Spice Hunting: Pairing Chiles and Chocolate

Brownies with chile

Pairing chiles with chocolate is nothing new, and understandably so. It's a delicious combination that showcases subtle aspects of chiles and chocolate that may otherwise go unnoticed. There's a lot more to it than making chocolate spicy, but it's not difficult stuff. As more varieties of chiles become increasingly common, and as we gain a greater understanding of chocolate flavor varieties, it's not hard to make combinations that rival those of many chocolate makers and pastry chefs.

Chiles and chocolate are New World tropical fruits, and they have real, varied fruit flavors. Just like a region's food and wine, they can be paired in complementary ways, either for their natural flavors or the result of their processing. Cacao seeds are ground, roasted, and refined, which can impart whole new flavors into the chocolate. Likewise, chiles are dried in different ways which substantially alter that flavor. (I'm not a huge fan of using fresh chiles in chocolate, though I'll mention one way later on). While I don't think there's a "wrong" way to pair chiles and chocolate, certain fruit flavors can accentuate or contrast each other for a product that feels much more balanced than just adding some cayenne.

The Flavors of Chocolate

TCHO wheel

San Francisco-based chocolate company TCHO has produced one of the best tools I know of for thinking about chocolate: the flavor wheel. Rather than add flavors to chocolate, they select and roast beans to highlight different specific flavors. What I love about this graphic is that it doesn't mention cocoa solid percentage, a limited indicator of chocolate's actual flavor. Assuming you're using dark chocolate in your baking (milk chocolate tends to taste washed out among all that flour and butter), your chocolate may taste berry-like, herbal, citrusy, coffee-like, floral, etc. A guide to the flavor profiles of major chocolate brands will have to wait for another day, but the first step to an awesome chile and chocolate pairing is to taste your favorite chocolates and decide what they taste like.

Sussing Out Chile Pairings

Once you have a sense of what your chocolate tastes like, consider your chile options. You may want to grind up some chiles and dust them on a bit of chocolate to see how they taste. But from personal experience, I'll warn you to do this in small amounts: My tongue, fingers, and nose are still getting over the capsaicin burns.

When pairing, you want to draw attention to common flavors in the chile and chocolate or make a contrast between light and heavy ones. For example, you can increase the smoky character of some chocolates by including some smoked chipotle chile. Or you can lighten up a deep, ruddy chocolate with a brighter chile. You may want to complement one fruity flavor with another, or combine a citrusy chocolate with an herby chile. Chiles and chocolate bring out each other's richness; considered pairings that balance that richness and make it more complex.

Chocolate cookies with chiles
Andrew M. H. Alexander

This is a situation where grinding your own chiles, while not essential, is a huge help. The just-ground flavor of chiles is substantially different, and since we're doing culinary nitpicking here, those nuances matter. Plus, grinding whole chiles allows you to decide how much of the capsaicin-loaded membranes you want to include. Below is a list of common (and some not-so-common) dried chiles that I think pair well with chocolate. They're ordered (roughly) from light, fresh, and bright to deep and dark, with some tasting notes and pairing suggestions.

  • Aji panca: Very light and berry-like, with a good kick. Tastes almost like blueberries. I found it best with lighter and berry-like chocolates so its fruity nuances don't get covered up though it's also very good with acidic chocolate (see below).
  • Aleppo: Fresh-tasting and oily, acidic and light, but complex and zesty. Great with nutty chocolates.
  • Guajillo: Commonly sold as New Mexico. Ruddy and bold, perhaps the most "peppery." Another great contrast for roasted chocolate flavors though with a deeper and fuller chile flavor and feel than aleppo. Its bite also complements floral or light berry flavors. This is my favorite all-purpose chile for chocolate.
  • Ancho: The classic moderate chile. Good for more muted chile flavor as it's less intense than guajillo. Use a milder herbal or citrusy chocolate for something reminiscent of mole.
  • Cascabel: Coffee-like, almost tannic. Perfect to accentuate roasted coffee chocolate though perhaps used in tandem with another, brighter complementary chile so you have more than a one-note dessert.
  • Chipotle: Overused? Possibly, but its rich, sweet, and smoky flavor is the best way to bring out the smokiness of a very dark, challenging chocolate.

Other Considerations for Your Pairings

Hot chocolate
Robyn Lee

How you use your chocolate also affects how they're paired. In something like a truffle, the chocolate doesn't change much, and your combined flavors will be preserved. When you dilute your chocolate in something like a brownie or a fudge, the chocolate's general character shines through, but some of its subtle nuances may be lost. So while I'd use chipotle with an intense chocolate in a truffle for a smoky character, I wouldn't bother in a brownie. When diluting chocolate, pairings that highlight contrasts can come through stronger than one designed to bring out one specific flavor.

Chiles don't care much for cold—their flavor gets dialed down while their bland heat remains—so while chile-chocolate ice creams and other frozen desserts are pretty common, I don't think they do much for the flavor of the chile. If you do want to go that route, one of your best bets is a fresh habanero or scotch bonnet chile. They spread intense chile flavor and spice evenly through a custard and on the tongue, providing a rounded spiciness that almost has a texture of its own.

Hot chocolate, on the other hand, loves some chile, and heat will amplify its flavor and aroma. So use less than you'd use in something baked, and pick a chile that's exceptionally aromatic to benefit from the heat.

Cocoa powder has its own set of chile guidelines. Natural cocoa is acidic and a little bitter, so I like it with lighter chiles that have a more fresh, fruity aroma (such as aji panca). Dutch-processed cocoa has a neutral pH and tastes and feels richer, darker, and more "chocolatey." I think it has a less unique character, so I pair it with two chiles—something bright and peppery for contrast, and something darker, such as pasilla, which tastes lackluster to me on its own with chocolate but can make cocoa even richer.

There's no "wrong" way to add some chiles to your chocolate, and yes, these differences are subtle. But if you're a fan of chocolate or chiles, combining the two is a great way to learn more about the complex flavors of each. Without much effort, you'll be able to do much better than that "Mexican Spice" bar at the grocery store.

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