You could call this week’s main recipe a food fail. A couple of years ago, I set out to make homemade sriracha. I had grocery bags full of hot peppers that season, and I thought some were destined to become chipotles for Grilled Tomato Chipotle Salsa and others would be fermented to replicate the flavor of the classic Thai chili sauce and paste.
Then we started smoking chilies and attempting to find the perfect balance of smoke and heat. Suddenly I had grocery bags of smoked chilies—which would not ferment. Even at the low temperatures used for smoking, the heat was high enough to kill off the natural bacteria in the peppers that are essential for fermentation. But I was too stubborn not to try. And although my chili paste never fermented, it was delicious.
So now I make Home-Smoked Chili Paste every year and have yet to miss that bottle sriracha on my shelf. I’ve since learned that adding a culture could allow me to smoke and then ferment, so expect more experimentation down the road. But for now, what could be called a food fail has turned into a favorite kitchen staple.
1 pound whole chili peppers
While wearing gloves, cut the stem from the end of each pepper and then cut a slit down one side, butterflying the chili. Scrape out the membrane and seeds using a paring knife or grapefruit spoon. Lay the peppers in a single layer on a grill topper or other rack that will prevent the peppers from falling through the cooking grate. Set aside.
Prepare your charcoal grill or other smoking device (see the opening note). Place a piece of wire mesh screening on one edge of the grill’s charcoal grate. Soak about 2-1/2 cups of wood chips in water for at least 10 minutes. Light 12 briquettes and, once they are coated in gray ash, lay them on the mesh screen. Top the briquettes with about 1 cup of soaked wood chips, and then slide the cooking grate in place above it, leaving the hinged part open for access to the fuel source. Lay the grill topper loaded with chilies on the cooking grate. Cover the grill with its lid, with the vent on the opposite side from the mesh screen of fuel. Leave this vent open just enough for the smoke to curl through it.
Check the grill after 20 minutes. The temperature should be around 175°F; colder is slower yet fine, but close the vent slightly if the temperature is above 200°F. If the wood is no longer smoking, open the lid and add another 1/2 cup of soaked chips. Continue adding a similar amount of chips every 20 minutes or so to maintain the smoke, until you have used all of the soaked wood and the briquettes have burned down; this should take about 1-1/2 hours.
Remove the peppers from the grill and let them cool if you plan to blend them into Home-Smoked Chili Paste (see below) or a Thai curry paste or to simply freeze them in a zip-close freezer bag for winter use. Makes about 6 ounces.
Tips & Tricks
- Peppers vary widely in size and heat, but I think all are delicious smoked. We smoke everything from mild Anaheims to firecracker-hot Thai chilies, so play with what you have or can find, even combining several varieties.
- Regardless of their heat level, the capsaicin in peppers is potent. When working with large quantities of chilies, I highly recommend wearing gloves and washing bare hands thoroughly after handling the peppers—particularly before rubbing your eyes or using the toilet. We take the entire project outdoors; in our small cabin, just the air can smell and feel peppery if we clean a pound of chilies inside.
- I like the heat generated by a dozen briquettes, because it starts to caramelize the sugars in the peppers and bring out their flavor. Use fewer briquettes if you want a longer, colder smoke. It’s easier to maintain a steady low temperature with a combination of soaked wood chips and pressed briquettes than with lump charcoal; I like apple wood chips over Kingsford Professional Briquets because of the former’s light flavor and the latter’s short ingredient list, but there are many options. Just avoid products that are self-igniting (they contain petroleum).
- It’s a challenge to light just a few briquettes, even with a chimney. Since we have a woodstove, we find it easiest to start a small woodfire in the stove, slide in the briquettes, and let the woodfire light them, leaving them in place until they are coated in gray ash. We use a fire poker to slide the briquettes into a fire shovel and carefully transfer them to the grill.
- A pound of peppers about fills a grill topper on my grill, but I often stack a couple of these racks to smoke multiple batches at once. In a pinch, you can smoke on aluminum foil, but to allow air circulation while preventing tiny chilies from falling in the ash as they dry and shrink, grill toppers are worth the investment. So is a hinged cooking grate; when you’re regularly replenishing your smoke source, you’ll quickly tire of unloading the entire grill or attempting to push wood chips through the grate.
- If you want to store the peppers at room temperature or grind them for powder, light another dozen briquettes and continue the slow drying process until the peppers are leathery and break apart easily; this can take several rounds and 12 or more hours, which you can spread over a couple of days. Store these fully dried chilies in a glass jar with a screw-on lid in a dark place.
Twice as Tasty
The complicated part of making smoked chili paste is the smoking. But the results are well worth the effort, especially if you grow your own peppers. The variety of pepper, choice of smoking wood, and even smoking temperature will give your chili paste a unique final flavor. The paste itself is so easy, you can smoke several chili varieties and have a range of heat profiles for different uses.
That said, my preferred peppers for chili paste are Cyklons, an heirloom variety that you’d likely need to grow from seed. Their heat profile is not as fiery as that of red Fresno peppers, which are becoming common in grocery stores and already have a slight smoky flavor when raw, making them another delicious smoked paste option. Or choose the ubiquitous jalapeno, which when smoked and dried becomes a chipotle pepper.
Home-Smoked Chili Paste
2 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 teaspoons white wine vinegar (5% acidity)
Add the cooled Smoked Chilies to a food processor and puree for about 2 minutes, until they have broken into smaller pieces. Add the garlic, salt, and vinegar and process for about 4 minutes, until the mixture forms a smooth paste; interrupt the processing as needed to scrape down the sides of the container.
Scoop the sauce into one 8-ounce or two 4-ounce glass jars. Place a paper towel over the top and secure it with a rubber band. Let the jar or jars sit at room temperature overnight and up to 24 hours for the flavors to blend. Remove the paper towel, seal each jar with a lid, and transfer the paste to the refrigerator. The paste will keep well for many months, and the flavor will continue to mature. Makes about 7 ounces.
Tips & Tricks
- When I’m planning to make chili paste, I only smoke the peppers until they are semidried. If I haven’t convinced you to smoke your own peppers, buy fully dried and smoked ones, like chipotles, for your paste. Break the peppers open, shake out the seeds, and then cover them completely with boiling water. After 20–30 minutes, they should be soft enough to use. Remove them from the water and check the weight, adjusting the recipe’s proportions as needed.
- Although I’m a fan of the immersion blender, you really do want a food processor here. The semidried, smoked chilies are quite potent, and you’ll appreciate having the processor’s lid on as you work. Fortunately, my immersion blender comes with an enclosed food processor attachment perfect for this small project.
- Grab your Home-Smoked Chili Paste whenever you would reach for sriracha or hot smoked paprika powder. It’s one of the elements that makes my Cheesiest Mac and Cheese so special, and it provides a key flavor in Asian White Bean Dip. I also like to stir it into chowders and soups, such as Italian Broccoli–Pasta Soup. And it adds a special bit of zing to dressings or dipping sauces for Zucchini Pancakes with Fresh Asian Salad and Summer Rolls.
Twice as Tasty will be on the road in October! If you live outside Montana, here’s your chance to learn more in a Twice as Tasty workshop—in your own kitchen, among friends, and with my personal help. For more details, click here.