Various Dried Mexican Chilies - Diversivore.com

Guide to Mexican Chili Peppers

In Education, Monthly feature by Sean13 Comments



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Chili peppers are fundamental flavour-building ingredients in Mexican cuisine, and learning how to use them well can help you achieve spectacular results in the kitchen.


The Basics

What is a Chili Pepper?

Peppers are the fruit of a small number of highly variable species within the genus Capsicum. One species in particular, Capsicum annuum, provides the vast majority of pepper varieties both sweet and spicy. This article doesn’t concern itself with fresh peppers (which are referred to by a number of names), but rather with the dried product made from them.

Dried peppers are generally referred to as chilies (note the comment on spelling below), though that term is used in some circles and situations in reference to fresh peppers as well (Thai bird’s eye chilies are a common example).

All of the chilies in this guide are dried, shelf-stable pantry products.

Chili, Chile, or Chilli?

When dried, peppers are generally referred to as chilies, chiles, or chillies. Chile is commonly used in parts of the US, especially nearer to Mexico, and is identical to the Spanish spelling. It’s also the same as the name of the country, which causes some confusion. Chili is commonly used in much of the rest of the English-speaking world, however this spelling causes some confusion and overlap with the spiced stew-like meal of the same name. Chilli seems to be something of an attempt to avert that confusion, but this spelling variant seems to be primarily limited to the UK, where it shares usage with chili.

I use chili throughout the site.

Powdered Chili vs. Chili Powder

This is where the word ‘chili’ gets really confusing.

Whole, dried chilies are frequently crushed to produced flakes, or ground into a fine powder. The powdered stuff is frequently called chili/chile/chilli powder. But there is also a very popular spice blend of the same name, featuring dried chilies, garlic, cumin, salt, oregano, etc. The chili powder spice blend is extremely popular in North America, especially as an ingredient in (wait for it…) chili.

This article does not deal with the spice blend, but does include a bit of information about powdered chilies. It can be tricky to avoid confusion about which one is being discussed at any given time. My best advice is to read a recipe carefully, and to choose your phrasing wisely.



Varieties

Here’s a rundown of some of the most common and/or important chilies used in Mexican cooking. While this list covers a broad range, it can always grow! If there’s a chili pepper you’d like to know more about, feel free to leave a comment below.

Remember that the information given for each variety is just an introduction. For more on how to find, choose, or use a specific chili, click on the picture or on any of the links within the text and you’ll be directed to the relevant and FAR more detailed Pantry Page.

Note that for each chili variety, the approximate heat level is given in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The higher the number, the hotter the pepper.



The “Holy Trinity”

Three particular dark, sweet, and relatively mild chilies hold a place of particular prominence in Mexican cooking, especially when it comes to their use in the various and famous mole sauces of the region. These dried peppers are often referred to as the “Holy Trinity” of Mexican chilies. They feature prominently in many Mexican dishes, including the aforementioned moles, as well as in soups and sauces. In fact, all three of them are sometimes used together in order to achieve a particularly rich and complex flavour.


Ancho

Ancho chilies, are dried, ripe poblano peppers. Ancho chilies, like fresh poblanos, are generally low in heat, with a distinctively sweet and raisin-like fruity flavour.

Ancho chilies are extremely popular, and are often given a starring role in dishes. Like all of the Holy Trinity peppers, they feature in many moles and sauces, but they are also very popular across a broad range of Mexican, Tex-Mex, and fusion dishes. They also tend to be a little easier to find that some of the peppers on this list.

SHU: 1,000-2,000 (fairly mild)

Mulato

Mulato chilies, are dried variety of poblano pepper, picked when very ripe. Mulato chilies are moderately hot, with a sweet, fruity, slightly smoky flavour.  They’re highly appreciated for the distinctive chocolate/cherry/licorice notes that they impart to a dish.

Mulato chilies are generally the hottest member of the Holy Trinity, though pasillas can sometimes approach the same level of spice.  Mulato chilies are extremely popular in Mexico, but are not as well known outside of the country.

SHU: 2,500-3,000 (moderate)

Pasilla

Pasilla chilies, are dried, ripe, chilaca peppers.  Pasillas are elongate, thin, and tapering, with wrinkled, nearly black skin.  Their flavour is fairly similar to that of an ancho chili, with raisin and coffee notes.  They also tend to be a little hotter than ancho chilies.

Pasilla chilies are the victims of frequent mis-labeling, and are often confused with anchos and (oddly) fresh poblanos.  True pasilla peppers can be a little harder to find than some of the other peppers on this list.

SHU: 1,000-4,000 (mild-to-moderate)


The All-Purpose Reds

For many of us, red chilies bring up thoughts of fiery heat, but many of the Mexican red chilies are much more important for contributing distinctive and relatively mild flavour. These chilies have certain flavour elements in common, but they vary quite a bit in character. Nonetheless, they are all important for their ability to contribute a sharp, acidic, somewhat earthy, and powerful complexion to a dish.

Many of these chilies are part of the mirasol chili group (mirasol means ‘facing the sun,’ named for the way the chilies grow pointing straight-up), but it’s worth noting that some of the mirasol chili varieties that aren’t included in this ‘all-purpose’ section are extremely hot.


