Chiles Secos de México

Botanically speaking, chiles are actually a fruit and belong to the genus Capsicum. Gastronomically, they are utilized as a vegetable and, when dried and ground, as a condiment. Based on archeological remains, we know that chiles were being consumed over 7,000 years ago in Oaxaca’s Guilá Naquitz cave, and early ethnographers such as Alexander von Humboldt compared the use of chiles in Mexico to the use of salt in Europe. 

When discussing chiles, it’s essential to talk about terroir. Factors such as climate, altitude, humidity and type of soil have a profound impact on the particular flavor profile of a chile, resulting in distinct variations in regional cuisines. Changing microclimates have produced an abundance of unique and rare heirloom chiles throughout Mexico—Oaxaca being home to the most numerous varieties of chiles in the world. Chiles are eaten fresh, dried or smoked. The last two methods were originally used for preservation, and they imbue the chiles with more complex flavors, depth and texture. Once dried or smoked, a chile acquires completely unique characteristics and becomes a new specimen with its own name. A dried poblano, for example, is known as an “ancho chile.” And, a chipotle is, in fact, a smoke-dried jalapeño. While the fresh and dried chiles are technically the same kind of pepper, they are not interchangeable because they have entirely different flavors. 

Dried chiles are often seeded and stemmed, dry-toasted in a hot skillet until fragrant, then softened in hot water before being pureed alone or with other ingredients. The purees can be used in a variety of ways: from sauces, spreads, dips, soups and stews, to rubs and marinades. Given the extensiveness of the subject and how difficult it can be to find some heirloom chiles in the U.S., let’s focus on the dried chiles available to us here at home and their unique flavor profiles. 

big chiles

Ancho 

Ancho chiles are dried poblanos that tend to be 4 to 5 inches long with wide shoulders and a pointed tail. Their skin is extremely wrinkled and dark burgundy in color. Always look for un-torn, soft and aromatic chiles. Pureed anchos are brownish red with an almost sweet, raisin-like rich taste and a mildly bitter aftertaste.  

Cascabel

This pepper’s name refers to the rattling sound it makes when shaken. It’s a small, round chile with a brownish-red, smooth skin that typically measures about 1 inch in diameter. It has a pleasant, nutty flavor when roasted and ground for salsas. 

Chipotle

To create these chiles, jalapeños are left to ripen on the plant, picked and then smoked. Depending on the picking season, whether first, second or third, they are further categorized into mecos, moras and moritas, respectively. A chipotle should be pliable and not rock-hard. Its puree is dark brown with a sweet, smoky flavor and heat felt in the back of the throat.

De Árbol

This chile is compact and slim in size, with a curved form. Its skin is a burnt orange-red color, smooth and brittle to the touch, and its puree delivers a similar color and rich, sharp spiciness. 

Guajillo

This chile is bright red and can be found in an array of sizes. Its skin is smooth and translucent and can be slightly brittle. When selecting, try to find whole chiles with no discoloration on the skin. The puree delivers a deep earthy-red color with medium spiciness and bright flavors. 

Mulato

A mulato looks exactly like an ancho chile only it’s darker in color. It has a mild sweetness and a deep earthy taste with a bitter undertone. The puree is dark brown with complex flavors and medium spiciness. 

Pasilla

This long chile is known as a “chilaca” when fresh. Once dried, its skin is wrinkly with a deep black tone. The puree is very dark brown with a reddish hue, medium to very spicy and delivers deep and complex layers of flavors that range from earthy to smoky to tart.

Chile Piquín

These guys are small but very spicy. The pepper varies in shape and can be triangular, round or cylindrical. It’s generally ground to powder instead of pureed and used sparingly as a condiment because of its fire. The skin is shiny and the color ranges from orange to deep red. In Mexico, ground chile piquín is commonly mixed with salt and used to dress fruits and vegetables, along with lime juice. 

Chilcostle

This rare, smooth-skinned orange-red chile is one of the main ingredients found in mole amarillo (“yellow mole”) from Oaxaca, and delivers bright, earthy, spicy flavors. It’s becoming increasingly hard to find because of the relatively small number of growers and the high market price resulting from high demand. 

Chilhuacle Negro, Amarillo and Rojo

These chiles are only grown in Oaxaca and are consumed primarily after they’re dried. They are compact, wide triangles with smooth skin and deliver spicy and complex flavors to the unique dishes of Oaxacan cuisine. These three chiles have been primordial for the moles of the state but are just as rare as the chilcostle chile.  

Pasilla Mixe OR Oaxaqueño

This regional chile is solely used for Oaxacan cooking and comes from the mountainous Mixe region of Oaxaca. It’s smoked and dried with encino wood and has a unique smokiness and heat. Many chefs in Mexico have lauded this chile as the best of the country due to its deep and complex flavor. Its shiny, wrinkly skin is dark burgundy-red. It is, above all, our favorite chile to use at our restaurant, El Naranjo.

By Iliana De La Vega and Isabel Torrealba • Photos and graphic by Jenna Northcutt