Mexican dried chillies are some of the main ingredients found in Mexican food. There are many different types and they all have a function. Sometimes recipes will call for just one of them but it is quite common to also find a combination of them in a recipe. Each one of them has a different flavour profile, some of them are fruity, some of them are smokey, some others are spicy. Some of them add colour and other textures to sauces and salsas.
The world of dried chillies in Mexico is as rich as their uses. Listed below, you'll find the simplest and most practical ways on how to handle and work with them. Let's start with a little background information.
Chillies - Before and After
Chillies are such an incredible ingredient. When fresh, they have so many uses. They provide salsas and dishes with amazing flavours and spiciness. Sometimes, they are even the dish itself, such as the case of Poblano pepper that is often filled and presented as the star of a meal. When dried, their flavour transforms into something completely different and provide complex flavours to different kinds of meals. These are just some of the most common chillies found in Mexican gastronomy:
- Jalapeno & Chipotle Jalapeno pepper is one of the most common fresh chillies to have around. Very versatile, not the hottest, very fresh and one of the best to make salsas with. If they are left to dry and sometimes even smoked, they transform into one of the most delicious dried chillies there are. Chipotle peppers are not only a common ingredient in Mexican food and Tex Mex, but can also be used in many other cuisines. They are usually spicier and their flavour is completely different to their fresh version.
- Poblano & Ancho Poblano peppers are present in so much of Mexican cuisine, as part of a dish or as a dish itself. Chiles en Nogada and Chiles Rellenos are two of the most traditional dishes there are and they are both made with the poblano peppers as the star. When dried, ancho peppers transform into ancho chillies and are again, a fundamental part of a lot of sauces, providing a very different layer of flavours and colour. From green to deep red, from fresh to fruity.
- Chilaca & Pasilla While chilaca pepper is not as common as the poblano pepper, it can be used in similar ways. A long, green and very tasty pepper that is often found as part of a dish as the poblano would be. When dried, it becomes the pasilla chilli, one of the most common dry chillies there are. Pasilla chillies are dark, resembling a long raisin (hence their name). The flavour is fruity and they bring a very particular and delicious flavour and colour to any sauce or dish.
- Mirasol & Guajillo Mirasol pepper is mostly used in some regions in Mexico, however, when dried, guajillo chillies are found in the gastronomy of every region. The use of guajillo chillies is incredibly common, providing beautiful red colour and flavour. One of the most common chillies to use for sure.
- Bola & Cascabel Similar to the mirasol pepper, bola peppers (ball peppers) are used only in some places in Mexico. It’s when they are dried that becomes one of the most common chillies in Mexican gastronomy. Its flavour is slightly nutty and it has moderate heat levels.
General Handling and Tips
- How to store dried chillies. It is key to keep dried chillies protected from any insects and humidity. Dried chillies are best kept inside airtight containers or resealable bags. You can keep them inside a cool, dry pantry but if you don’t use them often, they live very happily inside the fridge. They can last for months when properly cared for.
- How to clean dried chillies outside. Dried chillies are often covered in dust so it is very important to clean them before using them. Rinsing them under running water and no soap is best. Cleaning them with a clean, damp cloth also works. If you are going to toast or fry them, make sure they are completely dry before doing so.
- How to clean dried chillies inside. Most dried chillies require the stem and seeds to be removed. This can be done easily and quickly with the help of a pair of scissors or a sharp knife. Cut them in half lengthwise and remove all the seeds and veins connecting them. Sometimes, the chillies can be a bit extra dry and closed together and they can break when trying to clean them. This is not a problem as the chilli doesn’t need to be in one big piece to work with them.
- Handling. Not all dried chillies are very hot, however, there are some of them such as Arbol chillies or chipotles where they can be quite hot. Using gloves or making sure you don’t touch your eyes straight after is important. Sometimes the spiciness can linger a bit longer, even after washing your hands.
How to use dried chillies
- Rehydrating After cleaning and deseeding, place the chillies in hot water for anything between 5 to 15 minutes. Generally, cooking chillies for too long can make them bitter, however, some recipes call for cooking the chillies with other ingredients and simmer them for 15-20 minutes. After this, the chillies should be hydrated, soft and ready to be blended into sauces.
- Toasting Once cleaned, place the chillies on a dry pan and press them a little on each side. As with any other cooking method, chillies shouldn’t be overcooked. When toasting, pay close attention and don’t let them burn. If the chilli is still unopened, it will plump up and fill with steam. This is the time to remove it from the pan. A few charred areas are ok, as long as it is not too much. Some recipes, call for the chillies to be rehydrated after they have been toasted! This brings a lot of complex flavours to the mix!
- Frying Salsa Macha or chilli oil are some of the best examples of how frying or cooking dried chillies in oil can produce fantastic flavours. Once again, the key is to do this without burning them as the result will be a bitter taste. Every recipe will call for different frying times. Sometimes they require to be quickly fried on high heat and others will require chillies to be slow-cooked in oil as a confit.
