Drying and Smoking Harvests: How to Improve Longevity and Flavor
So, you have been bulking up your knowledge and skills as a grower, and your garden has produced more than you could possibly use. You find yourself with the enviable problem of having a bumper crop! Don’t let your excess go to waste. Consider the following options to increase the longevity and enhance the flavors of your bountiful harvest.
Harvesting Your Herbs and Spices
Getting the best flavor out of your crop starts with when you harvest. Once most herbs, fruits or vegetables have been harvested, their ability to produce sugar declines or stops (although some fruits will continue to ripen off of the vine). Then, the plant will cannibalize its starch reserves, converting them to sugar and thereby increasing the brix, or sugar content, of the plant material.
A scientific study determined that one should harvest hay (or any plant) when the sugar and starch content or total nonstructural carbohydrate (TNC) is at its peak in the plant’s diurnal cycle. This simply means one should always harvest at the end of the day. In the case of indoor growers, this means you should harvest right before your lights go off.
This is because the TNC content is at its lowest point at sunrise/lights-on because the plant used carbohydrates for respiration during the previous night. By harvesting in the evening, or right before the lights go out, the plant will be at its maximum sugar content.
Drying Your Herbs and Spices
Drying your herbs, fruits or vegetables is a great way of keeping your harvest for a longer period of time; it is actually the oldest known method of preserving food. Dried foods are able to be stored for long periods of time because their low moisture content reduces the risk of spoilage.
There are several options for drying your crop, such as kiln or oven drying, food dehydrators or sun drying, but my favorite is slow drying. By slow drying you get the highest conversion of starch to sugar, and the best-tasting product. The keys to slow drying are to make sure your drying space has the right humidity and temperature, slight air movement and to make sure to maintain a high surface area to air ratio of what you are drying. That is to say you don’t want to just pile a bunch of peppers in a bowl and wait for them to dry; that is a surefire way to get a bunch of moldy peppers.
The humidity for slow drying should be maintained at 40 to 60%. The temperature for fruit and vegetable drying should be between 100 to 140°F; this is usually done in an oven or food dehydrator due to high water content (but the lower and slower you dry, the better flavor your crop will have).
The water content of fruits and vegetables can make some types unsuitable for slow drying. For herbs and low-water content vegetables like hot peppers, you can tie them in bunches and hang them from string, or place them on a drying rack or mesh drying screen in a thin layer (remember your high surface area to air ratio) and then maintain the temperature at about 60°F.
Keep herbs out of direct sunlight as this can damage their delicate aroma. Drying can take anywhere from several days to two weeks depending on what you are drying. Again, remember that the slower you dry, the more flavor it will have, but if you do not maintain your temperature, humidity and air movement, you will end up with a bunch of mold.
Smoking Your Herbs and Spices
Smoking is one of my favorite methods of preserving food. Smoking food is believed to date back to the time of cavemen. By exposing food to smoke for a period of time you effectively remove the moisture from the food while simultaneously imparting the smoky flavor of the smoking wood. Popular woods used in smoking include hickory, oak, mesquite and apple wood. Smoking is a great method for drying thin-walled peppers for later use in cooking. You not only preserve the peppers but you create unique flavor combinations perfect for use in chili, salsas and hot sauces. Below are instructions for smoking peppers.
You will need:
- A wood smoker (I used a propane fired wood smoker)
- 1.5 lbs of your favorite hot peppers (I used orange habaneros)
- Wood chips of your preference (I used apple wood)
- Rinse off peppers in warm water and place them on a paper towel to dry fully.
- Soak wood chips in water for a minimum of one hour.
- Pre-heat the smoker to 200 to 225°F.
- Once smoker is at the desired temperature, place the peppers in a single layer directly on the racks
- Place wet wood chips in smoke pan or box.
- Add water or a combination of water and juice to the water pan. This will add moisture to the smoke and slow down the drying process.
- Leave peppers smoking for 2 to 2.5 hours, or until they are dehydrated. You want them to be crisp, but you do not want them to crumble into powder.
- Remove peppers from smoker and allow them to cool.
- Place in a canning jar, vacuum seal bags or place in Ziploc bags until ready to use.