Step Aside, Old Chili Powder: How to Prepare Whole Dried Chilies for the Best Powder and Purée

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A flavorful chili paste that can replace your ground dried-chili powder. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

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 real, honest-to-goodness 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 chili I could find, taking note of both its spice level and its flavor profile. I saw 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 (a.k.a. dried Anaheim, California, or Colorado); and choricero peppers.
  • Hot: An overwhelming heat. The best, like cascabels, also have some complexity, while others, like the pequín or árbol, 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 chilies, 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 anchos, mulatos, and pasillas, are in this category.

Just as 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. For a batch of chili, I like to pick at least one type of pepper from each category.

When you're 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're not planning on using your chilies right away, or if you're planning on buying them in bulk, the best way to store them is in an airtight 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 puréed. I'll walk you through each of these processes.

How to Clean Long, Straight Chilies

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To clean a long, straight chili, like a guajillo, start by snipping off the stem into a bowl, using clean kitchen shears .

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Next, make a slit along one edge.

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Open up the chili, and use your fingers to scrape out the seeds and any ribs.

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The cleaned chili should look like this.

How to Clean Short, Wrinkled Chilies

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For wrinkled chilies in which the stem is inverted (think innie versus outie), start by cutting the chili in half, making sure to cut below the point where the internal portion of the stem ends up.

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Scrape the seeds and ribs out of the bottom half.

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Next, turn the top half inside out so that the inner portion of the stem is exposed.

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Cut the stem off from the inside.

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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 takes only 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 (177°C), 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 doing only a few. Place them in a dry skillet, and heat over medium heat, tossing them occasionally, until they're toasted and pliable. It'll take about three minutes.
  • The microwave is an even better tool for the job than the stovetop, and it's my method of choice for a single batch of chilies. Just lay the chilies on a microwave-safe plate, and microwave them on high in 15-second intervals until they're toasted and pliable. It should take 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 purée 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.

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Once the chilies have softened (it takes five to 10 minutes), they can be puréed along with the liquid, using either a hand blender or a standing blender.

As a general rule of thumb, use about four times as much chili purée as you would powder (so, use four tablespoons of purée for every tablespoon of powder called for in a recipe). The purée can be stored by freezing it in an ice cube tray, popping out the cubes, and placing them in a freezer bag for up to six months.