A chipotle pepper is a jalapeno that has been smoked, a food preservation method as old as agriculture itself. With a bumper crop of jalapenos, pimentos and roasting peppers in need of attention, I smoked two batches of peppers in my biochar trench, with wonderful results. Here’s my report.
Last fall, I dug a 1.5-by-8 foot trench in an area that had been overrun with perennial weeds. During the winter, I partially burned two small mountains of brambles and other hard-to-compost woody materials. This summer, I grew a successful crop of winter squash in the refilled trench, and reopened it for my pepper smoking project in mid-September. Some folks disapprove of all open burning, but I think most rural homesteads need a safe place to burn stuff from time to time. At our house, we’re experimenting with filling this need with a thoughtfully managed and monitored biochar trench. The terra preta soils of the Amazon, upon which the concept of biochar is based, were created over many centuries of successive smoulderings, so I am curious as to the long-term effects of fire in the hole.
You can smoke peppers in a covered grill or smoker, but we don’t eat much meat so I have neither. Smoking peppers calls for a cool fire that flavors and dries the peppers (as opposed to cooking them), so I built a small fire in the middle of the trench, and placed pairs of bricks covered with aluminum foil (for cleanliness) at both ends to hold my trays of peppers. I used apple wood saved from pruning, but you can also use hickory, mesquite, or other aromatic woods.
Once the wood was burning well, I partially snuffed the fire with soil, placed the trays of prepared peppers (see below) on the bricks, and covered the trench with a piece of metal roofing. An hour or so later, when I saw only faint wisps of smoke coming from the trench, I restarted the fire with fresh dry twigs and a little more wood. My peppers got a total of three hours of smoking time.
In my first batch, I smoked large strips of jalapeno, roasting and pimento peppers on heat-proof roasting pans. There was no need to oil the pans (the peppers didn’t stick), but I did cover the peppers loosely with aluminum foil. This was mostly to shield them from scattered dirt as I moved the metal cover on and off. It would not be necessary in a smoker or grill.
After smoking for three hours, I continued the drying process in my food dehydrator. The big pieces curled so much that uniform drying was going to take a long time, and I didn’t want to lose smoke flavor from prolonged drying. Besides, the half-dried sweet and sweet/hot peppers tasted like mouthwatering veggie bacon, so I stopped at the half-dry chewy stage and stashed the peppers in the freezer. For my second batch, I cut jalapenos into rings one-third-inch thick. The rings seemed to absorb more smoke flavor than the strips, and they dried faster, too. Within a few hours, the chipotle rings were ready for cool storage in glass jars.
Finishing off smoked peppers in your dehydrator is a very aromatic process best done outdoors. And please be advised: The smoke smell will linger in your dehydrator, even if you give it a good cleaning as soon as you are done. The campfire fragrance will wane after a few days, but why fight it? The batch of spiced apples I dried after the smoked peppers filled the house with the combined aromas of cinnamon and barbecue — of the most delicious aromas of the food preservation season.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.