What do I do with all these chillies? This is the time of year when you may be wondering what to do with bushes and bushes of chillies: eat them all, give them away/sell them, preserve them (vinegar and/or sugar), freeze or dry them. This entry is about drying them - dried chillies are really marvelous for all sorts of reasons.
Flavour and smell: A chilli can conjure flavours from thin air when they are dried. The most common flavour that develops from a 'large red' chilli is that of raisons - some say Christmas cake. Visit our farm some time and ask if you can stick your head in a tub of dried mixed red chillies! We often invite customers to have a sniff, and they are always amazed. We dry another chilli (Aji Limon) that has a very strong citrus flavour when fresh, but when you dry it, it looks, smells and tastes like little dried bananas (only hot)! To really appreciate the range of flavours from dried chillies and how they can be used, Mexican cuisine is the place to start.
Asthetics: If you dry chillies slowly, i.e. with a gentle heat, they will look really alluring: the dazzling orange of dried Habaneros, the ruby-red and 'leather' texture of Ring-of-Fire cayenne and the iridescent sparkle of dried Numex Twilight! We have a few photos in our library of dried chillies with back lighting - you can see the veins and seeds inside, and they look really special. Dried chillies can be used in all sorts of decorative ways - we have supplied dried chillies for wedding button-holes, for example. They look great at Christmas too.
Which chillies to dry? Some chilli varieties dry better than others. Of the chillies we dry, Ring of Fire (cayenne type), Aji Limon, Habanero and Piri Piri are the easiest. All of these types have reasonably thin walls to the fruit. Other types can be difficult to dry well (i.e. slowly): Jalapeno and Santa Fe Grande - both of these have thick flesh and are more commonly pickled or smoked and then dried.
Chilli drying techniques. You will need a warm, dry, well ventilated atmosphere for chillies to dry well. Too much heat will scorch the chillies and give them a bitter flavour. Not enough ventilation may result in the chillies rotting and leaving you with a gooey and very smelly mess. Too much humidity, and the chillies will dry very, very slowly. We find that a temperature about 40c-50c is about right. To generate enough ventilation, you may need to use a fan. The chillies should be treated to the best circulation of air you can manage, so spread them thinly (particularly larger ones) and check them regularly to make sure none have gone gooey.
Drying chillies in the home. When we were starting out with the chilli farm, we used all sorts of location around the house to dry chillies: over radiators, over a Rayburn, in the warming-oven of the Rayburn and on trays set over light bulbs. When we had a lot of chillies to dry at once, we added a desk fan to the setup to help with ventilation.
Storing dried chillies. Keep them in an air-tight container (or at least 'moisture-tight') and away from strong light. They will lose their sparkle eventually, but will retain their flavour and colour much better than ground chilli powder.