Chile peppers are about so much more than heat!
There are over 4,000 types of chiles cultivated for cooking, each with its own flavor and level of spiciness. Many of these are grown specifically for drying to preserve their fruity flavor, and these dried chiles are essential ingredients in cuisines across the world, from the mountains of Peru to the tropical valleys of China. It’s never been easier for cooks to sample high quality versions from specialty spice companies, so if you haven’t ventured beyond the grocery store crushed red pepper and cayenne, now’s an excellent time!
First things first: is it chile or chili? Both spellings descend from the Nahuatl word chīlli. In Spanish-speaking regions of Latin America, where the plants grow wild, the peppers are spelled as chile. In the United States, most English speakers spell the word as chili or chilli. None of these spellings are wrong; which you use likely depends on where you live. We use the word chile to refer to pure chile peppers out of respect for their Latin American origins, and to differentiate from chili powder, the blend of herbs, spices, and peppers used to make Tex-Mex chili.
Almost all of those 4,000 pepper varieties come from just five species of vining plants in the genus Capsicum, which is part of the nightshade family along with tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. Individual varieties are cultivated like dog breeds for a specific color, flavor, size, and heat. Drying chile peppers impacts the flavor as well. Some varieties are slowly dried over fires to develop a potent smokiness, while others sweat it out under blankets in the sun, which slightly oxidizes the pepper for a richer, fuller flavor.
Regardless of the variety, a quality whole dried chile should be soft and bendable, even a little moist, with a vivid color and obvious aroma. Despite the term “dried,” fresh dried chiles are more akin to raisins and sun-dried tomatoes than other spices. A crispy, brittle chile is dried-out chile that’s been on store shelves too long. To taste dried chiles at their peak, use whole dried chiles within six months and grind them in your FinaMill (use the MAX pod) as needed. Ground chiles lose flavor quickly and are best used within a month.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the sheer number of chile peppers to choose from. While there are exceptions to each of these guidelines, here are three general pepper predilections to help you find your new favorite variety.
1. Smaller chiles (habanero, cascabel, Scotch bonnet) tend to be hotter than large chiles (ancho, pasilla, guajillo).
2. Most dried chiles appear in shades of red or purplish black. Red chiles usually have a brighter, sunnier flavor with a sharp acidity; black chiles taste darker and richer with flavors of raisins and chocolate. Try mixing the two in a single dish for the best of both worlds! Black chiles are often less spicy as well.
3. When in doubt of a chile’s spiciness, consult the Scoville scale, a relative measurement of a pepper’s spiciness. The higher the number, the greater the concentration of capsaicin, the molecule responsible for chile heat. Just remember these are averages; an individual pepper might be hotter or milder than you expect. Consider it part of the Russian roulette fun of playing with your peppers!