The Chillest of Chiles
We know chiles are all the rage, and they’ve been especially on our mind since we’ve been branching out to Mexico. So many recipes and cuisines feature chiles as an essential ingredient yet don’t provide detailed instructions for how best to prepare them. It’s clear that chiles are not only an essential ingredient to many traditional dishes, but also a creative way to spice up dishes we’re familiar with. So, what’s stopping it from being the shining star of your pantry?
Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to start working with a new ingredient you may not feel as confident around. After all, the difference in flavor between an Arbol and a Guajillo is something that we aren’t typically exposed to, growing up in the states. Recipes may call for chopping, grinding, soaking or toasting - a wide variety of techniques that may seem intimidating and overwhelming. Add to that the fact that maybe you won’t be able to get quite the right chile at your local supermarket, and likely aren’t sure what peppers can be substituted for each other… yeah, it’s easy to get overwhelmed! So, we’re here to try and help you out. Bookmark this page and keep it handy for easy reference…and whenever you need immediate assistance, just give us a call! And of course, we have almost any type you could want that are imported by the chef directly from Mexico.
Cascabel - “The Shakers”
Cascabels are chiles that grow somewhat patchily green to red, so don’t be concerned if your chiles end up not being a uniform color - it’s not an indication of anything wrong or questionable quality. They tend to stay on the smaller side and grow round.
These chiles are primarily used dried, and are on the higher end of the heat spectrum. Their bit is balanced by a rich under-flavor that many describe as “peanut-y.”
Dried Cascabels are commonly toasted, then usually ground or rehydrated before use in recipes, and tend to be paired with tomatoes or tomatillos. Just be careful to not let them spend too much time rehydrating, as they can turn bitter (but don’t worry, we’ll cover that in a minute).
Guajillo - “The Typical”
When you picture a dried chile, chances are you’re thinking of a guajillo. These peppers are a gorgeous deep red and have a more laid-back profile. Sometimes called fruity, they go easy on the heat, and can often be used as “base” ingredient or flavor to balance out and complement any more poignant notes of acid or heat.
These chiles are one of the most popular, and are commonly paired with meat. They really shine as an ingredient in rubs or marinades.
Pasilla (aka Chile Negro) - “The Raisin”
Pasilla chiles are also among the most commonly used. Paired with the ancho and mulato, the three are used as the “holy trinity” of mole. Pasilla contributes the earthy, almost-raisin flavor to the group and has the looks to match. These peppers are on the smaller side, and become a black/purple when dried.
They tend to be handled in almost the same way guajillos are, in that they are typically toasted, rehydrated, and then ground or chopped to suite the recipe.
Chile de Arbol - “The Mini”
If you’ve ever grown a hot pepper bush, it was probably "the mini." They are about the length of your pinky, and a little thinner than a pen. By the time they’re ripe, they turn a bright red that adds a bit of shock value to any dish they can be utilized in. They are used pretty similarly whether fresh or dried.
When you take a bite of these guys, you will quickly realize that their size belies their bite. These peppers range between 15,000 and 65,000 on the Scoville scale (for comparison, cayenne peppers range about 30,000 to 50,000). Because they lend such a kick, they’re best used as an accent in any dish. If you’re cautious about spice, think of them as a more solidified form of hot sauce and use accordingly. If you love the heat, sprinkle them on whatever and wherever to get a serious kick.
Poblano/Ancho - “The Lookalike”
Fresh, these gorgeous peppers are called poblano, and are normally easy to find in the produce department of most grocery stores. We’ve dubbed them "the lookalike" because they look similar to sweet bell peppers, though a bit darker green and more elongated. They have a bit of heat, but not so much that they would be used as a spice - they are typically considered a contributing ingredient to the dish.
Dried, however, these chiles are called ancho - and are one of the names that most recognize as a chile even if there is no image conjured of them. Since these peppers ripen from green to red, the fresh version is typically younger while the dried have been allowed to fully change color before they’re harvested. Like their fresher counterparts, the dried chiles have a bit of a kick, but aren’t going to leave anyone panting.
When dried these chiles also become difficult to distinguish from the mulato until you can slice one open - anchos will be red, while mulatos are brown. The ancho is slightly spicier and a bit fruitier than the mulato.
Jalapeno/Chipotle - “The Familiar”
We all know jalapenos! They are often used fresh in salsas, baked in nachos and cooked into chile. Next time you fire up the grill, try blistering them over the fire (or in a hot pan on the stove) to add some smokey flavor to any dish. They will really amp up the flavor of your next guacamole!
Chipotles are jalapenos that have been dried and smoked. They tend to impart a relatively mild heat and a great balance of earthy flavor. You may have heard of chiles in adobo - chipotles that have been dried and smoked, and then rehydrated with a tomato-based, slightly sweet sauce. You can use chiles you’ve rehydrated yourself or their canned siblings in dishes that use a slightly creamy sauce, or even just blend them up in some mayo to add a twist to any dish.
Before you start, take the tops off of your chiles, and remove as many seeds as you can. Don’t worry if that means cutting them in half, they don’t have to be roasted whole. Heat a pan over medium-high heat, and press the chiles on for a few seconds. The timing will change a bit depends on your stove, pan, and flame, so there may be a bit of trial and error the first few times. But, unlike when cooking meat, lifting up to check on the chile before it’s done does absolutely no damage, so check as often as you’d like - and when in doubt just take it off! You can always through it back on the heat for another second or two, but an unwanted extra few seconds can’t be reversed.
Alternatively, heat an oven to 350 degrees, take off tops and seeds, and pop them into the oven on a cookie sheet for 3-4 minutes. Just be careful to monitor these chiles just as closely as you would on the stove.
Toss your chiles in a heat safe bowl, and cover with boiling water. Cover the bowl with a plate, and let them soak for 10-15 minutes, but absolutely no more than 20 as they will start to get bitter. Don’t worry if some oils float to the surface, you aren’t losing flavor. And, you can absolutely rehydrate multiple types of chiles together, it won’t blend or diminish their distinctive taste profiles.
Finally, how to pick your chiles!
Just like any spice or ingredient, the quality of chiles ranges vastly, and can make all the difference. You want dried chiles to be slightly flexible when you bend them. The skin should still have a little shine to it, that lets you know that they aren’t covered in dust or chemicals, and they have been well cared for until they get to you. When you smell them, search for earthy and fruity notes that mingle with the smells of heat and spice.