You may have seen the beautiful red dried chili pepper decorations hanging on porches throughout New Mexico and parts of Arizona. But many people may not be aware of the rich cultural significance of these ‘ristras’ and what they’re actually used for. What are these hanging decorations and how are they made?
A ristra is an arrangement of dried chili peppers hung on garlands of tied string. Fresh chili peppers are placed on these arrangements to be left in the sun to dry and later used as decoration or for cooking. New Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Arizona are famous for their ristras.
This article will take an in-depth look at how ristras are made, the origin of the word, and several other aspects of the arrangement.
Ristras are decorative arrangements made of dried chili peppers, garlic bulbs, or other vegetables dried and hung to be later eaten or sometimes just for decoration.
The peppers or other vegetables are typically hung while fresh and left to dry naturally with direct sunlight. Green chili peppers are often hung up to dry into their more mature red and dark-red forms, but ristras composed of green peppers exist as well.
Ristras are most often used as a cheerful decoration akin to a wreath, commonly seen on adobe porches throughout New Mexico. You can also spot ristras in kitchens, where they may serve as decorations or kept to be used as ingredients or seasoning for meals.
The chilis on ristras can be used in many different ways. Entire peppers can be removed to eat, or parts of the chilis can be taken to be used as seasoning or flavoring for a meal.
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If you’re looking to add a little flair to your home with an authentic Ristra, I recommend picking up a Chile Piquin Ristra from Amazon. If you want a ceramic Ristra instead of one made from real chili peppers, I recommend this multicolored one, I think it would look pretty nice hanging in the kitchen!
The most common varieties of pepper used for ristras are New Mexican or ‘Hatch’ chili peppers, named after its hometown in Hatch, New Mexico. Anaheim peppers from California are also often used and called New Mexican chilis as well.
These peppers are of the Capsicum genus, which is part of the Nightshade family of plants. Relatives of chili peppers in this family include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and other peppers such as Bell peppers, Habaneros, and Jalapeños.
Several varieties of peppers, especially chili peppers, can be spicy. This is because peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin, a chemical that causes heat and occurs in the Capsicumgenus of plants and gives them their signature spice. The spiciness of peppers can be measured with the Scoville measurement system which uses Scoville Heat Units (SHUs).
The Scoville scale measures how much capsaicin is in a pepper and assigns it a value of SHUs. Hatch chilis range from 1,000 to 8,000 SHUs, so they have a wide range of spiciness, from mild to quite hot.
Here is a quick comparison of some common peppers:
- Jalapeño peppers range from 2,500 to 8,000 SHUs
- Habanero peppers range from 100,000 to 350,000 SHUs
- Bell peppers contain no capsaicin and rank at 0 SHUs.
A Hatch chili pepper traditionally used for ristras is much hotter than a Bell pepper and can be as hot or even hotter than a Jalapeño, depending on the precise levels of capsaicin. However, a typical Hatch chili will never approach the heat levels of even the mildest Habanero pepper.
Did you know? Capsaicin is the main ingredient of pepper spray because the chemical is known to cause burns on the skin and other areas when applied directly. This is also why you shouldn’t handle fresh chilis without gloves!
The word ‘ristra’ means string in Spanish because of the elaborate string design that physically holds the peppers up. The word ristra is derived from the Latin word restis, meaning ‘rope.’ Ristras of garlic and onion have adorned Mediterranean kitchens for centuries, putting the roots of New Mexican ristras in Spain and other parts of medieval Europe.
The traditional method for drying peppers was to lay them out on rocks to dry in the sun, but this often led to insect infestations and scavenging by rodents and birds. To combat all these critters, people began hanging the peppers on strings to keep them away from pests.
Ristras are one of the most commonly collected souvenirs from New Mexico because of their fragrance and uniquely Spanish look.
Ristras are an iconic decoration in the southwest of the United States, but mostly New Mexico and some parts of Arizona. The uniquely dry heat in these areas dries peppers quickly enough, so mold doesn’t have time to grow. But you don’t have to live in these areas to make a ristra–you can create one in any place with dry heat and direct sunlight.
Ristras can be composed of various foods, including peppers, garlic, onion, or other vegetables. In the Mediterranean, ristras of onion and garlic have been commonplace before the practice caught on in New Mexico. Chili peppers are easily the most common, but virtually any food capable of being dried would be suitable to hang as a ristra.
Fruit with high sugar content is not advised for ristras because sugar will attract more insects and likely cause the fruit to mold before it can dry.
Many ristras are perfectly edible. As long as the ristra hasn’t been treated with lacquer and doesn’t have visible mold, it’s fine to pick peppers from it to cook with. Dried chilis contain seeds that taste rather bitter, so many people who cook with chilis from ristras opt to remove the seeds prior to cooking.
On the other hand, many ristras are purely decorative and would make someone very ill if they ate it, mainly if someone tried to eat a lacquered part of a ristra or ristras with mold on them. Mold signifies that fungus is present, which can cause a very serious fungal infection. Even cooking the dried peppers isn’t enough to make them edible, as any mold not killed during the cooking process can still cause someone to get sick.
Even worse than mold in ristras is the risk of bugs infesting them due to improper drying techniques. Bugs love fruits like peppers and will infest them very quickly if the fruit is left out.
Peppers in ristras can range from mild and sweet to extremely spicy. Some think that drying chili peppers will make peppers spicier, but this isn’t the case.
