We often experience a kind of Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon when it comes to unusual ingredients—we see something once in a dish, and then all of a sudden we can't stop coming across it on menus. Such is the case with Urfa Biber (commonly referred to as Urfa pepper), a Turkish chile pepper that's distinctive for its dark burgundy color, irregularly sized flakes and intriguing salty-sweet-smoky-sour flavor. It's quickly becoming a go-to ingredient for chefs across the country. For a bit of background on this beguiling spice and tips on how to use it, we turned to expert Lior Lev Sercarz, who owns New York City's spice mecca La Boîte and sources hard-to-find ingredients for chefs like Eric Ripert. Sercarz recently began offering monthly spice-blending classes to the public and is currently "spending late nights reading about the history of spices" for his second book, an illustrated encyclopedia of seasonings that will come out in 2016.
So first of all, what is Urfa Biber, and where does it come from?
Urfa is a Turkish pepper that comes from the town of Urfa, in the south of Turkey on the Syrian border. I don’t think I would be mistaken to say they've been growing it for hundreds of years. It’s definitely a big part of Turkish and sometimes Kurdish cuisine. Turkey is a country that uses a lot of chiles in general its cuisine doesn't use as much black pepper as that of the Western world. For certain preparations that are traditional to the region, like curing meats or pickling, the chile has historically worked really well. So chiles are very important to them.
How is Urfa Biber made?
Urfa peppers start out looking like something between a pretty big bell pepper and a poblano. Farmers harvest them when they’re orange-red or darker red. In order to get really nice flavor out of them, they dry them out in the sun during the day. So the chiles get direct exposure to sunlight, which cooks or chars them to the point that they’re a dark burgundy color. But instead of just letting them dry completely in the sun like you would see with guajillo chiles or the more Mexican-style chiles, farmers will cover them at night with fabric or plastic or even sometimes put them in bags. That allows them to preserve some of the natural oils from the skin of the pepper. That technique is called 'sweating' because the peppers stay moist under the covering. So they do dry but not entirely. When you do see ground Urfa pepper, it always has that oiliness and an almost damp texture. So it’s not just about the sensation of heat in your mouth but also about the texture. To me, Urfa looks like the sediment at the bottom of a glass of red wine—very distinctive.