Preserving extra peppers
For this, there are a few choices, depending on how you plan to use them.
No preserving method (except perhaps freeze-drying which requires expensive equipment) will keep or return the pepper to it's fresh state, so while you won't find yourself making pico de gallo with preserved peppers any time soon, most other recipes like sauces, meals or baked goods can make use of preserved peppers just as easily as fresh ones.
Freezing: this is best if you plan to use them in the near future, as they can easily get freezer burn. it is however, the quickest method to save your peppers for later use. Peppers don't benefit from blanching (dipping the item in boiling water before shocking them in ice water) so they're even easier to freeze than most veggies.
- Some websites say to just freeze the whole pepper, but I do recommend removing the stem and cutting the pepper in half. This makes them easier to use later since the stem is already removed, and you should always check hot peppers for infiltration of pest larvae since hot peppers are very susceptible to these pests despite the high amounts of capsaicin!
- For easy removal from the bag later, lay them cut side up on a tray and freeze, then place in a zipper bag when frozen. If you don't care if they stick together, just chuck them in the bag!
- Press the bag to exclude as much air as possible, or use a straw or vacuum sealer to remove even more air.
Canning (vinegar packing): Packing the peppers in vinegar and canning them is my favorite way to preserve peppers. This softens them up, but being in the vinegar makes them a quick toss-in to make hot sauces. However, since they're stored in vinegar, they may not be best for baked goods or other recipes that don't need a lot of acid. Before attempting this method, be sure you understand the principles of home canning and how to do it right. The USDA center for home preservation (Complete Guide to Home Canning, guide #6) has a few recipes for canning sweet and hot peppers that add flavorings from spices, sugar and garlic. However, I prefer to pack mine plain so I don't have to think about flavors already in the jar when I later use the pickled peppers in a recipe. So I remove the flavorings and pack in pure vinegar (both modifications are considered safe since they increase acid content in a jar).
- To help reduce bacteria before canning, blanching or blistering the skins is needed. I prefer blanching since it's less work than trying to de-skin. Put whole peppers into a pot of boiling water for about a minute, then transfer to a clean plate. Boiling them whole avoids capsaicin oil loss. And really, use a clean plate and not your wooden cutting board which could reintroduce bacteria.
- Remove the stems and cut lengthwise into thirds or fourths, or cut into rings. (Though, if you were trying to tone-down some of the really hot peppers, switching the order of these steps would boil away a bit of the capsaicin).
- While you're doing this step, get some white vinegar simmering in a clean pot.
- Pack the pepper slices into sterilized 4 oz or 8 oz jars, but not too tightly.
- Bring the vinegar to a boil and cover the peppers with the hot vinegar.
- Remove air bubbles, leave 1/4 inch headspace, wipe rims, adjust lids and rings. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove from water, let cool and check seals before storing. Always check seals before using.
(**While peppers can technically be pressure canned in water to avoid the vinegar flavor, the delicate super-hots usually come out very mushy, so I don't recommend pressure canning. But if you really want to try, check out USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning #4)
Dried peppers - three options below. Dried peppers can be crushed into flakes, ground into powder using a spice grinder, or left in large pieces and reconstituted with hot water when needed. Dried peppers probably have the most versatile uses compared to freezing or pickling, but the process is more time-intensive.
Dehydrating: Using a food dehydrator with a heating element (not just the air circulators) has the benefit of longer storage that won't freezer burn, but requires a little more effort and an appliance.
- Remove the stem and cut in half, and lay cut side up on your food dehydrator's trays, then run the machine according to the appliance directions. If you tossed the manual in the recycling long, long ago, run the dehydrator at 115F for around 4 hours.
- Check if dry, and keep running, checking every hour until dry.
- Store in air-tight containers. Mason jars are great for this.
Oven drying: this will yield similar results as dehydrating, without the extra appliance.
- Remove the stem and cut in half, and lay cut side up on a baking tray or piece of foil.
- To maintain the flavor as close to 'original' as possible, run the oven at the absolute lowest setting and check for dryness every hour. Alternatively, you can play around with changing the flavor by drying them at a slightly higher temperature, like 200F or 250F. This will start some caramelization of the sugars (browning) and lead to changes in the flavor of the pepper, potentially adding more complexity.
- Very new or efficient ovens keep in air better, and the moisture may not leave the oven. While great for making bread, this is not good when you're purposefully trying to dry out something, so highly efficient ovens may need to be left cracked open, or opened up to all moist air to escape every 15 min or so.
Air drying: this does not work well if you're in a humid climate (such as the south east US), or if you keep your humidity at comfortable levels your home. But if you know you live in a drier climate, such as the southwest US, you can just hang those peppers up to dry! Use butcher's twine to tie around the stem or use a needle to pull thread through the stem, and keep add peppers like you're making a garland (time to decorate the kitchen!). Hang them in a dry area, around 50% humidity or less, but the lower the better. Only do this though if you know the humidity of the area you're hanging them, and if you can verify that the humidity stays the same (or lower) thorough the day. If the humidity creeps up, like with a change in the weather, it can spoil the peppers. Instead of hanging, you can also remove the stem and cut in half, and lay cut side up on an air-circulating dehydrator or dehydrating rack.