Cascabel

Cascabel chilies are dried bola (round) mirasol chili peppers. Cascabel means rattle in Spanish, a reference to the shape and the way the seeds rattle inside of the hollow pepper.  Cascabels contribute a very fruity, slightly smoky flavour to dishes without contributing a great deal of heat. Their distinctive, likable, and easy-to-spot appearance makes them a popular and relatively easy to find pepper

Cascabels are mild-to-moderate in terms of spice, and can often be used by spice-averse cooks in place of hotter peppers.

SHU: 1,500-2,500 (mild/moderate)

Guajillo

Guajillo chilies are relatively large, long, and flat dried mirasol chili peppers. Guajillos contribute a sharp, fruity, somewhat tangy flavour to dishes without contributing a great deal of heat. They’re a fairly common and popular pepper in Mexican cooking, though they tend not to be as quite well-known/used outside of Mexico.

Guajillos are moderately spicy, and fairly comparable to a cascabel or chipotle pepper of the same size.  They’re my personal favourite chili in this category.

SHU: 2,500-5,000 (moderate)

Puya

Puya chilies are relatively long, thin, dried mirasol chili peppers. Puyas are similar to guajillos in terms of flavour, but hotter.  Puyas have a wonderful flavour, and are perhaps the best all-purpose red chili to use if you’re a fan of hotter dishes.

Unlike guajillos, puya chilies tend to retain their puffy round cross-section when dried.

SHU: 5,000-8,000 (moderately high)


Smoked Chilies

Most chili peppers are simply dried, but a select handful are dried and smoked. These chilies pack a potent and very popular flavour punch, rich with spice, acidity, sweetness and smoke. The chipotles are the most common peppers in this group, but many other smoked peppers exist, often with highly regional followings.


Chipotle Meco

Chipotle meco chilies (or chipotle peppers) are specific chipotle variety, made from dried and long-smoked ripe jalapeño peppers.  Chipotle mecos tend to be much more smoky tasting than their cousin the morita pepper. The flavourful, smoky-sweet nature of chipotles make them one of the most popular and distinctive of all of the Mexican chilies.

Chipotles vary quite a bit in terms of heat, but are generally at least moderately spicy.  Because of their popularity in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking, they tend to be fairly easy to find.

SHU: 3,000-10,000 (moderately high)

Morita Chipotles

Morita chipotle chilies (often simply called moritas) are specific chipotle variety, made from dried and gently-smoked ripe jalapeño peppers. Moritas tend to be much more fruitier tasting than their cousin the chipotle meco.

Morita peppers are often treated as a distinct pepper, separate from the more commonly used chipotle meco.  They tend to work best in dishes that call for moderate smoke along with a bright fruity flavour. Availability is variable, but generally fairly good.

SHU: 3,000-10,000 (moderately high)


Bring the Heat

These are not one-dimensional fire-factories – there’s still a lot of flavour to be found in these chilies. But at the end of the day, these are the peppers that are going to contribute an appreciable degree of spice to your dishes.

If you’re new to cooking with chilies, or you’re developing your tolerance to spice, you’re going to want to start with small quantities and work your way up.


Árbol Chilies

Árbol chilies (often called by their Spanish name, chiles de árbol) are perhaps the most popular of the hot chilies in Mexican cooking. They have a clean, sharp flavour with a healthy but not overwhelming level of heat. Most notably, they have a brilliant, bright red colour that makes sauces and salsa look absolutely gorgeous.

Because they’re arguably the most popular of the Mexican hot chilies, they tend to be fairly easy to find. They’re also quite easy to work with, and can be adjusted in terms of heat by leaving or removing the loose seeds inside the pepper.

SHU: 15,000-30,000 (high)

Chiles Japones

Chiles japones, often sold as Chinese or Tianjin Chilies (the Pantry Page deals with some of the confusion surrounding the name), are a small, spicy red chili with a clean taste and a distinctive bite.  Because they’re popular in both Central American and East Asian cooking, they tend to be fairly easy to find.

These peppers pack a considerable punch, but their small size makes it easy to adjust the number you use. Seeded and membranes removed, they provide a healthy but manageable spice level that’s much appreciated in Asian cooking.

SHU: 40,000-75,000 (high)

So what do you think? Did we miss something? Are there other varieties or subject areas you’d like to see covered?

Leave a comment below if you have any questions or ideas.  This is designed to be a living, breathing resource – any time new or better information can be presented to you, it will be added here.

Don’t want to miss any changes, news, recipes or features?  Make sure to subscribe to Diversivore’s updates.  You’ll only receive emails about the site, and we’ll never share your information with anyone.  EVER.

Be sure to check out the individual pages for more information on finding, choosing, and using all of these peppers, and don’t forget to check out some of the other Pantry Pages, Ingredient Pages, and articles in the Education section while you’re here. Oh, and let’s not forget RECIPES, including all of the Mexican recipes right below here.

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Mexican Recipes

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Comments

    1. Author

      Thanks Elaine! And you’re welcome – the spelling is always a bit of a mess on that one. It’s a little confusing no matter which version you use!

