Preserving Chilies

Sambal Oelek (Chile Paste). Get the recipes in The Complete Guide to Pickling by Julie Laing.
Sambal Oelek (Chile Paste). Photograph by Andrew Purcell.

Just like the cabbage I wrote about last week, chilies feature heavily in my pickling cookbook, The Complete Guide to Pickling. I pickle and preserve them on their own in recipes ranging from Beer-Pickled Jalapenos to Spicy Vinegar and from quick-pickled Chile Rings to fermented hot sauces. I also drop them into many of the savory pickles in the book and even a few of the sweeter ones, like Jerk-Spiced Banana Pickles.

Do I preserve so many chilies because we grow more than 40 pepper plants every year, or do we grow that many plants so I have boxes of chilies? It’s hard to say, but at least half of our homegrown peppers carry a mild to a fiery heat. Jalapenos and poblanos take up much of the hoop house space, but I bump up the Scoville scale with serranos, bird’s eye chilies, habaneros, and cayenne peppers.

The mix varies each year—as does the quality and size of the harvest. After buying and pickling pepperoncini to test for a new recipe for the cookbook, I grew some of these mild chilies for the first time last year. They started turning red when they were smaller than my thumb, so I pickled them in pint jars. This year, a plant from Swan River Gardens has grown taller than the cherry tomato cages and produced peppers longer than my index finger. Two half-gallon jars are stuffed full in my fridge, and more peppers are ready to harvest.

With such prolific plants, I have plenty of peppers to let sit for weeks in ferments but also need to process some quickly and efficiently. That’s where a simple chili paste comes in. It takes just 5 minutes to make a small jar that lasts for weeks in the fridge. I make small batches of this Southeast Asian staple throughout the harvest season and well into fall as chilies continue to ripen in bowls, throwing together a fresh jar each time I polish off the last one.

Ready to give it a try? Full details are in the recipe, taken straight from The Complete Guide to Pickling, but here are the basics:
You need just 3 ingredients: chilies, salt, and vinegar.
1. Stem and halve the chilies.
2. Toss everything into a food processor.
3. Pulse and use.
Sambal Oelek (Chile Paste). Get 125 pickle recipes in The Complete Guide to Pickling by Julie Laing.

Tips & Tricks
  • Many people discover this red paste in a green-capped jar with a rooster emblazoned on the label. You can skip additives and make your own blend that still keeps for weeks for a fraction of the cost, even if you buy the chilies from a local farmer. You also get to control the heat and flavor, from milder jalapenos or smoky Fresno peppers to ultraspicy Thai chilies.
  • I like Diamond Crystal kosher salt for many pickled foods, but other pure salts—meaning “salt” is the only ingredient on the label—can be used instead. The Diamond salt is quite flaky, so you’ll likely need far less salt from any other brand.
  • I use rice vinegar for its hint of flavor, rather than harsh distilled white vinegar. Since the vinegar isn’t diluted by water in this recipe and the paste is stored in the fridge, you can experiment with other types.
  • You can easily turn this paste into chili–garlic sauce by adding a clove or more of fresh garlic. Go for more flavor by adding a splash of lime juice or some grated lime zest or coconut. In The Complete Guide to Pickling, I include a recipe for the other hot sauce in the rooster-labeled trinity: Scratch-Made Sriracha.

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Grilled Chipotle Fish with Quick Salsa from The Pickled Picnic by Julie Laing.
Grilled Chipotle Fish with Quick Salsa from The Pickled Picnic. Photograph by Brenda Ahearn.

Twice as Tasty

The Complete Guide to Pickling and The Pickle Picnic by Julie Laing. Learn more at TwiceasTasty.com.Pickling isn’t the only way I preserve chilies. Tiny ones like cayenne peppers simply air-dry on a tray on a bookshelf; larger chilies can be strung and hung to dry. I usually add the step of smoking the chilies until they are fully dehydrated, letting them become leathery and crisp but also picking up another layer of flavor.

When I don’t want to spend quite as much time tending coals, I turn fully smoked but only partly dry chilies into a smoky paste. It takes a bit more effort than Sambal Oelek, but the flavor is well worth it.

Once chili paste, fresh and smoky, is in the fridge, I reach for it for a huge range of dishes. I’ve included some new ones in my companion digital collection, The Pickled Picnic: I pair it with feta for a fusion bruschetta. I toss it with olives for a spicy snack and smear it on grilled corn as a side. Dried smoked chilies get fried with garlic and bean sprouts, and chili paste gets stirred into a marinade for mahi-mahi or swordfish. And that’s just in the new recipe collection. Check out my new recipe page on the blog, and you’ll find plenty of other ways to use chili paste.

Get the books—and check out my newly redesigned book page! Click here to order a personally signed, packaged, and shipped copy of The Complete Guide to Pickling directly from me. I share more tasty ways to use pickles in The Pickled Picnic, a digital collection in an easy-to-read PDF format. It’s available exclusively through Twice as Tasty.

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