Puya Chilies

Puya chilies, are long, thin, dried, red hot mirasol chili peppers (part of the highly variable species Capsicum annuum). Very similar to guajillo chilies (but thinner and hotter), puyas contribute a sharp, fruity, somewhat tangy flavour to dishes along with an appreciable moderately high level of heat. They’re a relatively common and popular pepper in Mexican cooking, though they tend not to be as quite well-known/used outside of Mexico. Puyas are spicier than many of the other common ‘all-purpose’ chilies, though not nearly as spicy as the well-known arbol chili.

Puya are generally available whole (as shown in the picture), and ground or crushed, though it is difficult to find crushed puyas that have specifically been labeled as such.

Puya is sometimes spelled pulla. Puya peppers are also used in some Chinese cooking, where they’re called jinta peppers (金塔椒).

Scoville Heat Units

5,000-8,000 (moderately high)


Puya chilies are a relatively common item at well-stocked Mexican or Latin grocery stores, though they are often a little harder to find than some of the more common chilies. Because they are fairly popular in Chinese cooking, they may also be encountered in well-stocked Easy Asian grocery stores, though generally not using the Spanish name Puya – look for the “Jinta” Peppers (金塔椒).

While puya chilies are an important Mexican ingredient, they are not 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 puya mirasol chilies, the dried version can be made at home (it helps to have good knowledge of dehydrating food). That being said, outside of Mexico, fresh puya chilies tend to be far harder to find than dried ones anyway. It’s also worth noting that mirasol chilies are a broad group of chilies with many different types and flavours, and the puya is only one of many cultivars within this group.

Crushed or ground puya chilies are generally difficult to find with accurate labeling, but they can be made easily at home by stemming and pulverizing whole dried puyas. Note that the dried chilies benefit from additional toasting and drying before grinding, as they tend to be quite soft and pliant in their dried state.

Puya chili peppers should be dry but still somewhat soft and supple. The skin should have some give, and you should be able to flex a pepper slightly without breaking it (note that puyas are not generally as soft as guajillos, which remaing very flexible when dried). Extremely brittle and damaged peppers should be avoided if possible, as they will have lost a great deal of flavour. Likewise, overly soft or damp peppers may have been exposed to moisture and should be avoided. Cracked or broken chilies may still be used as long as they remain relatively soft and flexible (though the broken ones will often spill seeds all over the place). The colour should be a reddish-brown colour, often with some brighter red patches. Pale yellowish or orange patches sometimes form on the surface during the growing or drying processes, especially near the tip. These do not affect the flavour of the pepper, but avoid peppers that have overly large discolored patches or patches surrounding obvious damage to the surface.

Puya peppers tend to be fairly long; around 7-10 cm (3-4 inches) and quite thin, though they can vary somewhat in size. 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.

This section deals with uses for puya chilies – for information about preparing them, check the “Preparation and Storage” tab below.

Puyas are primarily used to add a bright, sharp, and fruity flavour with a relatively intense heat to sauces, soups, moles, and other dishes. As a general rule, puya chilies are used in much the same was as guajillos, but in situations that warrant sharper and more intense heat. They are frequently pureed and added to soups and sauces. Ground puya chilies may be used the same way, or as a condiment or late addition to dishes.

Dried puyas 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 hot-sweet flavour.

Dried and crushed or ground puya chilies can be used virtually anywhere that you’d used a standard chili flake or powder, though cascabel chilies are probably even better suited to this purpose (unless you’re looking for a much hotter crushed chili).

Like most dried peppers, puyas are a little tough on their own and are generally blended or otherwise incorporated into a dish. Because they are so thin, puya chilies aren’t commonly stuffed or used whole.

Preparation

Puya 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).

Puya chilies, likes many other dried chilies, are often toasted in a dry pan to accentuate their flavour. They are are also commonly rehydrated in warm water or stock, then used (plus or minus the flavourful soaking liquid) in a recipe. 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 puyas.

Because puya chilies are also popular in Chinese cooking, they may chopped and incorporated in stir fries, braises, and broths.

Whole puya chilies can be pulverized in a spice grinder, food processor, or large mortar and pestle to create chili flakes. Consider carefully toasting your chilies in an oven or dry frying pan before grinding them to make the process a little easier and to bring out the flavours of the peppers. Discard the stems before crushing, and (if desired) remove the seeds for a milder end product.

Storage

Dried puya 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.

Puya chilies are themselves a specific variety of mirasol chili, so there is not any substantial variation within the cultivar.
Given the wealth of peppers both dried and fresh in Central and South American cuisine, it should come as little surprise that substitutes for puya chilies are simple to find in some ways, and rather difficult in others. There are many other dried peppers – some of these make appropriate replacements, while others are far too different to be used.

Guajillo chilies are probably the best substitute – they’re closest in terms of flavour, though they are generally quite a bit milder.  Cascabel chilies are also similar, though somewhat fruitier and more mellow.

Arbol chilies are somewhat similar, with some of the same bright and sharp flavours, but they tend to be hotter even than puya chilies.  Consider a combination of guajillo and arbol chilies to achieve a balance similar to what you’d achieve using puya peppers.

Chipotles and other smoked peppers are vastly different in terms of flavour (though similar in heat) and do not make suitable replacements.

Crushed and whole puya chilies can be used interchangeably (and whole puyas can obviously be turned into crushed ones without too much trouble). If you are using crushed puya chilies, try to ensure that they’re as fresh as possible – crushed chilies begin to lose their flavour after processing.

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