  1. Hi Sean
    Amazing post on chili’s. The Mexican culture has one up on the world on the use and in possession of dried chili’s which you gave defined with illustration so well. Great info and one that I will use in my quest to start understanding and cooking Mexican quinine.
    Great work Sean!
    Have a fabulous weekend.

  2. I sure do love me some heat in my dishes! I feel like this guide will be super useful in my future endeavors. There is so much more to chilies than their heat; they have flavor! We seem to forget that sometimes. I also showed this to Nick and he bookmarked it for late night reading. All of our Asian friends laugh about the fact that he can take heat “really well for a white boy”! Seriously though — guys has an iron mouth.

  3. Wonderful post Sean! I have actually shared this far and wide; it’s just that useful. Thanks for sharing so much value in a thoughtful post.

  4. Alright, you’ve just made my top 5 list of “most helpful blog posts ever.” Yes, the list may be in my head, but still legit! If anyone I even remotely know asks about Mexican chili peppers (or even if they’re wondering how to cook Mexican food), I’ll send them your way. Fantastic, well-researched post, Sean. 🙂 As always!

  5. This is a very useful site, especially for chile novices. Two things I suggest. First, you should use the spelling “chile”. There is no real risk of confusing chile that is eaten with a South American country. While it is true that many English-speakers use “chili”, using “chile” conforms with the people at the heart of the dishes you feature on this blog. And this leads me to my second suggestion. You should include information about chiles found in the U.S., primarily in the Southwest. While there is some overlap with chiles used in Mexico, there are several very distinct chiles, for example, found in New Mexico. Most importantly, New Mexicans are known for using fresh chiles in many dishes. Fresh chile is most often green and is remarkably different from dishes made from dried chiles. “Chile fresco”–fresh red chiles, picked just as it ripens–is more rarely used but is once again a major departure from the other two takes on chile. New Mexico produces dozens of varieties with Hatch being the most famous around the world–tons are exported to Mexico each year. Climate, soil, and altitude provide a provenance for New Mexico chiles grown around the state. Some folks swear Hatch is the best but still others prefer Lemitar, Chimayo, Española, or any one of Native American Pueblos. At the very least I think your blog should reference the existence of an ancient chile culture within the U.S.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comment! I hemmed and hawed quite a bit over the spelling, and frankly there are merits to going in both directions. As strange as this might sound, one of the factors to consider is optimization for search engines – certain spellings and word choices can have an impact on the visibility of the article as far as sites like Google are concerned. Of course you’re right in saying the spelling ‘chile’ would be in keeping with the Mexican theme, but I do have to consider the linguistics of my audience. That’s not to say that I’m not willing to change – I just need to do so while considering multiple options. Thanks for your suggestion.

      As for your second comment, I would LOVE to do a second feature on the chiles (chilies, chillies, heh) from the Southwestern US. For that matter, I would love to do another feature on the fresh (not dried) chilies of Mexico, and a feature on Central and South American chilies. I’ve got some aji amarillo chilies just begging to be written about. The idea here was to familiarize my readers with dried Mexican chilies, and given my tendency to go VERY far in depth with my research, I didn’t want to put too much in one post. But honestly, it make me very happy to know that you enjoyed this, AND that you’d like to see more. This kind of input is precisely what drives me when considering what I should work on next.

      One issue I should note when it comes to fresh chilies (especially highly local varieties) is that I’m in Canada, so it can be tricky to track down some of the varieties that are popular in Mexico. But rest assured, if I can get them, I’ll write about them!

      Cheers, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  6. I had not considered SEO. Fair enough. I appreciate that you put the info out there for all to see and understand. So many food bloggers don’t seem aware of the etymology or its significance.

    If you need suggestions on sources for fresh or dried chiles from New Mexico, I would be happy to send you some links. The harvest is almost done for this year but getting fresh roasted/frozen chiles will be possible for another of weeks from the local producers. The large commercial producers have frozen green chiles year round but the quality and flavor is quite low. Of course, dried varieties are available year round from small farms and producers. Let me know. Keep up the good work, your blog is very attractive, efficient and useful.

    1. Author

      Thank you so much! There are so many amazing products to showcase in the USA, and it’s made even more tempting given that I’m so close to the border, but when I think about dealing with agricultural import restrictions (and the associated costs!) it gets discouraging. That being said, you’ve encouraged me to look into the logistics of it for next year, and to investigate dried Southwestern Chilies. I just dried a batch of habanero peppers the other day, so I think the pepper-bug remains firmly planted in my mind.

      I’m a big fan of languages, and it’s fun for me to discuss etymology, but I think you’re quite right – a lot of people don’t consider the significance of words when it comes to food. Given that Diversivore is dedicated to encouraging and educating, I feel it’s my duty to try to wade through the confusing nomenclature and language issues in order to try to get people cooking with confidence (and accuracy – nobody wants to ruin a meal thanks to a linguistic mixup!).

      Thanks for the kind comments, and I’ll be sure to get in touch when I can sort out the logistics (and get caught up with all my existing projects!)

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