As I write this, it is Tuesday in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Tuesday is the day the weekly market comes to town. Hundreds of stands offer everything from used blender parts to bras in every color of the rainbow. To me, that means it’s the best day of the week to shop for another vintage shirt that I may never wear and an incredible assortment of fruit and vegetables that I will devour.
After I decided what vintage shirt to wear there (to suitably impress my maniacal competition for vintage shirts at the market), I went shopping for dried chile peppers. Now I know a lot about chile peppers (or at least I think I do) but must admit those stands at the market that sell dried peppers can be very bewildering.
Chiles are piled high on the floor, on tables, in cloth sacks, in plastic bags and, unless you’re a chilaholic, you’d find it very difficult to tell one variety of pepper from another. I’ve also found that one vendor might have a different name for a dried chile than the one three stands down, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure they’re exactly the same.
First, a couple of general hints when you’re buying dried chiles, look for ones with a leathery texture; if they easily snap in half, they’re probably old and will have lost some of their taste. Not only that, it will be more difficult to remove the seeds and almost impossible to remove the veins.
Then, when you get home, store them in an airtight container. They’ll last for months that way and insects, who like chiles as much as humans, won’t be able to nibble away at them.
Next, I’ve prepared a little guide. To help you recognize the ones you’ll find most often in recipes.
There are apparently over 150 different chile peppers available in Mexico. I doubt, however, that I’ve seen as many as 20 and know I’ve never seen more than a dozen different called for in all of the recipes. When I looked over a lot of recipes for a lot of Mexican dishes in a lot of books today though, I only found eight dried chile peppers that repeatedly came up often and are relatively easy to find in San Miguel: Anchos, árbols, chipotles, guajillos, japonés, mulatos, pasillas and péquins. Instead of using the bewildering Scoville Unit system for the heat levels, I’ve used a 1 to 10 system that is similar to one used by Chile Pepper magazine (yes, chiles have their own publication). So, here are the dried varieties in words and pictures.
Anchos are poblano chiles that have been allowed to ripen almost fully to a deep red on the vine and then dried. They’re usually a little smaller than fresh poblanos and are a deep burgundy red, bordering on black in color. Ancho means wide in Spanish and they are somewhat heart-shaped, measuring in at about four inches by two and a half inches. They’re not only the widest of chiles but the meatiest. Though not everyone agrees, I think they have an aroma of prunes; most people will agree, however, that the taste is rich, sweet and fruity. Heat level is mild at 2 to 3. You’ll find them in more Mexican recipes than any other dried chiles and deservedly so. If you’re using an American recipe and it calls for a dried Anaheim or New Mexico chile, substitute an ancho.
Don Day’s Wife recommends adding anchos to marinades used for lean Mexican steak cuts. If I’m making a Texas red style chile, I consider the ancho the most essential ingredient and it’s the predominant taste in those bottled or tinned powders that people in the U.S. use when making chili con carne. Though it’s not easy to make without the pepper falling apart, using a dried ancho chile instead of a fresh poblano for chiles rellenos, allows you to fully experience its flavor.
The mulato is another dried chile produced from poblano peppers but it is left longer to ripen on the plant than the ancho before picking. It is a very dark brown, almost black chile with a hint of purple in the color. I like the touch of chocolate in the taste. Mulatos are about four inches long and two inches wide. They have about the same heat as the ancho, a mild 2 to 3.
There is a general rule that red chiles go best with chicken, pork and fish and black chiles go best with lamb and beef. I think that’s especially true with black mulatos. In San Miguel, they’re the least commonly found chile that I’ve included in my little guide; anchos make a good substitute.
De árbol or árbol chiles are the second most commonly found in San Miguel markets. I don’t know why they’re called de árbol which is Spanish for “of tree” as I’m pretty sure they don’t grow on trees. Perhaps because the bush they grow on looks a little (but not a lot) like a small tree. They are skinny, about three inches long by half an inch wide, are pointed at the end and have a longer stem than most. De árbols are medium to hot with a rating of 7 on my scale. In Northern Mexico they also go by the name pico de pájaro (bird’s beak), but I’ve never seen that name in San Miguel de Allende.
They are the only chile I know that has the same name whether it’s fresh or dried, though the photo above is one of the rare times I’ve seen the fresh ones for sale. They keep their shine when dried and don’t get as withered looking as other dried chiles. There taste has some similarity to green bell peppers (which are also officially chiles) but without the sweetness you get when bells ripen to red. There is also a nuttiness that you don’t get in other chiles. You’ll find de árbols in recipes for vinegars and hot sauces. Mexican chefs will often include the seeds of chiles de árbol in their dishes. They are also commonly sold as a ground powder.
Don Day’s Wife routinely puts chiles de arbol in her Italian pasta dishes either simmered into red sauces or offered as a garnish for cream sauces.
Chipotles are jalapeños that have been smoke-dried instead of sun-dried which imparts that delightful smoky flavor. The reason is practical, for jalapeños have so much moisture they rot if left in the sun. Chipotles are two to four inches long and about three quarters of an inch wide. The larger ones are called chipotle mecos and are a sandy brown in color. The smaller ones and the ones you’ll most often find in San Miguel are called chipotle mora, chipotle morita or simply mora or morita; they are jalapeños that have been left the longest on the plant and are a deep red, almost black and one of the ugliest chiles you’ll ever see.
One of the simplest (and best) salsas you can make is by blending chipotles with fresh tomatillos.
