Chilli peppers are a fantastic polytunnel crop. Whether you like your chillies hot, or simply want to add some delicate flavour to a dish, there are plenty of different varieties to choose from that you can grow in a polytunnel in the UK. Our peppers and chillies grow guide will help you learn the basics and get a worthwhile harvest. But once you have grown your chillies, it is also important to know what to do with those you have grown. Learning how to dry chillies is one excellent way to preserve your chilli pepper harvest for later use.
Why is Drying Chillies a Good Idea?
When preserving peppers, there are certain characteristics that you will want to preserve. Some preservation methods will not allow you to retain all of these characteristics. When choosing a preservation method you will want to consider the nutritional content of your peppers and chillies as well as their taste. Drying peppers allows you to retain much of the nutritional content of the fruits without losing their delicious flavours. While dried peppers will not taste the same as fresh ones, they can still be used to add flavour and heat to a range of different dishes.
Dried chillies, stored either whole or ground into powder, can store for far longer than fresh chillies, and so can allow you to enjoy spicy food throughout the whole year, rather than just for the harvest period and the period immediately thereafter.
How to Dry Peppers
Chillies are one of the crops that are fairly easy to dry. Smaller, thinner varieties will be easier, however, than larger, plumper varieties like jalepeno peppers. Generally speaking, the higher the water content of a crop, the more careful you have to be in the drying process. The challenge lies in making sure that the chillies dry out before rotting – this is more challenging in a humid climate such as that we generally experience in the UK.
There are three main ways to dry chillies. The first is to dry them naturally, using the sun. The second is to use your oven, and the third is to invest in a specialist dehydrator. We will look at each of these methods in turn to help you decide which one is right for you.
Drying Chillies Naturally
Peppers and chillies can be dried most simply and easily simply by allowing them to air dry in your polytunnel, or somewhere indoors in a sunny, warm spot. Wherever you choose to string up or lay your peppers or chillies to dry, you should make sure the area has low humidity and good ventilation.
This method has a number of benefits, namely:
- it does not require any energy input, and so can be a sustainable choice.
- most chillies can be strung or laid out whole, and do not require initial slicing/ processing, and so require less investment in terms of time. (It is, however, best to cut larger peppers lengthways to speed up the process and allow them to dry out thoroughly inside.)
- you do not need any equipment (or energy) and so this is the cheapest option for drying your chillies.
However, the problem with this method is that it is more of a challenge to avoid problems arising in a cool and humid climate like that we have here in the UK.
A temperature of around 25 degrees is ideal for drying chillies. Any hotter and the chillies can become brittle, while any lower and the chillies or other peppers may rot or become mouldy before they get a chance to dry effectively. If you feel that it may be a struggle to maintain this sort of temperature for the drying process where you live, you may find it easier to use a different method for drying peppers or chillies.
Drying Chillies in an Oven
One option is to use your oven. The time it will take to oven dry chillies or peppers will, of course, depend on the type and size of the chillies or peppers in question. To dry chillies in an oven:
- Put the oven on a low temperature. (around 100-130 degrees).
- Place chillies whole (small peppers) or sliced (large peppers) on a tray.
- Leave chillies in the oven to dry. (Most chillies will need to be in the oven for a long time to dry effectively – usually at least 6 hours and often longer.)
- Once peppers look like they have dried out, check them. Once they crumble or break apart easily in your fingers, they are dry enough to grind for chilli powder, or to store in airtight containers for later use.
Of course, the amount of energy used may be a concern. The cost to the environment will be reduced by using an energy efficient appliance, and also, of course, by using green energy for your household electricity.
Drying Chillies in a Dehydrator
Another option is to consider investing in a dehydrator. A dehydrator speeds up the process of air drying, though it will of course use energy in the process. Whether or not a dehydrator is a more sustainable option will depend on what energy is used to power the device.
Most dehydrators available for purchase are powered by electricity. Of course, if you are using green energy, or generating your own renewable power, this drying chillies will be a sustainable and eco-friendly activity.
There are a range of different dehydrators on the market, and which one you choose will, in part, depend on your budget. While dehydrators are more commonly used in other countries, like the US, it is still easy to get your hands on one right here in the UK. You can find budget options for under £50, though you can spend several hundred pounds on better and more sophisticated models. Chillies are not the only crop from your polytunnel that you can dehydrate, so investing in one of these devices could be a good option for those looking to preserve a wide range of produce.
In addition to considering an electric powered dehydrator, polytunnel gardeners could also consider making a solar dehydrator. Solar dehydrators can be made using scrap materials that you may have lying around, or be able to source for free. Solar dehydrators work better in warmer climates, but could be beneficial even here in the UK during the warmer months – allowing you to speed up air drying and maintain higher temperatures for drying chillies in a UK climate.
Once your chillies are dried, keep out of direct sunlight and away from moisture and use as needed. As mentioned above, you can store them whole, or grind them into powder.
Grinding Dried Chillies
Tear or crumble your dried chillies into smaller pieces and these can then be ground to create chilli powder that is like that you may have previously bought in the shops. To grind your chillies:
- Place the pieces into a mortar.
- Move the pestle in a circular motion, grinding the chilli pieces against the edge of the bowl.
- Continue grinding until you create a coarse powder.
Of course, this method does require time, and elbow grease. The power will also be relatively coarse still, as chillies are fibrous.
(If you chillies are not dry enough, they will mush rather than turning into powder. If this happens, you do not need to throw the resulting mush away, but can instead keep using the mortar and pestle to turn it into a chilli paste.)
In order to create a finer powder, and to speed up the process, you can also consider using a coffee grinder, spice grinder or other kitchen blender gadget to complete the process. Again, as with your oven or with an electric dehydrator, consider energy use and try to opt for green power where possible if you want to be sustainable and eco-friendly.
How Long Will Dried Chillies Keep?
Be sure to label the containers well, with the variety of your chillies along with the date of preparation, so that you know how long you can keep the preserved produce. When properly stored in an airtight container, dried chillies can keep for up to a year, but will be at their fullest flavour and potency when used within 3-6 months.
Dried chillies will be stronger than fresh ones, so use sparingly in your recipes over the coming months. If you have any comments of suggestions to share about how to dry chillies, please feel free to share these below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.