Mexican Chile Guide

Mexican chiles, Mexican Chilies, Mexican Chillies, Mexican Chillis picking the right spelling let alone picking the right chile for a dish is challenging…lol…here in Europe, it’s chilli (and chile is only ever a country) but North Americans are accustomed to seeing it spelt both ways.

Chiles are considered staples in Mexico and even entering a grocery store you will see piles of dried chiles that tempt you, but if you don’t know what to use them for it can be a bit of a challenge.

rows full of dried Mexican chiles in the shops in Yucatan

If you want to grab some of that amazing Mexican Street Food you may want to learn all you can about the heat levels of Mexican chiles. On the other hand, you may need to know about Mexican refrescos and bebidas to cool down all that heat.

All you need to know about Mexican chiles you will find in this article. When I moved to Mexico I knew something about chiles but learning how to use each variety of dried chile is very helpful when trying out new recipes. Telling the difference between Mexican dried chiles and Mexican fresh chiles is also useful.

mexican chiles dried for use in recipes

North of the border you may not get quite the same selection of chiles in the grocery stores, but in many Latin American shops, you can easily buy the dried and fresh chiles you may need for certain recipes. In Mexico, street markets all have a vast selection of chiles to choose from.  in fact, all over the Yucatan most markets will have a wonderful array of chiles to cook with. Check out some awesome recipes here at Chile Pepper Madness.  If you ever get to Albuquerque in the spring make sure to go to the Fiery Food Show.

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When in Merida make sure to check out the Lucas Galvez Market

Buying Mexican dried chiles

Store-bought dried chiles should be quite flexible and not too brittle. If the chile crumbles in your fingers it is too stale. There should be a shine on the chile and it should bend easily and smell kind of fruity and fresh.

Storing Mexican Chiles

I like to store my dried chiles in the freezer in an airtight container it seems to keep them much fresher for longer. You can also store them in the cupboard but make sure the container has a very tight lid to keep out insects that can squeeze in anywhere.

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Dried Mexican chiles

  • Habanero
  • Ancho
  • Chipotle – jalapeno
  • Poblano
  • Cascabel
  • Guajillo
  • Mulatto
  • Pasilla
  • Serrano
  • De Arbol

Food in the Yucatan is not the same as Mexican food – its influences are European and Caribbean.

They rate at around 300,000 to 350,000 on the Scoville scale compared to a jalapeno that rates around 10-15,000. Habaneros are native to the Yucatan but are named after Havana, Cuba as they were a much in demand ingredient and in heavy demand years ago in the area.

How to make Mexican tamales – Yucatecan tamales are not the same as your usual Mexican Tamal

Habaneros are a crucial ingredient for the regional cuisine of the Yucatan Peninsula. They are native of that region, though ironically, they are named after the Cuban city of Habana as they were traded there, heavily, centuries ago.  Most sauces and salsas here in the Yucatan will be habanero based so take it easy on the sauce.

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Dried Poblano Chile

The Poblano chile is used all over Mexico and is popular both dried and fresh. Chiles en nogada,  chiles in a walnut sauce with pomegranates the colours of which mimic the Mexican flag.  Try out Rick Bayless’s recipe for Chiles en Nogada here.

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The Poblano is also used to make Rajas which you see here a lot in empanadas and are also found pickled and used in a multitude of ways.  Poblanos when fresh are a large dark green, shiny pepper with a fruity, rich flavour that can range from mild to very hot.  The poblano is not generally used fresh however those purchased fresh are turned into Chile Relleno or other stuffed and cooked dishes.

Dried Ancho Chiles

These are actually dried poblano peppers, and very commonly used in Mexican cuisine.  They’re brownish-black and wrinkled with a gorgeous fruity aroma. The Ancho is a Poblano pepper that has been left to turn red and then dried, some say the flavour is rich and fruity with an overtone of sweet dried plum.    

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Dried Guajillo Chiles

Along with the ancho, is one of the most frequently used dried chiles in Mexico. They have tough skin, so they need to be soaked longer than other chiles.   Guajillos can be toasted and ground for salsa, but they tend to be blended with other ingredients to make a recado or cooked sauce for meat.

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Dried Mulato chiles

The Mulato is very similar in appearance to the Ancho chile but it has dark black skin.  The Mulato has a lovely chocolaty flavour with a sweet earthy taste.

