Making Chili Ristras
James R. Sais, Extension Horticulturist
New Mexico's autumn landscape, accented by brilliant strings of red chile drying in the sun, is a picture that excites natives and tourists alike.
From mid September until frost, green chile matures and turns deep red. New Mexicans have traditionally harvested and strung red chile into colorful strings or "ristras." The chile is allowed to dry in the New Mexico sun and then is stored for use in various tantalizing food dishes during the winter.
Besides being used for food, ristras have become popular outdoor and indoor decorations, and a market has developed for red chile wreaths for holiday display.
It is easy to make your own chile ristra or wreath. Three quarters to one bushel of chile will give you a ristra about three feet long. Select freshly picked, mature, red chile. If the chile still has a slight green coloration, place it in a cool, dark but well ventilated place for two or three days. This will help it turn a bright red.
Green chile, on the other hand, is unacceptable for making ristras. Since it has not reached maturity, green chile will shrivel and turn a dull orange color.
Allow your chile to set for two to three days after picking, to allow the stems to lose some of their moisture. In the tying process, stems often break if they are too fresh. Good ventilation is important. If fresh chile is purchased in closed containers or plastic bags, remove the chile to prevent spoilage.
There are several methods of making ristras. Traditionally a double or "U" shaped string was made. However, since the development of newer, larger and thicker fleshed pods, a single strand is made to facilitate fast drying.
3/4 to 1 bushel red chile
Light weight, cotton string (Package string)
Baling wire or twine
Begin by tying clusters of three chiles on the lightweight string. To tie the clusters, hold three chiles by their stems, wrap the string around the stems twice (figure 1), bring the string upward between two of the chiles and pull tight (figure 2). Make a half hitch with the string and place it over the three stems; pull tight (figure 3). Pick up three more chile pods and in the same manner, tie another cluster about three inches from the first. Continue until you have several clusters of three chiles, or until the weight makes it difficult to handle. Break the string and begin again; continue tying until all the chile has been used.
Suspend either baling wire or baling twine from a nail in a rafter or from a door knob. Make a loop in the loose end of the wire to prevent chile from slipping off (figure 4a). Some people use a wooden peg or dowel at the end of the wire or twine, to keep the chiles in place (figure 4b). Starting with the first three pods tied to the package string, braid the chiles around the wire. The process is very similar to braiding a girl's hair the wire serves as one strand and two chiles in the cluster represent the other two strands (figure 5). As the chile is braided, push down in the center to insure a tight wrap. Position the chiles to protrude in various directions; if this is not done empty spaces may develop along one side of the ristra. Continue braiding until all the chile has been used.
Figure 1 - Wrap the string around the stems of three chilis
Figure 2 - Pull the string up tightly between two of the chilis
Figure 3 - Make a half hitch over the three stems
Figure 4 - Make a loop at the end of the wire (A) or fasten it to a peg or dowel (B)
Figure 5 - Braid the clusters of chile around the wire
3/a bushel native type Chile
Light weight, cotton string (package string)
Stiff wire or sturdy coat hanger
To make a wreath use a native Chile variety, which is smaller than most of the newer varieties. Tie chiles with cotton string the same as for a ristra. Either three or four small chiles may be tied to a cluster.
Straighten the coat hanger and braid the Chile the same as for a ristra. After the Chile is strung, bend the wire to form a ring.
Decorations, such as novelty gourds and ribbon, can be added after the Chile is dry.
Resist the temptation to take a new ristra or wreath indoors immediately. Hang the ristra in full sun, on a clothesline or from outdoor rafters where there is good air ventilation. Without proper drying, Chile may turn moldy and rot, causing discoloration, detracting from its beauty and, naturally, precluding its use as a food.
Do not spray Chile with lacquer or a similar spray that will give it a shiny, unnatural sheen, making it look artificial and making it inedible. Dry Chile has a natural luster without any form of spray.
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California.
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Last updated: August 21, 2020