This year I planted a whole passel of peppers: bell peppers that can be harvested as green peppers or allowed to ripen and become red, yellow or orange bell peppers, jalapeno peppers that can be harvested green as standard jalapenos or allowed to ripen to bright red and become hot chilies, cayenne peppers, hot banana peppers, sweet banana peppers, and chocolate bell peppers. But, we can eat only so many peppers as they come in from the garden; especially the hot peppers – a little of those goes a long way! So I needed to find ways to preserve the excess for use later in the year. Here’s what I came up with.
NOTE: When working with hot peppers, wear rubber gloves and be careful not to touch your eyes, mouth or other sensitive parts of your body. The capsaicin in the peppers that gives them their hot flavor is an oily substance that does not wash off your hands and will cause serious discomfort if rubbed into a sensitive area. Even regular skin like your arm or leg can become irritated if you scratch an itch while working with hot peppers. Take care in cleaning up your counters and utensils because the oil can transfer from one item to another or back onto your hands.
When washing your peppers for processing and storage, using a bath of 3 parts water and 1 part white vinegar to soak peppers (or most any vegetable for that matter) for ten minutes will kill 98% of the bacteria on them. Rinse with tap water before processing. This will also extend the time fresh vegetables can be stored in the fridge before they begin getting that slimy feel as a result of bacteria growing on them.
According to The Peppermaster, (and many others who I checked with) green jalapenos do indeed turn red when left on the plant long enough (this came as quite a shock to me when mine did this). Normally the jalapenos are picked while green, smooth and waxy in appearance for appearances sake. But if you want heat… let them mature. When the brown striations appear heat is building. When they mature into red chilies they take on the most heat. I think they also develop a sweeter taste. The Peppermaster says the red jalapenos are also higher in Vitamin C than the green peppers.
Peppers are really easy to freeze because you don’t need to bother with blanching or pealing them first, just cut the peppers up into manageable pieces, remove the webbing and seeds, lay them on a cookie sheet, and place in the freezer. When they are frozen, quickly transfer to a zippered freezer bag, squeeze out as much air as you can and pop them back into the freezer. To prevent freezer burn even more, using a vacuum packing machine to remove all the air greatly extends the life of the frozen peppers.
When vacuum packing I like to package them in portion sized packs; what we would typically use to make a pot of soup or casserole because the vacuum bags don’t reseal. Peppers for short term storage in zippered freezer bags can be larger amounts and we’ll just pull out what we need and put the rest back in the freezer. This is the advantage of freezing the pieces individually before bagging. If you toss the raw peppers into a bag and freeze them, they tend to freeze together into a lump that must be thawed and used en-masse.
Freezing peppers will cause the skins of some peppers to get tough and fibrous, but their skins will slip off easily when they thaw, just don’t dice these peppers. Naturally, when you thaw the peppers they will not be as crisp as the raw peppers, but they will still have all the flavor and can be well used in cooking or sandwiches – they’re just not all that great in salads.
Dehydrating peppers is also easily done and has the advantage of taking up far less space than the frozen variety because they will shrivel considerably as their water content is removed. Once dried, most peppers can be reconstituted by soaking them in hot water and used in cooked dishes, but they will be even squishier than the frozen peppers. Crushed up dried peppers can be used as a spice to add flavor to your cooking. I have not tried this with sweet peppers, but doubt that the flavor would be the same. Adding heat to your meals with crushed, dried hot peppers works very well.
Cayenne peppers can be dried by stringing them, spaced an inch or two apart, on fishing line or light string tied to the green stem part and hanging or by laying the peppers on a paper towel on a cookie sheet and turning them daily. Store the peppers in a relatively cool, dry place while drying. Either method takes several weeks to dry the peppers.
Drying peppers in an oven set at 135° (door propped open a little to let moisture out) or a food dehydrator makes faster work of it and works for all peppers. The fleshier peppers tend to mold before they dry at room temperature. Cut the caps off small peppers to allow the warm air to circulate inside and leave them mostly whole if you like (the seeds and webbing contain a lot of the heat from hot peppers) or cut the peppers open and remove their “innards”.