- Powder or Cracked Even when you could use chilli powder or flakes in similar ways to whole dried chillies, they won’t produce the right consistency or overall complex flavours that you can achieve by using the whole chilli. You can, however, pulverize or blitz whole dried chillies to make your own ground spices or flakes.
Three Common Ways to Use Dried Chillies
Below, you can find three different recipes using three different ways to work with dried chillies. We will be using three of the most common and mild dried chillies: ancho, guajillo and pasilla. These are all very tasty, not too spicy and so versatile! We will link to recipes we have made using each specific sauce but remember that as always, these are only suggestions, you can be as adventurous as you like. Hopefully, after the information above, you will be able to feel more comfortable working with dried chillies on your own.
This chilli comes from the poblano pepper. Once dried, its flavour is fruity and with very mild spiciness. Used alone or in combination with other dried chillies can provide beautiful and complex sauces. The adobo we are making is ideal to marinate or cook pork, chicken or mushrooms. The use of orange and lemon juice brings this adobo to another level. Absolutely worth trying!
Ancho & Orange Adobo (Rehydrate)
-2 garlic cloves
-⅓ cup orange juice
-⅓ cup lemon juice
-5 black peppercorns
-½ tsp oregano
-⅛ tsp ground cumin
-⅛ tsp thyme
-2 tsp salt
-Enough boiling water to cover the chillies
1 Rinse the ancho chillies under cold running water to remove any dirt. Using a pair of scissors, remove the stem and open the chillies to remove the seeds and veins. Place the clean chillies in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Let them soak for 15 minutes.
2 In a blender, add the spices, garlic cloves, orange and lemon juice 1 tsp of salt and the hydrated chillies. You don’t need to add water from the chillies.
3 Blend all the ingredients until smooth and taste. Add more salt to taste.
Tip: Use it to make some delicious Ancho Adobo Chicken Tacos. Find the recipe here.
This chilli has a beautiful red colour and a delicious flavour. It is often used in combination with other chillies because it is very mild. It mostly provides texture, colour and flavour. This salsa is so versatile! We will be mixing it with de Arbol chile to bring the spice right up.
Guajillo Sauce (Toasting and hydrating)
-5 de Arbol chillies
-¼ white onion
-2 garlic cloves
-Enough boiling water to cover the chillies
-Salt to taste
1 Clean the outside of the chillies with a damp cloth and remove the stem and seeds from the guajillo chillies. You can leave the Arbol chillies as they are with their seeds. Once clean, place them in a frying pan with no oil on it and toast the chillies. You can press them and turn them often. They will become fragrant, shiny and as soon as they start to smoke, it is time to remove them. Leaving them too long will cause them to become bitter.
2 Transfer the lightly toasted chillies to a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Leave them for 15 minutes to rehydrate them.
3 Add all the ingredients to a blender with about a teaspoon of salt and about ½ cup of water from the chillies. Blend everything together until smooth. Taste and adjust salt.
4 Using the same frying pan where you toasted the chillies, add a little bit of vegetable oil and bring up the heat to medium. Once hot, add the salsa and cook for 5 minutes. Stir often.
5 Transfer the salsa to a jar and let it cool down before using it or storing it inside the fridge.
Tip: This salsa is very similar to the ones often found in taco stands all over Mexico. In this case, we used it over our corn on the cob. When mixed with fresh lime juice, this salsa really shines! Find the recipe here. Also delicious with fish tacos!
This chilli is long, black, shiny and packs a lot of flavour. Even when pasilla chilli is often used in combination with other chillies, we will be using it alone in this salsa. By quickly frying the onions and the cinnamon the flavours and consistency of this salsa will remind you of a mole. Absolutely delicious! This is not a spicy salsa, it’s all about the flavour.
Pasilla Sauce (Frying)
-¼ white onion
-1 garlic clove
-¼ cinnamon stick
-2 Tbsp vegetable oil
-½ cup of water
-2 tbsp piloncillo syrup or the same amount of brown sugar dissolved in 2 tbsp of water.
-salt to taste
1 Clean the chillies using a damp cloth and remove the stem and seeds.
2 Add the oil to a frying pan and once hot, place the onion, garlic, chillies and cinnamon. Fry them until they become fragrant. Move constantly to avoid burning the ingredients. Ideally, you’ll get some browning in the onions and garlic. This whole process shouldn't take more than 5-8 minutes.
3 Transfer all the ingredients (including any leftover oil) to a blender and add the water, syrup and about half a teaspoon of salt. Blend until smooth and taste. Add more salt if needed.
Tip: This is not your everyday salsa. It is very smooth and thick in consistency and packs a beautiful smokey-sweet flavour. We used it with our Chipotle Plantain Tacos and it works just beautifully. You can find the recipe here.
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