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Whether you're preparing Real Texas-style Chile Con Carne (no beans, please!), an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink short rib and bean chili (A.K.A. The Best Chili Ever), a Pork and Three Bean Chili, or even a Vegan Bean Chili, the best thing you can do to up your chili game is to leave those jars of pre-ground chili powder on the shelf. Starting your chili with honest to goodness real whole dried chilies will save you money while adding layer upon layer of complex flavor that you never thought was possible.
How to Buy Chilies
Dried whole chilies can be found in most large supermarkets and any Latin market. They come in a baffling array, so I decided to taste every variety of whole chilies I could find, taking note of both their spice level and their flavor profile. I noticed that most of them fell into one of four distinct categories:
- Sweet and fresh: These peppers have distinct aromas reminiscent of red bell peppers and fresh tomatoes. They include: Costeño, New Mexico (aka dried Anaheim, California, or Colorado), and Choricero.
- Hot: An overwhelming heat. The best, like Cascabels, also have some complexity, while others, like the Pequin or Arbol, deliver more heat than anything else.
- Smoky: Some peppers, like Chipotles (dried, smoked jalapeños), are smoky because of the way they are dried. Others, like Ñora or Guajillo, have a natural musty, charred-wood smokiness.
- Rich and Fruity: Distinct aromas of sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, chocolate, and coffee. Some of the best-known Mexican chilies, like Ancho, Mulato, and Pasilla, are in this category.
Just like I occasionally like to mix up my Beatles Rock Band with a bit of Super Mario or old-school Street Fighter II, variety is what keeps you coming back to the chili pot. When making chili I like to pick at least one type of chili from each category.
When buying chilies, look for ones that are still pliable and leathery. If they feel hard or crack when you bend them inside their packaging, they're too old and have lost much of their flavor. If you are not planning on using your chilies right away, or if you are planning on buying them in bulk, the best way to store them is in an air-tight zipper-lock bag inside the freezer. They take about a minute to thaw at room temperature and will last almost indefinitely.
How to Prepare Chilies for Cooking
Cooking with chilies is a three-step process. First you've got to clean them by removing their stems and seeds (wear gloves if you're in any way sensitive to spicy food or have sensitive skin!). Next, I recommend toasting them for maximum flavor. Finally, they need to be ground or pureed. I'll go through each of these processes.
How to Clean Long, Straight Chilies
To clean a long, straight chili like a Guajillo, start by snipping off the stem with some clean kitchen shears into a bowl.
Next, make a slit along one edge.
Open up the chili and use your fingers to scrape out the seeds and any ribs.
The cleaned chili should look like this.
How to Clean Short, Wrinkled Chilies
For wrinkled chilies where the stem ends up inverted (think innie vs. outie), start by cutting the chili in half, making sure to cut below where the internal portion of the stem ends up.
Scrape the seeds and ribs out of the bottom half.
Next, turn the top half inside out so that the inner portion of the stem is exposed.
Cut the stem off from the inside.
You should end up with a clean, ring-shaped piece of chili, the stem falling neatly into the bowl below.
How to Toast Chilies
Toasting chilies, just like toasting spices, can improve their flavor and add complexity. It's not 100% necessary, but it only takes a few minutes. There are a number of ways to do it.
- The oven is the best method if you're toasting lots of chilies. Spread them out on a rimmed baking sheet and place them in an oven preheated to 350°F, turning them occasionally, until they smell roasted and are very pliable (if you toast the chilies before cleaning them, they'll also puff up).
- A skillet is a decent choice if you're only doing a few. Place them in a dry skillet and heat over medium heat, tossing them occasionally, until toasted and pliable. It'll take about 3 minutes.
- The microwave is an even better tool for the job than the stovetop and my method of choice for single batches of chilies. Just lay the chilies on a microwave-safe plate, and microwave them on high in 15 second intervals until toasted and pliable. It takes around 30 seconds.
How to Grind Chilies
Once those chilies are toasted, you could just throw them into a blender or spice grinder to make your own chili powder. However, I prefer to puree them with liquid for better texture. Start by either simmering the chilies in water or chicken stock, or even easier, placing them in a covered microwave-safe container and microwaving them on high power for a few minutes.
Once the chilies have softened (it takes 5 to 10 minutes), they can be pureed along with the liquid using either a hand blender or in a standing blender.
As a general rule of thumb, use about four times as much chili puree as you would powder (so, use 4 tablespoons of puree for every tablespoon of powder called for in a recipe). The puree can be stored by freezing in an ice cube tray, popping out the cubes, and placing them in a freezer bag for up to 6 months.