Thursday, September 16, 2010

Homegrown Ancho Chili Powder

I suspect that everyone who cooks on a regular basis for many years on end develops some favoritism in the spices and seasonings department.  I certainly have.  I'm extremely partial to garlic, fresh sage, cardamom, and ancho chili powder - though they rarely all make it into the same dish.  I've been chipping away at the garlic gap for a few years now, and have seen harvest of ten pounds or more for the last couple of years.  Fresh sage is only in season for about six months of the year, though preserving it as a compound butter does help extend the joy.  Cardamom is entirely out of my hands, but ancho powder has been tantalizingly near since I started gardening seriously.

First, a definition.  An ancho chili pepper is botanically one and the same as a poblano chili.  It becomes an ancho chili when it is smoked and dried.  Additionally, I'm pretty sure that the chili only classifies as an ancho after it has been allowed to ripen on the plant from its early green color to a deep red.  Only then is it smoked and dried, and, at times, powdered for ease of use in the kitchen.  Poblanos/anchos are quite mild as chili peppers go.  They are noted more for their marvelously rich flavor than for powerful heat.  This means you run no risk of dispersing mustard gas-like irritants into the air while drying them.  However, you should still wear gloves when cutting them up.  They pack enough of a punch to let you know about it should you get the oils on sensitive skin, or worse yet, eyes or mucus membranes.

My first attempt at making ancho chili powder came last year.  It was an utter failure.  I duly waited for the chilies to turn red, then smoked them whole and strung them up to finish drying in a cool dim room of the house.  Big mistake.  Though they looked fairly well on their way to drying when they came out of the smoker, there was still sufficient moisture inside to allow them to molder from the inside out.  Compost.  Our climate, at least last year, wasn't hot enough to allow chilies to dry down unaided inside the home.

This year I started with a different approach.  I left the peppers whole, but cut several long slits in the sides before putting them in the smoker.  This helped speed the drying somewhat, and also allowed for better penetration of the smoke.  But it still took far too long to dry the peppers.  And I found the seeds of the chili made for a rustically uneven texture after grinding.  Scratch that approach.  So for my second batch, I cut the peppers entirely open, removing most of the ribs and leaving only a small number of seeds intact to add what heat they might.  This worked well. For smoking material, the apple wood chips from our own apple tree give a marvelous flavor.  But other fruit or hardwood chips would probably work just as well.  Can you imagine it?  A patchwork quilt of homegrown chili powders across the land, each one imbued with distinctive terroir!

The smoked pepper slices needed about 24 hours of further drying in a dehydrator.  This was accomplished over two days, with the dehydrator situated on the driveway.  The Excalibur dehydrator has a temperature control, so I figure I save energy by placing the box where it's already pretty hot from the sun.  The fan still needs to run of course, but I doubt much energy is required to nudge the temperature up to 125 F, which is about optimal for the peppers.  When done drying the peppers should be just barely pliable.  They lose about 85% of their weight through trimming and dehydrating.

From this state, some sources recommend "toasting" the dried chilies in a dry skillet, to crisp them up just a bit more before pulverizing.  I omit this and simply put the freshly dried chilies into a food processor.  This produces a coarse grind.  After that, it's a question of my patience and free time.  I have a spice grinder which can take the relatively coarse results from the food processor down to significantly finer powder.  But if I want to be really finicky, I have to screen that powder through a very fine mesh and reprocess whatever doesn't pass through the screen.  I've troubled myself to make only a very, very small quantity of this finely textured ancho chili powder.  And I rarely cook anything in which the exact texture of a powdered spice is going to affect the outcome of the dish.

My homemade ancho has a much stronger aroma than any powder I've been able to purchase.  It also has a tendency to clump a bit; so I wonder whether commercial products add an anti-caking agent, or whether they simply use a different processing technique.  I use ancho powder in bean dishes, on quesadillas, and even to flavor the butter I drizzle over our homegrown popcorn.  (I know you popcorn purists will cry, "Sacrilege!"  But give it a fair shake at least once - that's all I'm saying.)  Sometimes I'll even sneak it into futomaki in place of togarashi; ancho's flavor combines very well with toasted sesame oil.  From a pound of whole poblano peppers I get about 1/3 cup of finished chili powder.  I doubt we'll generate a year's supply from the three plants that have done well in this year's heat.  I estimate we'd need double that number in a good year to keep us in ancho powder till the season rolls around again.


Anonymous said...