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Dried Pasilla Chiles

Pasilla is a chilaca ripened and dried.  Its flavour is rich but sharp. This chile is used toasted or soaked and then blended smoothly with other ingredients in cooked sauces or rustic table sauces, which are particularly good with seafood. It can also be rehydrated, stuffed and fried. It is also by far the most harvested and used chile in the state of Michoacan. In some towns, you can see some patios covered with mats where hundreds and thousands of Chilacas are being dried in the sun to be turned into Pasillas.

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Fresh Serrano Chiles

Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy has said that the  Serrano chile has the shape of a bullet. Serranos are very spicy. They are similar, to Jalapeños, with a dark and deep green colour, shiny skin and a small and thin stem.  However, Serranos tend to be on the smaller side and are much thinner and appear longer.

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Dried and Fresh Cascabel Chiles

Cascabel is a small, round chile with a reddish-brown skin it is found dried and fresh. Its name comes from cascabel, or rattlesnake because its seeds rattle inside like a snakes tail. It is a hot pepper with a rich earthy flavour when toasted and used with its seeds in a rustic table sauce or in a cooked sauce made with tomatoes or tomatillos.

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What is a dried Chipotle chile?

Chipotle (chi – pote- ley) is a jalapeño ripened and smoke-dried. Its name is derived from the Nàhuatl Indian words chil (chile) and poctli (smoke). It has tough, leathery, wrinkled, light-brown skin whose surface appears to be covered with a golden webbing. It’s extremely hot and has a fruity-smoky flavour.

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The chipotle is used most frequently in escabeche. It is also used whole or in pieces to season broth and is sometimes stuffed. A greater part of the crop is destined for canning as chipotle en adobo.

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Dried De Arbol or red chile flakes

De Arbol is probably closed to the most common red chile flakes and dried peppers found in North America.  It is a small bright red pepper around 2-3 inches long and it is very hot.  Here in Mexico, this chile is most often found toasted and ground into a powder that is used sprinkled on fruits, cucumbers and jicama, but it can also be added to fried beans or used in salsas.

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Fresh Mexican Chiles

  • Anaheim
  • Poblano
  • Ancho
  • Jalapeno
  • Serrano
  • Cayenne
  • Habanero

Anaheim Chile

Anaheim chiles are a mild fruity chile grown in both Mexico and New Mexico. Very popular in New Mexico where they are known as Green Chile and used in many local traditional dishes.

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Poblano chiles

Not a super hot pepper but it has a bite with a rich meaty flavour. Dried, they are called anchos and take on notes of deep cherry, raisins, and prunes When dried, poblanos become ancho chiles.

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Jalapeno chile

Jalapenos are one of the most common Mexican chiles in the US. While often used green, when allowed to ripen they turn bright red and take on a sweeter heat when dried they become Chipotle peppers.

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Chile-xcatic

A very hot yellow banana-shaped chile most often used in Mayan food and cooking in the Yucatan.

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Serrano Chiles

Similar to Jalapenos but a little thinner and longer. Serranos are very hot so take care.

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Habanero Chile

Habanero peppers are small and have distinct, bright colours of yellow ripening to red and orange. Used in the Yucatan and in the Caribbean islands these chiles are hot so take care when preparing and wear gloves. Yucatecan cuisine places a particular emphasis on the Habanero which can be shriekingly hot.  They are very colourful and range from green to red, yellow and orange. They are the fiercest and spiciest chiles in Mexican cuisine.

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How to cook with Mexican chiles

The first rule when handling chiles, use gloves and make sure you don’t touch your fingers to your face, eyes, lips or other parts. The oil from the chiles can burn – a lot – and you don’t want chile dust in your eyes trust me no that one.

If you don’t have any gloves take some cooking oil and lightly coat your hands with it – it will help keep the chile oil off your bare skin. If you find the chile burning your skin soak your hands in some milk or yoghurt as chile oil seems to be more soluble in these items.

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The same thing goes if you eat chile peppers that are too hot. Don’t try to douse the heat with beer or water it won’t work as it just spreads the oils around your palate. Have a glass of milk, eat some yoghurt or ice-cream as dairy products seem to have a cooling effect.

If you are not a person who loves full-on heat, there are several ways to prepare your chiles to cut down on the heat. Chiles contain an oil called capsaicin, this tends to be in the white spongy parts of fresh chiles and in dried chiles the seeds are sometimes the hottest part. If you remove those the chile heat will be somewhat subdued.

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For recipes that require an entire chile, like chiles rellenos or stuff chiles, try to remove the seeds by first removing the stem end and then shaking out the seeds or scraping the inside of the chile with a small spoon without tearing the chile itself.  Once you’ve done this, you can submerge the chile in cold water for several minutes to further remove heat, then drain and pat dry and stuff away.

Which is your favourite chile?

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