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Dried Chiles

By Cook's Illustrated Published January 2008

How are common dried chiles different from each other?

Dried chiles are about more than just incendiary heat; some are as mild as can be and, depending on variety, pack wildly varying flavor—from earthy and fruit-sweet to bright and acidic. While commercially ground chile powder can do in some instances, like a quick batch of chili, we believe that it is worth toasting and grinding dried chiles at home for many dishes. Here are some varieties of chiles that we frequently use and their flavor profiles:

Ancho Chiles

Dark, mahogany red, wrinkly skinned, deep, sweet, raisiny flavor. Also brings to mind coffee and chocolate. Substitutes include mulato and pasilla.

Pasilla

A little hotter than the other three varieties, have grapey, herby flavor notes, and, depending on the region of the country, are often packaged and sold as either ancho or mulato chiles despite flavor differences.

New Mexico Reds

Smooth, shiny, brick-red skin and a crisp, slightly acidic, earthy flavor reminiscent of roasted peppers and tomatoes. Substitutes include cascabel, casteno, and choricero.

California

Similar to New Mexico in appearance but have a slightly milder flavor.

Arbol

Quite hot and bright flavored, slightly smoky. Substitutions include cayenne, pequeno, and Thai (Bird’s Eye), chiles.

Chipotles

We use smoky chipotle chiles more than any other chile. Strictly speaking, the word "chipotle" can refer to any smoked chile pepper, but in the mainstream American market, the chipotle is the smoke-dried, red-ripe jalapeño. Chipotles are dry, have wrinkly, leathery, brownish red skin, and are considered to have a medium level of heat.

The distinctly smoky flavor of chipotles correlates directly with the wood used to smoke them. They are usually smoked slowly over the branches of fruit trees or hardwoods such as hickory, oak, and pecan. Their smoky flavor is accompanied by undertones of sweetness and even hints of chocolate.

While chipotle chiles are available dry, they are most commonly sold rehydrated and packed in cans in a thick adobo sauce, which is a tangy, oily, tomato- and herb-based sauce. Cans of chipotles en adobo are readily available in the Mexican food section of most supermarkets. Give them a try. Your burgers will have an extra dimension of flavor, smokiness, and heat. In most recipes you will not use an entire can. Refrigerate extra chiles in a small airtight container for up to two weeks.

The jalapeño and the chipotle are the same pepper. To make chipotles, jalapeños are smoked. You can find them dried (and reconstitute them yourself), but it's easier to buy them canned in adobo sauce, a tomato, vinegar, and herb paste.

Sweet:

New Mexico, (California, Anaheim, or chile Colorado)

Smoky:

Chipotle

Hot:

Arbol