Focus Ingredient: Dried Chilies
Dried chilies are the quintessential ingredient in Mexican cuisine, namely because they originated in the Americas. However, dear old Christopher Columbus enjoyed them so much that he brought them back to Europe with him, where they quickly spread as a substitution for black peppercorns. They can be classified as a spice because the dried fruit of the chili pepper plants is full of capsaicin, a natural compound that gives the sensation of burning flesh in mammals.
From Europe, they spread throughout the world and are now used in Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian, Italian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Indian, African, and many other cuisines throughout the world. They add tons of flavor to to the dishes they are incorporated in, and yes, can add a lot of heat as well. However, not all dried chilies are scorching hot. Take the Ancho chili (made from a red ripened Pablano pepper) for example. It is mildly warm, but very sweet, and is my favorite of the dried chilies.
Dried chilies can be used as is in many dishes; for example, Kung Pao Chicken or other stir fried spicy dishes. They can be ground to make chili powders, such as cayenne/red pepper. They can be mixed with vinegar, salt, and other spices to make hot pepper sauce. And they can be reconstituted in hot water and then pureed with onions and garlic to make a Mexican red chili sauce for use in tamales, enchiladas, tacos, and many other wondrous treats.
How to Reconstitute Dried Chilies
To reconstitute, simply place them in boiling water and let them soak, weighing them down with a plate or other weight, for approximately 20 minutes, or until soft.
Once soft, grab the stem and gently pull away from the pepper pod to remove most of the seeds and veins. You can rinse the inside with water if you’d like to get rid of any remaining seeds.
Alternately, you can cut off the stem, slit the chili lengthwise, open it up, and remove all the seeds PRIOR to soaking. This is the method used when a recipe calls for “dry roasting dried chilies”, where you first roast the chili over high heat to “blister” it and then reconstitute it in boiling water. This method adds additional flavor to the chilies and is pretty fun to do.
Common Dried Chilies
- Ancho: medium sized, a dried ripe Pablano, usually brownish black in color, mild
- Mulato: medium size, almost black in color, similar to Ancho but sweeter, very mild
- California: long, a dried Anaheim, usually dark red in color, very mild
- New Mexico: long, similar to the California, usually dark red in color, hot
- De Arbol: small, bright red in color, very hot
- Pequin: very little, bright red in color, very hot
- Cascabel: round, dark brown in color, hot
- Thai: skinny and long, bright red in color, very hot
- Chipotle: dried jalapeno, brown in color, sweet and smokey, mildly hot
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