Though you may only be familiar with a few, it is estimated that there are over 50,000 varieties of chiles in world. To make things more complicated, a chile under one name may be called something different depending on how it is processed.
Here at El Chubby’s Fresh Mexican Grill in Aurora we know a lot about chiles used in Mexican cooking and tap into their wonderful flavors for a variety of dishes that we prepare daily.
Chiles are what give various Mexican foods their zest and add important undertones to the cuisine. Here are a few of types commonly used and served in the United States.
One of the most famous chiles used in Mexican cooking, poblanos are generally larger in size, averaging 4 to 6 inches in length, and usually a deep green color. Poblanos are often 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 are part of many traditional Mexican food recipes.
One of the most widely known and popular chiles used in Mexican cooking is the jalapeño. They are bright with a 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.
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 actually smoked jalapeños. They’re also becoming just as popular as their non-smoked counter-parts.
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 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 it flavor contains notes of molasses. Chipotle chiles used in Mexican cooking 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 add to the flavor of a dish.
These small green chiles used in Mexican cooking look like miniature jalapeños, but contain much more spice. Often the seeds and veins are not removed, causing 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 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 chilaquiles.
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, but without a hint of that sweetness. Determining the flavor can be difficult because of their spice level, but seeding, toasting, and soaking will help tone the spice down. Nothing will remove the spice entirely, so if you’re looking for mile, choose a different chile.
Some of the hottest chiles used in Mexican cooking 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 similar, so be sure you are not choosing a look-a-like!
These chiles are larger, five to six inches long, and the name indicates they are a dried chilaca chile. They are usually moderately spicy, keeping in mind that you might find one that well exceeds moderation. They have a meaty and rich flavor that makes them good companions to carne (meat) and mushrooms.
10. Pasillas Oaxaqueños
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 used in Mexican cooking will help you navigate some of the wealth of chiles you might come across 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!