When I made my own crushed red pepper flakes last summer, I had no idea it would eventually lead me down the road of hot pepper obsession. Ever since I discovered how amazing it is to cook with homegrown red pepper flakes, I have been dreaming and scheming about adding more herbs and more spicy peppers to my garden and preserving plans. Among the many spicy ambitions on my wish list: homegrown ground Cayenne pepper.
Start with dried Cayenne peppers. I like to dry my chilies whole because it doesn’t require any electricity or gas and it’s rather fun to string them up around the kitchen, but you could also remove the stems and insides and use a dehydrator or the oven to get the job done more quickly. Like other peppers grown for spice, Cayenne peppers are thin-fleshed, so they dry rather quickly no matter what method you choose.
If you’re using whole peppers, start by removing the stem end with a pair of kitchen shears. I prefer to clean my peppers out a bit, removing as much of the inner membrane and seeds as will easily fall out, but you could skip this step if you don’t want to mess around with it. I simply give the dry pepper a few gentle squeezes, applying just enough pressure to loosen up the insides, but not too much pressure that the pepper shatters. If done correctly, the insides will fall right out when you turn the pepper upside down over a small bowl, leaving the empty shell of the pepper flesh.
There are a few reasons why I like to clean my peppers out a bit before grinding (other than my deep Type A personality tendencies): sometimes the inner membranes can be a little thick and not so appealing near the stem end of the pepper (more obviously so with larger peppers), and the color of the final product is more vibrant and intense without a lot of seeds mixed in, but my main motivation is to save some of the seeds for next year’s garden. As long as the pepper has been ripened to its final color (red, in this case), the seeds will have matured enough for seed saving. After I have picked out what I need for growing, the extra seeds are added to my jar of crushed red pepper flakes.
The remaining bits of pepper flesh and membrane get sorted out into what will go into the grinder and what can be discarded. Inevitably, I never get it all perfectly separated and some seeds find their way into the grinder, but I don’t get too fussy over it – after all, you could easily throw the whole pepper in and be just fine. There are always a few bits of pepper that are too small to bother picking out of the leftover seed, so they end up in the jar of crushed red pepper flakes, too.
Be sure to handle dried hot peppers with the same care you would use when processing fresh hot peppers. The capsaicin will transfer to your hands (and in turn, anywhere else you touch), so careful hand washing is a must! The fine particles that get into the air during the grinding process will also clean your sinuses out in a hurry and can cause some irritation, so take precautions to avoid breathing in the ground pepper as well.
Using a grinder or mortar and pestle, and working in batches, proceed to grind the pepper to a fine powder. I use an inexpensive coffee grinder, and it takes about 20-30 seconds to break down the pieces of pepper to the perfect sprinkle-able texture. If using an electric grinder, allow the dust to settle for a minute or so before removing the cover.
When satisfied with the texture, carefully transfer the ground pepper to your storage container. A small funnel would be handy if you have one, otherwise a clean piece of plain paper can easily be rolled into a cone to help funnel the powder to its penultimate destination.
Small spice jars are great for storage if you have one, otherwise you can improvise with a half-pint mason jar or any other suitable alternative you have on hand. I’m re-using a little glass spice jar that holds about an ounce of ground pepper (about 25 or so whole Cayenne peppers).
Compared to its store-bought counterpart, homegrown cayenne pepper is more potent and flavorful, and it is perfect for adding a little kick to all kinds of dishes. I’m also looking forward to creating some of my own spice blends with it! When stored in a cool, dry location ground cayenne will last for a long time, but like all spices, it will gradually loose its potency over time.
Want to grow and dry your own Cayenne peppers? The seed is readily available from most seed companies. Each variety will be slightly different in appearance, heat, and size, but all will work for this process. This year I grew Cayenne Long Thin from Baker Creek and have been very happy with the results.