I know what we are having for pot-laundry room snack tonight --popcorn with ancho chili powder, baby! I love chile powder on my popcorn, and am so glad the ancho powder on peocorn. I am salivating in anticipation.
Still no sign of the jam! Arghh.

Jennifer Montero said...

Kate - that's absoltuely fascinating and a really informative post! I feel like I could try it myself (after having made the moulding not-quite-dry chilis myself and been disheartened). I LOVE poblanos and just secured a second-hand polytunnel so chilis are a go next year.

After the mouldy chilis incident, I wondered about a dehydrator. Do you find yours is worth having, or does it gather dust in your pantry now?

Hazel said...

I must be more adventurous with types of chilli. They tend to just be 'red' or 'green' or 'scotch bonnet/habenero' and I don't thin k I'm alone in the UK. Named chilli pepper varieties it will be in 2011!

meemsnyc said...

I am so impressed that you make your own chili powder! Wow!

Anonymous said...

Well, I dried hot peppers this year, too. I tried the stringing while whole method and had mixed results.
We've recently moved, and here we have a walk-in attic which I have been using instead of my dehydrator. It works great for onions and garlic. I do, by the way, use my dehydrator often enough to be glad I have it. Even in the winter, if I get a good deal on bananas! I make banana chips. I dehydrate inside then, and the heat it generates adds to the heat provided by the furnace.
The attic gets about 125 degrees (F), depending on the temps outside. And here in Oklahoma we've had an incredibly long, hot, dry summer this year.
But I had mixed results with that, too. So I'm going to try your method of cutting them in half next time. I think, though, that I have enough sorted out that dried well that I can use. I bought an electric coffee grinder that I use to grind some of my spices with, and I thought I'd just keep them whole till I need some, then break each one into pieces into the grinder as I need them. May have to rethink when I get around to trying it, but that's the plan for now.
Keep writing these great posts! Hugs, Ilene

Kate said...

Ali, how was the popcorn? It's getting to be popcorn season again - for me it's always a cool weather thing. That jam'll turn up in the oddest place I'm sure. You might try turning the lights off to look for it, because it might just emit a pink glow.

Jennifer, I can imagine chilies would love a polytunnel in old Blighty. Congrats on scoring one second hand. The use of the dehydrator is definitely seasonal for us, but I feel it's worth having. Some things I just wouldn't preserve any other way, such as the chilies, smoked cherry tomatoes, some fruits, etc. I'll use it in winter too when the remaining garlic goes all sprouty on me. We started with a cheapo model to see if we'd really use it. We did, so we upgraded to a good one and I'm glad we did. Our climate is too humid for reliable air drying for most things.

Hazel! You have a blogger profile! Huzzah! I just know this is going to lead to you blogging soon enough. I'm not terribly adventurous with the chilies I grow, but my goodness, there's a whole world of chilies out there to explore. I look forward to reading about those you choose to experiment with.

meemsnyc, :)

Ilene, it's great that you can use your attic instead of an energy sucking appliance. I use something like your coffee grinder too. It's a Cuisinart grinder for spices and other small stuff. I don't think they make this appliance anymore, and I've had mine for at least 20 years. But the coffee grinder would work just as well, I'm sure.

Chile said...

Last year, my CSA has an overload of fresh red chile peppers (of the Anaheim variety). They let me take a bunch home and I strung them up with lots of space between each in our garage. Most dried well, although I check for any mold before automatically using them.

I just ground a bunch of them up last week to give homemade chile powder to some friends. Yum!

Wendy said...

I made a pot of beans yesterday. My favorite (Wendified) recipe is a kind of southern (Cajun) style red beans, and I usually use commercial chili powder. This time, I added 1 1/2 tsp of your chili powder ... ah! C'est magnifique! My family ate the whole pot of beans, which is not a usual thing.

Thanks, again. I love cooking spicy beans, and the chili powder totally made them!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Welcome home, Kate! Glad to have you back. Like Jen, I'm on the fence about a dehydrator. Like you, I live in a place that's too humid to reliably dry anything more substantial than a Handiwipe. Although I haven't had good luck growing peppers, we're putting in a greenhouse that may change that, and I'm hoping chili powder will be in my future. I think that'll tip the balance in favor of mechanized dehydration.

Your chiles are lovely.

iamsofaking said...

Personally, i have found it easiest to slice the peppers into rings before smoking. Then i just stack them on a wire rack and throw em in the smoker then they are ready for the dehydrator.