Spice Hunting

Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: Aleppo Chile

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

"Aleppo is a solid candidate for a go-to chile."

In most spice cabinets, there seems to linger some generic chile flakes designed to make things spicy. Capsaicin in palatable form—heat instead of flavor. I have a jar in my cabinet, and each time I discover a new chile for some specific application, it gets pushed farther and farther back.

When I discovered aleppo chile, I realized I'd never need those generic red pepper flakes again. Aleppo is a solid candidate for a go-to chile. It brings a not insignificant amount of heat to a dish, but it also brings a complex flavor and bright acidity that makes it stand up on its own with minimal support. Equally at home in sweet and savory dishes, it's my new standard baking chile. It deserves a place as a major player in a well-stocked spice rack.

What Does It Taste Like?

Aleppo hails from Syria and is used in several nearby Middle Eastern cuisines. It's a common feature in kabobs and other grilled meats. It makes pasta and rice dishes sing. Even dashed on a plate right before serving, it adds a unique oomph. And since it's become increasingly popular with restaurants, it's easier to find in stores than ever. Check out a Middle Eastern market for some; failing that, gourmet shops may have it for three times the price.

The oil-heavy flakes have an intense fruity aroma that gives way to something at once earthy and tart. The heat is intense but brief, giving way to a slight smoldering sting on the tongue. The overall flavor is bright, much like fresh tomatoes, and it shares their ultra-savory quality. This bright-deep duality makes them a perfect accent for anything requiring some heat but also balanced and nuanced flavor. The smoldering heat that remains after the initial burst is the perfect kiss of heat that recipes like tomato sauce require. All this complexity means that aleppo stands well on its own. It plays nicely with cumin, coriander, and cinnamon, but it doesn't need them.

How Do You Use It?

It's a bit of a cop-out to say aleppo is good on anything as an all-purpose chile, even though I think it is, but it does pair especially well with meat- and tomato-based foods, such as sauces, pizza, stews, or anything destined for the grill. In the realm of non-legged protein sources, it's a superb seasoning for lentils. A careful hand is needed if applying to vegetables lest they become overwhelmed, but it makes a killer aioli for roasted asparagus. Unlike other chiles, it doesn't require much toasting or cooking in fat to draw out the flavor, which makes it a perfect table condiment.

I love it most in desserts, especially when it joins forces with a spicy cinnamon. Be it hot chocolate, brownies, or these candied nuts, is the baker's best spicy friend. It doesn't hit you over the head with heat and its acidity balances other richer ingredients like chocolate or sugar.

It's not impossible to find aleppo in whole pods, but it's mostly available ground. Since it has more volatile oils than your average chile, it'll remain fresh longer than other ground spices, but I'd still buy a new supply after eight or nine months. If not much sooner—a chile this versatile and flavorful (without tongue-numbing overwhelming heat) can be blown through in no time.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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