takes about a minute. I then decant the vinegar solution into a glass bottle and use as required.

How much sugar and salt to add is entirely down to personal preference. Personally, half a teaspoon of salt and one teaspoon of sugar is sufficient enough for my liking, and my pickled chillies always taste great! Some sources even suggest using as much as six tablespoons of sugar and three tablespoons of salt to just one litre of vinegar! The type of spices commonly used when making pickling solution are mustard seed, allspice, peppercorns, bay leaf, fennel seed, coriander seed, clove, cinnamon and chilli flakes. As much as I love spices and use them regularly in my cooking, I don't believe they belong in everything. Some people may choose to only use one or two spices in their pickling solution and others may choose to use more. It's mostly down to personal preference.

Once your glass food jars are cool enough to handle you can then start filling them with your chillies of choice. However, you should leave about a two centimetre space between the chillies and the top of the jar to ensure that the chillies can be fully submerged in the vinegar solution, thus preventing spoilage. Small fruited varieties, such as Cumari Pollux and Chiltepin, can be pickled whole, which is what I always do. Thankfully, there's no need to pierce each one beforehand, unless you want to of course. When pickling Chiltepins or any other small fruited wild varieties some people also like to leave the peduncles attached. However, the peduncles are not supposed to be eaten. It just gives you something to hold on to when eating the chilli.

Varieties, such as Tabasco, Peruvian White Habanero, Inca Red Drop and Yellow Jelly Bean Habanero, can be pickled whole but should be pierced with a sharp knife beforehand to allow the vinegar solution to reach inside. The same goes when pickling larger fruited varieties in whole form, such as Pepperoncini, Pimientos de Padron and Jalapeño. Providing you have large enough jars and a sufficient amount of vinegar, any chillies can be pickled in whole form if desired. However, for the sake of practicality it's better to slice or chop them before pickling in order to make the most of the jar space.

It's also worth mentioning here that once pickled, unripe chillies have a crispier texture than ripe chillies. If you plan on pickling unripe chillies then they will be fine in the vinegar solution for several months. However, if you plan on pickling ripe chillies then it's best to start eating them after about four weeks because after this time they start to turn soft. This is especially true for the fleshier types, such as Jalapeño and Rocoto.

Once you've filled the jars with your chillies of choice, pour in the vinegar solution, making sure that the chillies are fully submerged. Screw on the lids and place a small sticker onto each jar or lid and write the date in which the pickling process was started. I normally wait about four weeks before I start eating them. If you're using metal lids you'll need to place three or four layers of parchment part over the top of each jar before screwing on the lids. This is necessary because after a couple of weeks the acetic acid in the vinegar may start corroding the metal. If you need to do this, cut and fold the parchment paper and then place it into the oven when sterilising the jars. This will then sterilise the parchment paper also. After a couple of days, check and make sure that the chillies are still submerged in the vinegar solution. The vinegar level may drop slightly once the chillies have absorbed some of the solution. If this happens just top up the jar(s) with a sufficient amount of the vinegar solution until the chillies are submerged once again.

Once you've eaten all the pickled chillies you'll also be left with some nice spicy vinegar, which you can either use on your chips (fries to those of you across the pond) or use to pickle more chillies. You can even use it to pickle any leftover pieces of chopped vegetables you may have, such as carrot, onion, spring onion, celery, beetroot, cauliflower and green beans. After just a few weeks, you'll also have some nice spicy pickled mixed vegetables too. Pickling is a great way of preserving some of your chilli harvest. You can even grow some varieties just for pickling. The only regret I always have when making pickled chillies is that I never seem to make enough! 😁