Late summer is a busy time for anyone who gardens, hunts, or both. As the days get shorter, the preparation for the upcoming hunting season takes on more urgency, and my mind wanders from lures to broadheads to ceviche to chili. At the same time, the garden is in full production mode and I’m scrambling to keep up with harvesting and preserving as much as I can. Luckily, these two events can complement each other perfectly. A pre-hunting season bumper crop of peppers is a great excuse for making your own chili powder.
Chili powder is one of those ubiquitous spice blends. Whereas chile powder only includes pure ground chiles, chili powder incorporates more ingredients for a complex flavor experience. It’s a staple in kitchen pantries and a key ingredient in the dish that might represent hunting season the most: chili.
While most of the generic chili powder you can buy at the grocery store is mild and lacks any punch, this homemade version is bold, intense, and rich with flavor that you won’t find in any spice aisle. Making your own chili powder right before chili season is a great way to preserve your peppers and ensure you have arguably the best game meat spice available for the cooler months.
The main reason generic chili powders (as well as most pre-ground spices) are lackluster is because they’re old. Spices lose flavor and intensity as they age, especially once they’ve been ground. The best way to keep your spices actually spicy is to grind them just before you use them. While this is not always convenient or possible, spices ground a few weeks or even a few months beforehand will still have more flavor and punch than a jar of spice that has been aging on a shelf or in a storage room for an unknown length of time.
Chili powder is a generic term, and blends vary from brand to brand and kitchen to kitchen. But at its core, it’s a blend of mild and hot peppers, onion, garlic, and some herbs. A proper balance of pepper flavor and heat will make this versatile chili powder the perfect starting point for any chili, barbeque, grilled fish, or steamed shrimp.
I like to make my chili powder blend with whatever is currently growing in the garden. This changes year to year but the core ingredients remain the same—a mix of sweet peppers and jalapeños. This year's bumper crop consisted of jalapeños, sweet ajvarskis, and classic bell peppers. The process is simple: dry the peppers, herbs, onions, and garlic, then grind and mix. An additional step that I like to take is to smoke the jalapeños before drying them to make chipotle peppers. This adds a layer of smoky flavor to any dish I make with the chili powder. You can omit this step, but I highly recommend it.
Keep in mind that thick-fleshed peppers like bell peppers will shrink proportionately more than small skinny peppers. Since you will need roughly five times the volume of sweet peppers to hot peppers, plan accordingly. That being said, having extra dried peppers is never a bad thing.
If you have excess onion or garlic and room in the dehydrator, take this chance to stock up on garlic powder and onion powder. And if your oregano is going gangbusters like it is in my garden, you can have freshly dried oregano to use all winter too.
This chili powder has a moderate amount of heat, lots of fruity notes from the sweet peppers, classic herb aroma, and a subtle smokey punch to it. It’s a solid building block for any dish that needs a little kick in the pants.
Tip: slice the peppers to speed up the drying process. Whole peppers take a lot longer to completely dry because the skin keeps the moisture from evaporating. Also, you can’t over-dry any of these ingredients. Load up the dehydrator and let it run overnight, checking every few hours and rotating the trays in the dehydrator as needed. I’ve loaded the dehydrator up with herbs and peppers and forgotten about it for a few days with no ill effects. Once dried, allow the ingredients to cool to room temp before storing in an airtight container.