Chiles are what give various Mexican foods their zing and zest and add important undertones to Mexican cuisines. Here are a few of types commonly used and served in the United States.
One of the most widely known and popular chiles in the world, is the jalapeño. jalapeños are tasty, with a bright and slightly grassy flavor, and are just playfully spicy enough that most people can enjoy them. The colors of the jalapeño range from a bright green to a sassy red and they are generally around three inches long. The green, often unripe, version can be eaten fresh or pickled on all types of Mexican food while the ripe red ones are surprisingly sweet and less spicy. Jalapeños are also called chipotles once they have been smoked and dried. However, you choose to eat a jalapeño, smoked, dried, pickled, fresh, or as part of a dish, they are delicious which is one of the reasons for their popularity.
Chipotles are becoming as popular as their non-smoked counterparts and are just as delicious. While many dried chiles are sun-dried, jalapeños have a higher water content than the average pepper. A jalapeño dried in the sun will often rot before it dries due to the amount of water it contains. Smoking the jalapeño turns up the heat enough to dry the pepper and alters the flavor in such a delicious way.
Generally, there are two types of chipotles: chipotles mecos and chipotle mora or morita. Chipotles mecos are generally larger, slightly spicier, and smokier in flavor. Mecos are usually a sandy brown hue. Moras, on the other hand, tend to be dark red with almost black tinges and its flavor contains notes of molasses. Chipotles are often sold canned which is incredibly convenient because they are rehydrated but also usually come in a tomato-based sauce that includes garlic and spices which will further alter the flavor of a dish.
This small green chile looks like a miniature jalapeño but contains much more spice. Often the seeds and veins are not removed, encouraging the spice level to remain quite hot. Jalapeños and serranos are interchangeable in undertones and flavor, but not in terms of their Scoville rating.
Another one of the chiles commonly found in Mexican food, this type is generally larger in size, averaging 4 to 6 inches in length, and are usually deep green in color. Poblanos are frequently used for chiles rellenos both for their size and thicker flesh. Rajas are poblanos that have been roasted, peeled, and sliced into strips.
When a fully ripe poblano has been sun-dried, it becomes an ancho. These are generally not spicy, though occasionally you will find one in the bunch that has some heat. Anchos are generally a dark brown color and because they are widely available and inexpensive, they are frequently part of many traditional Mexican food recipes.
Another common chile in Mexican cuisine is the guajillo. These chiles are very similar to ancho: bright red and usually dried. Guajillos in the U.S. are generally not as spicy as the ones found in Mexico; however, all guajillos have a generally mild flavor with a hint of berry-like sweetness. Guajillos are also used for many salsas and can bulk up the flavor in a dish with other chiles. Such smooth, saucy, salsas are great to use for enchiladas and chilaquilles.
Fresh arbols can be difficult to find in some parts of the States. Usually what is available are the dried Árbols, or a powdered version of them. These chiles are particularly spicy and so are frequently found in salsas particularly those which are akin to a hot sauce. When choosing an árbol, look for bright red skin. When they turn brown, the chile is aging and its flavor can be substantially dulled.
These chiles have a flavor much like a bell pepper, without a hint of sweetness. Determining the flavor can be difficult because of their spice level, but seeding, toasting, and soaking will assist with toning the spice down. Beware: nothing will remove the spice entirely, so if you are looking for less heat, choose a different chile.
Some of the hottest chiles in the world are habaneros. These roundish, plump chiles offer more tropical, fruity, and sometimes herbal notes than most chiles. Most habaneros ripen to a yellow or deep orange that begins as a light green. Some rarer habaneros even ripen to a purple or dark brown, but the flavors remain much as other habaneros. There are other chiles that look much like habaneros, so be sure you are not choosing a look-a-like, if the habanero is what you seek.
These chiles are larger, five to six inches long, and the name indicates they are a dried chilaca chile. They are usually a moderate spice level, keeping in mind that you might occasionally find one that well exceeds moderation. They have a meaty and rich flavor that makes them good companions to carne (meat) and mushrooms.
Pasillas Oaxaqueños are colored with deep red tones and varying size: they can range from one to four inches. They can be quite expensive, but their unusual flavor can be well worth the price. The taste is reminiscent of smoked raspberry if you can wrap your mind around that one. If you find them, they are certainly worth adding to your Mexican cuisine.
Hopefully, this brief overview of some of the more famous chiles will help you navigate some of the wealth of chiles commonly found in Mexican food and even some of the chiles we use in our cuisine here at El Chubby’s Fresh Mexican Grill in Aurora. Come visit us soon for a taste of Mexico. Carne asada fries to breakfast burritos, we’ll spice up your day!