Why It Works
- A blend of dried whole chiles gives you better flavor than any dried-chili powder.
- Simmering the chiles and puréeing them eliminates any gritty texture.
Whether you're preparing Texas-style chili con carne (no beans, please!); an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink short rib and bean chili; 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 chiles will save you money, while adding layer upon layer of complex flavor that you never thought was possible.
How to Buy Chiles
Dried whole chiles 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 chiles 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 chiles.
- Hot: An overwhelming heat. The best, like pequín chiles, also have some complexity, while others, like 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, cascabel, and guajillo chiles, 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 chiles, 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 chiles, 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 chiles 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 Chiles for Cooking
Cooking with chiles 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 Chiles
To clean a long, straight chile, like a guajillo, start by snipping off the stem into a bowl, using clean kitchen shears.
Next, make a slit along one edge.
Open up the chile, and use your fingers to scrape out the seeds and any ribs.
The cleaned chile should look like this.
How to Clean Short, Wrinkled Chiles
For wrinkled chiles in which the stem is inverted (think innie versus outie), start by cutting the chile in half, making sure to cut below the point 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 chile, the stem falling neatly into the bowl below.
How to Toast Chiles
Toasting chiles, 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 chiles. Spread them out on a rimmed baking sheet, and place them in an oven preheated to 350°F (180°C), turning them occasionally, until they smell roasted and are very pliable. (If you toast the chiles 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 chiles. Just lay the chiles 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 Chiles
Once those chiles 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 chiles 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 chiles 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 chile 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.
3 whole sweet fresh dried chiles, such as costeño, New Mexico, or choricero, stems and seeds removed
2 small hot dried chiles, such as árbol or cascabel, stems and seeds removed
3 whole rich, fruity dried chiles, such as ancho, mulato, negro, or pasilla, stems and seeds removed
2 whole chipotle dried chiles canned in adobo sauce, plus 2 tablespoons (30ml) sauce
1 quart (950ml) homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
Place chiles on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high at 15-second intervals until hot, pliable, and toasted-smelling, about 30 seconds total.
Combine all chiles in a medium saucepan and add chicken broth. Simmer over medium-high heat until chiles are completely tender, about 10 minutes. Alternatively, place chiles and chicken broth in a 2-quart microwave-safe container, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave on high power until liquid is simmering, about 5 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes. Transfer to a countertop blender or hand blender cup and blend until completely smooth.
Store chile paste in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Alternatively, divide paste into ice cube trays, freeze, and transfer frozen chile paste cubes into freezer bags to store in the freezer for up to 6 months.
Countertop blender or immersion blender
Chile purée can be substituted about 4:1 for chili powder (i.e., use four tablespoons of purée for every tablespoon of powder called for in a recipe). It 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.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 0g||0%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrate 0g||0%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||0%|
|Total Sugars 0g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||1%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|