Pasilla chilies, are dried, ripe, chilaca peppers (part of the highly variable species Capsicum annuum). Pasillas are elongate, thin, and tapering, with wrinkled, nearly black skin. They feature prominently in many Mexican mole sauces. Along with ancho and mulato peppers, they make up the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Mexican dried chilies.
Pasilla peppers should not be confused with poblano peppers, or ancho chilies. Poblanos are fresh, broad-shouldered chilies that are often erroneously labeled as pasilla peppers outside of Mexico. Anchos are dried poblano peppers, and are themselves sometimes incorrectly called pasillas.
Pasilla chilies are are available whole (as shown in the picture), and ground into either flakes or powder.
Scoville Heat Units
While pasillas 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.
Chilaca peppers (the peppers from which pasilla chilies are made) are rarely available in their fresh state. Because of this, drying your own pasilla chilies is all but impossible unless you’re able to procure a small supply from a grower or grow your own fresh chilies.
Ground pasilla chili powder can also be made at home relatively easily by toasting and pulverizing pasilla chilies, ideally in a food processor or spice grinder. It’s fairly easy to achieve a chili flake consistency, though you may find it harder to a true powder consistency without added drying stages and a high quality spice grinder.
Pasilla chili powder should have a strong, pleasant smell and a rich, deep colour. The flavour starts to fade after the chilies are processed, so try to find the freshest and most recently-ground chili powder that you can.
Pasilla chilies can very a great somewhat in length, ranging anywhere from 13-18 cm (5-8 inches) long. The chilaca pepper they come from is long, narrow, and somewhat twisted, so the dried pasilla is seldom more than 4 cm (~1.5 inches) across. Broad-shouldered, triangular peppers that are sold as pasillas are almost certainly incorrectly labeled ancho chilies. The heat is somewhat more variable than among some of the other dried chilies, ranging from quite mild to moderate, so you may choose to taste a small portion of your peppers before cooking with them in order to achieve consistent results.
Pasilla chilies are an essential ingredient in many sauces, moles, soups, and more. They are used primarily for their flavour and not to add heat to a dish (though they can in some cases add a moderate spiciness to meals, especially if the seeds are left in). They are frequently pureed and added to soups and sauces. Ground or flaked pasilla chilies may be used the same way, or as a condiment or late addition to dishes.
Dried pasillas can be soaked and pureed, then used in this format as a quick (and smooth) addition to sauces and soups. Likewise the flavourful liquid that results from soaking the peppers is often used as an ingredient itself, and will impart a milder version of the same fruity and mildly sweet flavour.
Dried and ground or flaked pasillas can be used virtually anywhere that you’d used a standard chili powder, though it’s worth noting that they impart a distinctive fruity flavour of their own, and not a generic hot-pepper flavour.
Like most dried peppers, pasilla chilies are a quite tough on their own and are generally blended or otherwise incorporated into a dish. Because of their long, thin shape, and unlike their ancho cousins, they’re rarely softened and stuffed.
Pasilla 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, and the pepper is sliced open to discard the seeds (though this is often optional depending on the desired heat of the final dish, as the seeds and membranes are the spiciest part of the pepper).
Pasilla chilies, likes many other dried chilies, are often toasted in a dry pan or comal to accentuate their flavour. The toasted chilies are then generally rehydrated in warm water or stock, then used (plus or minus the flavourful soaking liquid) in a recipe. In some cases, they’re added directly to a soup or sauce, especially if the end result is pureed. 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 pasillas.
Whole pasilla chilies are easily dried and pulverized in a spice grinder, food processor, or large mortar and pestle to create chili flakes. Discard the stems before crushing, and (if desired) remove the seeds for a milder end product. Ground chili powder is a little harder to achieve at home because of lingering moisture and the tough skins of the chilies, but it can be made by further drying chili flakes and running them through a good spice grinder. Do not try to grind pasilla chilies without toasting/drying them first, as they generally contain enough moisture to make the end product gummy.
Pasilla 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.
Ground and flaked chilies should be stored in a similar fashion.
The best substitute is definitely the ancho chili, whose taste is similar, though somewhat milder and less sweet. Ancho chilies have similar raisin and coffee tasting notes, and it tends to be a little milder than the average pasilla chili. It’s worth noting that many peppers sold as pasillas in the USA and Canada are actually ancho chilies anyway.
Mulato chilies (which are also a dried poblano) are a respectable second choice – they’re relatively similar in terms of flavour, however it’s worth noting that because mulatos are picked when riper than anchos, and because poblano peppers become hotter as they ripen, mulato peppers are generally spicier (sometimes significantly so) than anchos. Mulato peppers also tend to be sweeter and smokier, with cherry, chocolate, and/or licorice notes. Ancho chiles are a little milder, with coffee and raisin notes.
Anchos, mulatos, and pasillas together make up the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Mexican chilies. While they all possess similar features, each is valued for its distinctive flavour. It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mexican cooks don’t generally treat them interchangeably. In fact, they’re often used in concert to great effect, lending complex and nuanced flavour to many Mexican dishes (especially the famous and complex Oaxacan moles).
Ground, flaked, and whole pasilla chilies are semi-interchangeable; the flavours are similar (though ground preparations are often milder), but whole anchos will lend a fruitier flavour as well as a textural element when rehydrated and added to a recipe. If you are using ground pasillas, try to ensure that they’re as fresh as possible – crushed chilies begin to lose their flavour after processing. If you have the option, the best results will generally be obtained by using whole chilies that you toast and process yourself.