Spice Hunting

Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: Drying Chiles at Home

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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Even with the best of intentions, we can all be forgetful at times. But this isn't always a bad thing. Take my vacation last month. In the midst of frantic work and packing, I managed to forget about a few Thai bird chiles languishing in the refrigerator. The tiny, green, thin-skinned firebombs were destined for a salad I neglected to make, so they sat, shriveling, for the better part of a week. Then came an 11-day trip spent in torta delirium, whereupon they were completely forgotten.

I returned home to discover that my shriveled chiles had dried to a near-petrified state. A whiff confirmed their flavor was very much active—the most rich, verdant, fresh aroma I've ever encountered in a chile. I bought a new batch of fresh bird chiles at the market and tried it again. A little more than two weeks later, I had enough to store in a jar for a rainy day—without any effort.

My accidental fridge drying is by no means a perfect method. Sure, the cold, dry-ish atmosphere is conducive to drying food, but fruits and herbs tend to rot before they dry out. My bird chiles had a high surface area-to-mass ratio as well as thin skins, both of which promote the rapid loss of moisture. Larger, thicker-skinned jalapenos or poblanos, for example, won't dry this way.

But my incidental preserving hit two points home for me. First, it's well within the reach of home cooks to dry their own chiles. Second, I had a ready, dirt-cheap source of dried green chiles, which aren't that that available in my part of the country.

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The surprisingly common Thai bird chile. Shown here fully ripe, though usually available green, unripened. [Photograph: woodleywonderworks on Flickr]

The drying process for many green chiles often involves heat, which does great things for sun-baked and smoky flavors but also destroys the fresh, grassy notes of unripe peppers. Thai bird chiles are an easy and easy-to-find source of this grassy goodness (every market I've ever been to has a big tub of these next to the jalapenos). To fridge-dry them, rinse them under water and pat dry. Arrange them in an empty part of your fridge where they'll have lots of space for air flow (I rested mine on top of the egg holder cups in the door of my '70s-tastic Kelvinator). Leave to dry for two to three weeks, or until deep wrinkles form and the chiles are hard and dry to the touch. Fully dried chiles should still be pliant and have no off-aromas (discard them if they do). You can store them in a large, airtight container away from light and heat for several months, though the flavor will dissipate with time.

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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Once your chiles have dried, you can grind them to a powder (throw out the seeds first!) to add to green chili, spice rubs, oil-based pasta sauces, and the like. Their fresh peppery flavor is an interesting change-up to the juicier, fruitier flavors of ripe or heat-treated chiles. In preparation for picnic season, I rubbed my chiles onto buttermilk-brined chicken legs before dredging them with flour and frying them. I would advise you to try the same; the grassy heat was a fitting compliment to chicken (which I find clashes, unless stewed, with ripe chiles), and it brought out the twang in the buttermilk.

This is hopefully only the beginning of a summer of chile preserving for me. If you want to dig deeper into drying chiles, this guide covers the basic methods and tools you'll need.

So how about it, Serious Eaters? Ever use dried green chiles, or do you dry your own?

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