The heat level is usually about a 6. Both the large and small have a very rich and fruity flavor; the moritas are a little sweeter with an almost molasses flavor and I think better tasting than the grassier mecos. The seeds can be difficult to remove, especially with the moritas; Don Day’s Wife’s solution is to just cut off the stems and leave the seeds in.
You’ll also find the most seasoned chefs, including Don Day’s Wife, often using the canned variety which come in an adobo sauce.
Guajillos are the most frequently used chile in Oaxacan dishes but are not as common outside of that state. Along with anchos and pasillas, they’re part of the “holy trinity” for making Mexican moles. They’re thin and smooth skinned, about four inches long by an inch and a quarter wide. Guajillo means “old dried thing” in Spanish but they don’t look any more like an “old dried thing” than most other chiles. Called a mirasol pepper before drying (you’ll rarely see the fresh form), guajillos purchased in San Miguel are usually a mild to medium chile with a heat level around 4 but the ones grown and used in Oaxaca can be quite fiery.
They have the color of aged red wine and a sweet, fruity taste reminiscent of cherries with an earthiness that has hints of green tea. When cooked in sauces, soups and stews their dye is quickly spread around giving the dish an attractive orange/red color. The thicker skin takes longer to soften so chefs soak them for a greater length of time in water (about 30 minutes).
One of the vendors at the Tuesday market sells a pepper that looks like a slightly smaller version of a guajillo that he calls a puya. He told me, “It’s the same as a guajillo only better.” I haven’t tried it.
Japonés get their name because they’re widely grown in Japan as well as Mexico. Chileholics sit around at night arguing what this fresh chile was before it’s a japonés. Some say a serrano. Others say a cayenne. I have no idea though using them creates a taste very similar to using powdered cayenne. And though I don’t know how it ever got to Northern China, I suspect this is the chile that’s used in Sichuan cuisine. In recipes, you’ll often see it listed as a substitute for de árbol and the heat level at 7 is about the same. Use them sparingly unless you want things very, very hot.
Pasilla peppers, which get their name from the Spanish word for raisins, are the sweetest chile I’ve tasted though the name probably has more to do with their shrivelled look than their sweetness. You’ll often find them specified for moles. I like them in sauces over pork and beef and no chile gives jet black color to a sauce better than pasillas. Today, in fact, one of the stands at the Tuesday Market also referred to them as negras. Pasillas are about six inches long by an inch and a quarter wide and most recognizable in the market by being blacker than other chiles. The heat level is medium, about 4 to 5. Before drying, the fresh version of the chile is called a chilaca.
Piquín (sometimes spelled pequín) chiles are tiny, less than a quarter inch long, and shaped like a football. The tepín or chiltepín chile is very similar but rounder in shape. You’ll often see them for sale but you won’t often see them in English language recipes due to their extreme heat, an 8 on my scale which makes them hot enough to be the pepper in the original Cholula brand of bottled hot sauce. Their small size gives strong support to “the smaller the chile, the bigger the heat” generalization. Their small size makes them almost impossible to seed so they’re generally used with the seed. You can also buy them as a powder in San Miguel supermarkets.
Due to their heat and the way the fruits ripen over a long period, I think they make great ornamental houseplants but they never make it into any of Don Day’s Wife’s dishes.
PREPARING DRIED CHILES
OK, whether it’s in San Miguel or wherever you are, you’ve gone to the market and purchased the dried chiles that are called for in the recipe you’re preparing but what do you do with them?
First remove the stems and seeds. Don’t worry if some seeds sneak in. You’ll have a second or third chance to pick them out when you’re toasting and reconstituting them in water. If you want to cut back on the heat, you can also try to remove the veins but it’s difficult after they’re dried.
In the traditional Mexican home, dried chiles are toasted on a cast iron griddle called a comal; a dry cast iron frying pan on a stove/range element will serve the same purpose. First get the cast iron pan very hot by turning the element to high for about two minutes. A drop of water should sizzle and quickly disappear if the temperature is high enough. Rinse off the chiles in cold water, shaking off the excess moisture, but don’t dry them. Timing becomes key at this point and it’s difficult to get it right without practice. If your wife is as sensitive to the fumes as Don Day’s Wife is, it’s also a good time to suggest she pours herself a drink and goes and sits on the patio. Constantly flip the peppers (singing Bobby Lewis’ “Tossing and Turning” as you do it helps with the rhythm). The chiles should be just starting to smoke and getting lighter in color when you take them off the heat. If you want to put a time on this process, I’d say one minute, maybe a little more.
Quickly place the peppers in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. When the water cools (about 15 minutes) remove them, keeping in mind that the longer they stay in the water the more flavor you’ll lose from the flesh. Next, purée the peppers with the other ingredients, or whatever else the recipe tells you to do with them. Note that if it’s a recipe for a sauce, it may call for including some of the water that the peppers were soaked in.
Some recipes, particularly older, more traditional ones, call for chiles fried in lard instead of toasted. Unfortunately, lard has become a four letter word in cuisine despite the fact that it has far less cholesterol and saturated fat than butter. Rick Bayless, the chef and food writer has been hailing the glories of lard in his writings about Mexican food so, if you’re old fashioned like him (and like me) try it. In that case, do them with a minimum amount of fresh lard in a fry pan over a medium heat for just five to ten seconds on each side. After frying, place them in a bowl with boiling water just as you would if they’d been toasted.
That’s it; I hope I helped. And hope I see you shopping a little more confidently for dried peppers sometime soon at the Tuesday market. But don’t even go near that vintage shirt.