Dried chiles -- for how long are they good?
I just "found" a stash of several different kinds of dried chiles. They're in their original cellophane bags, which have never been opened, and the bags have been stored in a tightly covered plastic tub. My best guess is that they've been in that container for at least two years. Can I still use them? (Or maybe the question is, do I WANT to use them?) Thanks!
Yes, you can still use them. From the food safety stand point the risk of bacterial contamination is low.
Whether you *want* to use them will depend upon what you want to use them for and how well they've maintained their freshness.
Even though they were sealed, double sealed even, they will continue to lose moisture. A good dried chile is relatively soft, pliable and usually fragrant. The interior is often a little moist, sometimes sticky, and sometimes appears "meaty", i.e. the inteior flesh of the pepper hasn't withered up.
Open up one of your packages and assess what stage your chiles have achieved. Have they retained any pliability at all? Are they stiff and rigid? Are they brittle? Do the crack and crumble easily? If they do any of the above, you probably don't want to use them. Not only has the flavor evaporated, blending them in a sauce can become very difficult as the chile skin has toughened up a lot.
Chiles don't go bad per se, but they do lose flavor and elasticity, and when they do they don't perform quite the same in a recipe as a fresher dried chile. Unless you live somewhere where chiles are very expensive, it's better to just discard what you've got and replace them with new chiles. What you save in money by using old chiles, you lose in the final preparation of the dish.
Two years, no problem as regards health, unless you see mold or something to suggest that moisture is an issue.
For my own part, I grow Thai chiles in my garden and simply put them in a dish on the counter when they're red (one can do the same with store-bought fresh red thai chiles). They dry up without decaying, and I have some that date from two years ago on the counter right now. (For some reason, presumably moisture, green chiles will not dry up this way, but will instead decay; I've also never tried this with larger chiles gone to red stage, like Serrano or Jalapeno, and I wouldn't expect success with those--size matters?). As needed, take some chile peppers from the dish and chop them up to use like hot pepper flakes in sauces and what not.
That said, I notice that the chiles become less hot over time, now that they are two seasons old. So I just use more of them.
Freezing might keep their intensity longer, but when I have so many chiles, just using more according to taste is workable for me.
It sounds like your chillies have been stored well and will probably be fine. If they are still mostly a strong red and not washed out looking, I'd say they are good to use. Even if faded they will just have less heat.
I put red chilies in a paper bag, let them dry out and crush them. They will stay good indefinitely. If you think you aren't going to use them up in a long time, put the crushed chilies in a zip lock, remove as much air as possible and pop them into the freezer. If you have a vacuum sealer, even better - I buy spices in bulk and vacuum seal them to store in freezer all the time.
For fresh green chillis, jalapenos and so forth - vacuum seal and freeze. No special preparation is necessary. Just snip open the bag and take out what you want to use, reseal and pop them back in the freezer. Thaw slightly under running water, chop and add to your recipe.
I've kept hot peppers I grow in my garden up to two years this way - but I usually use them all up before then.