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A Guide to Dried Chiles

Ancho is the most commonly used dried chile throughout Mexico. It is in fact the poblano ripened to a deep red and then dried. A good ancho (which means wide), about 4 1/2 inches long and 3 inches wide, has flexible, reddish brown wrinkled skin that still has some shine. Its heat ranges from almost mild to hot.

As it dries out, the color becomes increasingly dark and more difficult to distinguish from that of the mulato. To accurately identify the ancho, slit it open and hold it up to the light: it should be a reddish color; the mulato, a brownish color . The ancho is decidedly fruitier and sharper than the mulato.

The ancho is most commonly used lightly toasted and soaked, or just soaked, and then ground smooth with other ingredients for cooked sauces. It can be lightly pickled or rehydrated and stuffed.

Cascabel is a small, round chile, about 1 inch long and 1 1/4 inches in diameter. It has reddish brown skin. Its name derives from cascabel, or rattlesnake, because its seeds rattle inside if you shake it. It is quite hot.

It has a rich earthy flavor when toasted and used with its seeds in a rustic table sauce or in a cooked sauce made with tomatoes or tomatillos.

Chilpotle (sometimes written chilpocle or chipotle) is the jalapeño ripened and smoke-dried. Its name is derived from the Nàhuatl Indian words chil (chile) and poctli (smoke). Relatively small (about 2 1/4 inches long and 3/4 inch wide), 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 flavor.

The chilpotle 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 chilpotles en adobo. For years a favorite in Mexico, this condiment has taken the North American gastronomic world by storm. The mixture pops up in anything and everything: sauces, seasoning pastes, soups, salads, breads, but not yet, I sincerely hope, in ice cream. Of the many brands exported from Mexico, my preference is for those packed in a dark-colored sauce, a real adobo, rather than those in a more acidic, tomato-based sauce. Of course, you always get great results if you make your own.

Because it is cheaper and more easily available, another type of dried and smoked jalapeño has supplanted the chilpotle in many recipes: the chilpotle mora. About 2 inches by 3/4 inch, it is mulberry colored with a matte, very wrinkled skin. It is close to the chilpotle in flavor and piquancy. Finally, the smallest smoked chile is the morita, which is triangular, smooth, mulberry-colored and about 1 inch long and 1/2 inch wide. It is probably a late-harvested ripe jalapeño and therefore considered a chilpotle, but there is some debate on the subject. It’s used with anchos to give extra heat to a sauce, and it seasons potato and nopal (cactus) dishes.

De Arbol is not from a tree as the word árbol suggests but from a tall, rangy plant. The fresh chile is a bright green that ripens to bright red, a color that it retains when it is dried with care. It is long and skinny (about 3 inches by | inch) with a smooth skin. It is exceedingly hot.

This chile can be toasted and ground with other ingredients for a piquant table sauce or added to fried beans. But perhaps most commonly it is lightly toasted and ground to a powder for sprinkling on peanuts, fruits, cucumbers and jicama.

Guajillo, along with the ancho, is one of the most frequently used dried chiles in Mexico. It is widely available and cheaper than most others. It has a smooth, tough, dark-red skin with purplish tones. It is long and narrow, tapering to a point (about 5 inches long and 1 1/2 inches across its widest point). It can range from fairly hot to hot with a pleasant, sharp flavor. A narrower guajillo, called puya, is considerably more piquant.

Guajillos are occasionally used toasted and ground for a table sauce, but more often they are ground with other ingredients to make a seasoning paste or cooked sauce for meats. Strain the sauce through a fine strainer to remove any tough bits of skin.

Mulato, rarely used in its fresh state and one of the most expensive dried chiles, is essentially the same as the poblano (ancho), but it has slightly different genes that give it its darker, shinier and smoother skin and sweeter, almost chocolatey, taste (see ancho, previous page, for tips on distinguishing the two types). A top-quality mulato is 5 inches long and 3 inches wide on the average and can range from quite mild to rather hot.

The mulato is most commonly used toasted and soaked, or just soaked, and then ground smooth in cooked sauces, such as a mole. It can also be rehydrated and stuffed.

Pasilla is the chilaca ripened and dried. About 6 inches long and 1 inch wide, it has a shiny, black, wrinkled surface with vertical ridges. Its flavor is rich but sharp.

This chile is used toasted or soaked and then blended smooth with other ingredients in cooked sauces or rustic table sauces, which are particularly good with seafood. It can also be rehydrated, stuffed and fried.

Seco Del Norte, also called chile de la tierra, California chile pod or dried Anaheim, is the verde del norte ripened and dried. An average one is about 5 inches long and almost 2 inches wide. It is very full at the top and either tapers to a point or is blunt nosed. It is burgundy colored with a smooth, matte finish. The flavor is sharp and slightly acidic and can range from mild to hot.

The scarlet sauce made from this chile is used for asados (northern meat stews), carne con chile, enchiladas and chilaquiles. Strain the sauce to remove any tough bits of skin.

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