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: Urfa Biber

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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

When autumn hits and the temperature drops, dried chiles come into their own. The chile growing season is still ongoing in some places, but this is my favorite time of year to cook with dried chiles. The warming, spicy flavors of the season play to the fruits' best attributes.

Urfa chiles are some of the best for the season, full of smoky, sultry flavors that pair well with hearty vegetables, pungent cheeses, and braised meats. Their heat is tricky—mild at first, it builds over the course of a meal. They're perfect for when you want a dark, rich chile without the overpowering, overused punch of chipotle.

Like some other moist, intensely flavored spices (such as vanilla), the chiles are dried in the sun during the day, then wrapped up to sweat out the warm nights. This helps to keep the chiles moist and amplifies their dark, roasted flavor, often described as raisins meets coffee. Dried chiles are usually ground before sale, but their high moisture and oil content keeps them better than other pre-ground peppers.

Urfa biber hails from Turkey ("biber" means "pepper" in Turkish), where it's used in all manner of kebabs (lamb in particular), either with intensely-spiced ground meet or whole chunks. Urfa also takes well to other nightshades like red peppers and eggplants, especially when they're roasted. And it gives incredible depth to dairy spreads from the Mediterranean, especially those with feta.

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Eggplant with urfa biber yogurt.

Urfa goes so well with cheese that you can include it on cheese plates along with sweet chutneys and fruit. Its large flakes yield satisfying, chewy texture, and its high oil content makes it far better for serving raw (without toasting or cooking in water/fat) than most chiles.

When cooking with urfa biber, you can use it as a stand-alone player, but it's so dark it works best in concert with other layered flavors. Try it with roasted root vegetables (think celeriac, parsnips, and squash to boot) or in meaty braises and stews. An added touch of aleppo brightens things up just enough.

You can also use urfa biber in desserts. Use this guide to pair it with chocolate. Or use it in savory compotes with dried fruits and dark liqueurs. Up the stakes with some vanilla bean, whose pungent flavor and labor-intensive drying process align nicely with urfa's. You can also punch up your gingerbread spices with a pinch (add some ground coffee for good measure).

Since urfa biber only comes pre-ground, take precautions with storage. Keep it in a tightly-sealed opaque container away from light and heat, and you'll get eight months of full potency easily. Though once hard to find, urfa is making inroads to mainstream markets, thanks in large part to cheffy circles that are celebrating its complex character. Well-stocked Middle Eastern groceries often carry it, or you can order it from merchants like Spice Station.

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. He is known to make ice cream on occasion. You can follow his exotic spice- and ice cream-based ramblings on Twitter.

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