Drying peppers causes water to evaporate, yet the capsaicin (the chemical responsible for spiciness) remains within the shrinking surface area of the fruit. If a pepper has very little capsaicin in it, to begin with, drying won’t change the heat level very much, if at all.
Drying chilis are more akin to concentrating the capsaicin, and therefore the spiciness. A moderately spicy pepper would become fairly hot, while a pepper with very little capsaicin content would, at best, only be able to achieve a moderate level of heat.
A ristra can last as long as three to five years if properly sealed with lacquer or another sealant when used for decorative purposes. Ristras don’t last as long in areas with high humidity, mainly due to bugs and mold growing on the fruits. Keep in mind that while sealants help preserve the peppers, they will not last forever, even in the best conditions.
Bad odor can be a giveaway of mold or nesting bugs, indicating your ristra is going bad. If hung in areas of high humidity, mold is the most likely culprit, which appears as little white or discolored spots on the peppers. However, ristras can go bad for various reasons. For example, bugs can get into the fruit to eat it or lay eggs, and birds will try to nibble at them if they are not sealed.
Where Should You Hang Ristras?
If used for drying purposes, ristras need to be hung in an area with direct sunlight and lots of ventilation to prevent mold growth. Once dried, ristras can be used as decorations wherever you’d like, though birds and bugs can poach your peppers if hung outside. Kitchens are a popular spot to hang ristras for easy access to the chilis when cooking; porches are a popular place for hanging lacquered decorative ristras.
Ristras can be bought at virtually any grocery store in New Mexico in both their edible and decorative forms and serve as popular souvenirs for visitors. If shipping a ristra to a friend or relative, make sure you’re shipping a ristra that’s been treated with lacquer or another sealant, as edible ristras can easily grow mold in dark conditions.
If you are not based in New Mexico or are not planning a trip out there, you can purchase a ristra from online retailers.
Ristras are a beautiful and fun decorative project to undertake at home, requiring minimal supplies to create.
Here is what is needed to create your own ristra:
- Between 35-45 fresh chili peppers for a 1.5 feet (0.46 meters) garland. Peppers should be firm, intact, and without any discoloration or blemishes.
- Metal wire
- Garlic (optional)
The process to create your own ristra decoration is relatively simple and doesn’t require any special skills.
Slip knots are a handy knot that lets you hold heavy items in place and easily release the knot via a ‘runner’ piece of string that can be pulled. To make a slip knot, follow these steps:
- Make a loop with the twine and pull it from the left side.
- Pull both sides to create a slip knot.
- Take three separate 3-foot (0.91 meter) sections of twine and make five slip knots along the length, each one 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) apart.
- Start at one end, create a knot, then flip the twine around and make knots from there.
To make the base, follow the steps below:
- String three chili peppers together at the starting slip knot to create a base for your ristra.
- Tighten the peppers by putting the stems through the knots.
- Make sure that the knots around the stems are tight.
It is important that there are sufficient peppers in your ristra. Keep adding peppers to the ristra in clusters of three. You use clusters of three because that’s typically how many stems can comfortably rest within a slip knot. In order to hold the peppers’ stem in place, make sure that the knots are tightly done.
Before you can assemble the final piece, you need to create a ‘skeleton frame’ for the peppers to hang down from. This can be done using a length of twine about 5 feet (1.52 meters) long. Make a loop with this twine and attach it to something like a fence or wall hook.
Now that you have your strings of peppers and your skeleton, it’s time to piece them together to create a full ristra of your own.
To assemble, follow these steps:
- Add your bottom set of strings with peppers by placing them in between the skeleton’s loop. They should hang freely from this string.
- Drape further strings of peppers on top of previous layers
- To secure individual layers of peppers, tie the extra string between layers or use the excess string from the skeleton’s loop.
Now that your ristra is fully assembled and ready to dry, it’s time to consider any finishing touches you may want to add. Corn husks can be added at the top for a bit of flair, or garlic can be hung with the peppers to add a bit of variation.
If the peppers seem loose or fall off, you can fill in gaps with more peppers until it’s full to your satisfaction. To hang it up, just tie a simple loop at the top.
Now that your ristra is completely constructed, it’s time to hang it and wait for it to dry. You want to use a location that receives as much direct sunlight as possible and as much air circulation as it can get. Places like porches and fences are popular for these reasons, but if you’re worried about pests, you can hang them in a well-lit area indoors.
Using fresh peppers is the traditional choice when making ristras. But you can always use dried peppers to save time–and to save yourself the hassle of keeping bugs, birds, or other pests from being attracted to the ristra.
Bonus Thing to Know – How to Dry a Ristra
To dry ristras properly, follow the steps below:
- Assemble ristras of fresh chili peppers in areas that get lots of direct sunlight and plenty of air.
- Make sure to hang a fresh ristra to dry away from places where bugs congregate because that would just be handing them a free treat.
- Check on it occasionally and allow it to dry completely.
- Wait for three weeks to a few months to dry completely. Drying time will depend on how much sunlight and heat the ristra receives. Cooler temperatures will cause a ristra to dry slower but having lots of sunlight is the most important factor.
Ristras are a beautiful and tasty way to decorate your porch like a true New Mexican or a way to store dried chilis for later use. Ristras are readily available throughout New Mexico and some parts of Arizona or can be easily created at home with some chili peppers and twine of your own.