Chile ristras have a long tradition as an integral part of Southwestern décor, but many people don’t realize that they also have a long tradition as part of Southwestern cuisine as well.
Ristra means “string” in Spanish, so a chile ristra is simply dried chiles strung together. Some chile ristras are treated with plastic or shellac to preserve their beautiful red color. These ristras are designed purely for decoration and are inedible. Others (like the dried Hatch Chile Ristras available from The Fresh Chile Company) are untreated and completely edible, but a lot of people wonder how to use this Southwestern cooking staple in the kitchen. How they’re used depends somewhat on what kind of chile the ristra is made from.
Smaller Hatch chile ristras are often made with Chile de árbol peppers—the small, long, skinny peppers. These chiles are spicy, smoky, and nutty in flavor. They’re popular to use in hot sauce and salsa -- and some folks like to use them to make their own chile powder or spice mixes. When using these dried peppers, the stems and seeds should be removed (latex gloves are a good idea to avoid burning the skin) and the chiles should be rinsed off. As with most dried chiles, you can increase the flavor a little by applying some heat before use by popping them in the oven (400 degrees) for a couple of minutes or flash roasting in a dry pan on the stove, but be careful not to burn them. After applying a bit of heat, soak them in hot water for 10-20 minutes to rehydrate them.
The larger ristras are often made from Hatch red New Mexico chile pods. These aren’t as spicy as the Chile de árbol peppers, but they still bring the heat and are known for their flavor showcased in New Mexican cooking—especially if they’re from Hatch, NM. To prep for use in food, chop off the stem and remove the seeds from inside (don’t forget the latex gloves!) Next, rinse the pods, roast them in the oven or a pan for a couple of minutes (if desired), and then soak them in warm water for 30-60 minutes to rehydrate, which will make them perfect for many recipes. While they are best known for making into red sauce, the rehydrated peppers can also be deliciously used in salsas, soups, or stews. Using them dried, you can even make your own chile powder.
Edibility was the original purpose of the bright and beautiful ristra. The chiles were carefully dried in the sun (often on the flat roofs of adobe homes), then tied together and kept in the home as a way to enjoy the incomparable flavor of chile all year round. Even if eating them doesn’t appeal, a ristra is a beautiful decoration in your home that symbolizes hospitality and warmly welcomes all who enter.
Laura Glenn Combs is a customer service representative for The Fresh Chile Company. She has enjoyed studying Nutrition and Health Sciences both academically and personally over the past 20 years. She and her husband have loved life (and Hatch Chile!) in New Mexico for the past 18 years, and deeply appreciate having the opportunity to raise a family in the Land of Enchantment.