Sun drying peppers can be done in areas that get strong sunshine for 8 to 10 hours a day. Cut the peppers into strips and lay them on cookie sheets or plastic wrap covered pieces of plywood. This may take a few days; plan to refrigerate them between sun sessions.
Any fleshy pepper (this would exclude Cayenne’s) can be canned. Again, the cooking process will make the resulting peppers softer than the raw peppers, and canning can take away some of the flavor. Canned peppers are good for use in soups, stews, casseroles, and on sandwiches.
Cayenne peppers can be added to canned foods to impart flavor, but will need to be fished out and disposed of when the product is opened.
Peppers can be canned as pickled peppers in a vinegar based brine, or packed in water if you don’t care for pickles. However, if you go the water-packed route you MUST use a pressure canner. Only a pressure canner can heat the contents to the 240° that is necessary to kill the Botulism bacteria that are present in the food and would grow in the anaerobic environment of canned foods to cause serious illness or death. The vinegar used in the pickled versions is acidic enough to kill botulism at the 212° degrees reached with a hot water bath canner.
Canned foods are perfectly safe as long as you are careful to process them correctly, prevent contamination, and get a good, tight seal between lid and jar. If you don’t have one already, get a good canning cookbook as reference on how to process various foods.
Smaller peppers can be canned whole, but be sure to poke three or four holes or small slits in the pepper to allow air to escape and brine or water to enter while processing. Also note that some pepper recipes require the peppers must be HOT when packing the jars and filling with brine; you will want to be boiling up your brine or water while blanching the peppers. Read that recipe carefully before starting!
According to www.JalapenoMadness.com, canning will also cause jalapeno & chili pepper skins to get tough. To remove the skins, roast or blister the peppers before processing. Roasting your peppers on a grill over hickory or apple wood chips adds a delightful smoky flavor to the peppers. Use tongs to turn the peppers frequently just until the skins are blackened evenly (unless you’ve cleaned the peppers already, then leave them skin side down). Don’t overcook them. Remove from grill and cool enough to handle. The skins will now peel right off. Similarly, you can blister the peppers under the broiler of your oven or in a skillet with the burner set on medium high, but you won’t get that roasted pepper flavor. Other recipes for canned peppers did not mention this aspect of jalapenos. I just canned four pints of assorted hot pepper pickles; I’ll let you know if the jalapenos get tough. Or if you’ve done it before, you tell me what to expect.
Be sure you adjust the processing time for either pressure cooked or hot water bath for altitude – higher altitudes need longer processing. Check your canning cookbook for the charts.
If you don’t like the sharp flavor of pickled foods, add some honey or sugar to mellow the taste without diluting the vinegar.
Always use canning or cooking salt, not table salt. Table salt often contains anti-caking additives which cloud the brine and iodine which will darken many foods, including peppers.
Always use bottled 5% vinegar - malt, distilled, wine, cider, spiced all work. Draught vinegars are not strong enough, and unless you’ve had it tested, home-made vinegar is not certain enough for use in canning.
If you choose to add spices to your canning solution or brine, use whole spices, not powered, as these will make your brine cloudy.
Use unchipped enamel, aluminum or stainless steel pans for boiling brine. Copper, brass and iron pans will react with the vinegar, giving it a bad taste.
The vinegar in pickling brine can react with and corrode plain steel canning jar lids, buy the ones with a white coating inside to prevent this.
To preserve your pepper crop through the winter and spring you can dry them, freeze them, can them – or you can do like I’m doing and split up the crop and try some of each method. Whichever you choose, it is best to process your peppers within a couple of days of picking, this will mean processing in small batches as they come in rather that storing them up for large runs at the end of the season.
If you’re like me and love the flavor of peppers in cooking, plant yourself a pepper patch, use what you want of the fresh peppers then pack a peck of pickled peppers (or frozen peppers) for use year round and enjoy!
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