Árbol chilies, often sold under the Spanish name chiles de árbol, are medium-sized, thin, dried, hot chili peppers (part of the highly variable species Capsicum annuum). Árbol contribute a sharp, clean flavour to dishes. They’re particularly popular for two key reasons: heat, and colour. Árbol chilies are definitely fiery enough to appeal to fans of spice, without being unbearably overwhelming. The colour is an added benefit, as the bright red of the fresh chili doesn’t darken much with drying, meaning that the chilies lend a glorious red colour to sauces, soups, and more.
The word árbol means tree, a reference to the woody stems on the peppers. Both the Spanish and English names are applied to the fresh and the dried pepper.
Árbol chilies are generally available whole (as shown in the picture), and ground or crushed. Though crushed árbol chilies are fairly popular, it can be difficult to find them specifically labeled as such.
Árbol chilies are sometimes called rat-tail (cola de rata) chilies and bird’s beak (pico de pajara) chilies. They should not be confused with bird’s eye chilies, which are popular in Southeast Asian cooking, and are even spicier.
Scoville Heat Units
While árbol chilies are an important Mexican ingredient, they are not a particularly common in the “Mexican” section found in many grocery stores, which tends to lean towards pre-packaged Tex-Mex.
For the hardcore DIY fan with access to fresh árbol chilies, the dried version can be made at home (it helps to have good knowledge of dehydrating food). That being said, árbol chilies are commercially grown primarily for drying, making the fresh ones trickier to find.
Crushed or ground árbol chilies can be tricky to find with accurate labeling, but they can be made easily at home by stemming and pulverizing whole dried chilies.
Árbol chilies are small to medium-sized pepper, though it’s worth noting that they are longer than many of the other thin red hot chilies. When measured straight (ignoring any curvature), the chilies are generally 5-10 cm (2-4 inches) long, excluding the stem, though you’ll occasionally find exceptionally long and exceptionally short peppers. Variation in size does not particularly affect the flavour, quality, or heat of the peppers, though you may want to choose a consistent size if you plan to use recipes calling for a certain number (rather than weight) of peppers in order to achieve consistent results.
Árbol chilies are primarily used to add a combination of sharp, clean, hot chili flavour along with bright red colour to salsas, sauces, soups, and more. In particular, they are quite popular for imparting colour and fiery heat to red salsas and sauces (often containing tomatoes). They are seldom left whole, and are generally incorporated into a meal in their entirety (minus the stem, and in some cases minus the seeds). While not exceptionally hot, they certainly deliver an appreciable level of spice to a dish, and are particularly popular for this reason. While they don’t pack the fruity, chocolaty, sweet, or smoky punch of many other dried Mexican chilies, they do contribute a clean and somewhat acidic flavour to a wide variety of dishes.
More often than the chilies are toasted in a hot dry pan or comal before using. The toasted chilies are then generally used one of three ways:
1. Crushed and incorporated into a relatively dry spice mixture or paste
2. Soaked until soft and chopped, crushed, or blended, often for use in a sauce or wet paste.
3. Added directly to a soup, sauce, or other recipe requiring pureeing.
Dried and crushed or ground árbol chilies can be used virtually anywhere that you’d used a standard spice-driven chili flake or powder.
(Note that this section deals with preparing dried árbol chilies only. Fresh chilies can be prepared like any other fresh red hot pepper.)
Caution: If you are going to be handling a lot of crushed árbol chilies or a sauce/paste made from them, or if you plan on using your fingers to scrape out the seeds, it’s probably wise to wear gloves in order to prevent accidentally transferring the spicy capsaicin to your face. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling the seeds and membranes.
Árbol chilies require a low-to-moderate amount of preparation, though the particular method(s) necessary will vary from recipe to recipe. As a general rule, the stems are removed and discarded. The pepper may be cut or cracked open to discard the seeds, though this is often optional depending on the desired heat of the final dish (the seeds and membranes are the spiciest part of the pepper, and árbol chilies are generally valued for their spiciness). As an intermediate option, the stems can be cut off and the loose excess seeds can be shaken out of the pepper, leaving some behind.
Árbol chilies, likes many other dried chilies, are generally toasted in a dry pan to accentuate their flavour. They are are also commonly rehydrated in warm water or stock, then used in a recipe. In some cases, they are simply added whole to a dish without soaking, especially if that dish is a soup or sauce requiring blending. The particular method necessary are usually specified in a given recipe, but these basic principles can easily be used by the cook looking to create or adapt a recipe featuring árbol chilies.
Whole árbol chilies can be pulverized in a spice grinder, food processor, or large mortar and pestle to create chili flakes. For best results, toast the peppers in a dry pan, then allow them to cool. Discard the stems before crushing, and (if desired) remove the seeds and whitish membranes for a milder end product.
Dried árbol chilies should be stored in an airtight container to prevent them from either absorbing or losing excess moisture. Store the peppers in a cool, dark cupboard to ensure that they retain their flavour.
Crushed chilies should be stored in a similar fashion.
If you’re looking to substitute whole peppers, whole cayenne chilies or chiles japones are the best bets. Both are fairly comparable in flavour and heat, and are relatively easy to find. Whole cayenne chilies can be a hit-or-miss item, but chiles Japones (or very similar peppers) can often be found in Asian grocery stores under names like Tianjin chilies, or (more commonly) simply Chinese chilies. It’s worth noting that Asian markets will often interchangeably label these chilies and dried Thai chilies as “Chinese chilies,” even though Thai chilies tend to be hotter. For more on using and differentiating chiles japones, click here to go to the Pantry Page for that variety.
If you’re looking to substitute crushed or ground chilies, cayenne chilies are going to be your best bet, as they tend to be readily available in this format in large and well-stocked conventional grocery stores. Of course, if you happen to have whole chiles japones, you could always crush or grind those yourself and use them as a substitute. If you do use cayenne chili powder, try to find the freshest, brightest looking powder you can, as the taste and colour tend to fade the longer the powder sits.
If you’re looking to reduce the heat of a dish, it’s generally better to use fewer árbol chilies, rather than substituting for a milder chili variety. While some chilies (puyas, for instance) look relatively similar and deliver less heat, these tend to be fruitier and richer tasting, and will change the complexion of a dish.
Crushed and whole árbol chilies can be used somewhat interchangeably (and whole árbols can obviously be turned into crushed ones without too much trouble). If you are using crushed árbols, try to ensure that they’re as fresh as possible – crushed chilies begin to lose their flavour after processing.