October 4, 2020

The Mystic Art of Dried Peppers

Demystifying cooking with dried chile peppers

Dried chile peppers are intimidating. At least they are for me.

They’re leathery, shriveled, and entangled together. In fact, they look like they belong on a witch’s shelf because they might poison you. 🧙‍♀️

Kind of scary, right? But I’m going to give you a quick pep(per) talk! 📣

Dried chile peppers are a flavor powerhouse! They give off a depth of smoky, fruity, and rich flavor. And because they have a long shelf life (even longer if you store them in the freezer), they’re the perfect item to keep in a well-stocked pantry.

It’s worth overcoming our fear of the mystical, dried chile pepper…So onward!

Buying Dried Peppers

While they do last a few months at least, a dried chile’s flavor dulls with time. So it’s important to look for fresh ones. Fresh dried (that’s a bit of an oxymoron) peppers shouldn’t crack easily when bent. Instead, they should feel similar to dried fruit: leathery, a little squishy, and bendy.

Now, what do the different dried peppers taste like?

For starters the smaller the chile, the spicer it tends to be. And then there are different colors. Red chiles tend to have brighter and more tropical fruit flavors. Dark purple or black chiles tend to have a deeper dried fruit flavor like a raisin or prune.

I like how J. Kenji Lopez-Alt breaks down the different flavor profiles of dried chiles into four categories. For a novice like me who doesn’t have a trained palate, it simplifies things. So I’m stealing those categories to share with you:

  • Fresh: Costeño or New Mexico chiles
  • Hot and Bright: Pequin or árbols
  • Smoky: Chipotles and guajillos
  • Fruity: Anchos, mulatos, cascabels, and pasillas

America’s Test Kitchen has a more extensive breakdown as well if you’re interested.

I think it is worthwhile to have a bag of chiles from each category in your pantry. It gives you some versatility. My favorites right now are anchos, guajillos, and árbol chiles.

Prepping these pretty, pungent peppers

The first step to working with dried chiles is to remove the stems, seeds, and ribs (as best you can). The seeds don’t actually contain most of the heat. The ribs and membrane do. But with dried peppers, the seeds turn leathery. So it’s important you remove them.  

To clean the dried peppers, cut the top off to remove the stem. Next cut a slit on one side of the pepper. This makes it easy to open up the pepper like a book and scrape out the insides. It’s handy to have a bowl to dump all the seeds into. And I find kitchen shears easier to use than a knife here. You don’t have to set the chile down on the cutting board to cut off the stem, and it’s easier to cut a slit when you can insert one of the shears inside the pepper.

Next up, toasting.

We want to toast the dried peppers to give them a richer, more complex flavor. You’ll smell what I’m talking about. It’s quick and harmless and so worth the effort.

How do you toast dried peppers? Simply add the cleaned peppers to a skillet and dry toast them for a few minutes, until fragrant. They won’t need long, and they do burn. So watch them. Make sure to turn and flip them every minute or so. Pro tip: if you’re using a lot of dried peppers, toast them on a sheet pan in a 350-degree oven. It’s faster.

Once toasted, you’ve got a few different options on how to use the peppers...

Cooking With Dried Peppers

Use them whole to infuse flavor

Just like you might throw in a sprig of rosemary, you can do the same with a dried pepper. Whether it’s soup, chili, beans, or stew, dried peppers are flavor boosters. Add the pepper after your aromatics (onion, celery, etc.) are almost done. The nice thing here is that you can skip the toasting step since they’ll develop flavor from the heat before you add any liquid.

If you’re pureeing the soup or beans, you can leave the dried chiles in once everything is done cooking. Otherwise, I remove them because they can still be a bit leathery and chewy if not broken down.

Make homemade chile powder

Sounds fancy but it’s incredibly simple. Take a mix of different types of toasted chiles and put them in a spice grinder or blender. Then blitz away! You’ll have a fine powder in no time.

It’s that easy.

⚠️ Warning: the smell of the freshly ground chiles, while tantalizing, may make you cough—just warn your roommates or family so they don’t think you have COVID-19.

But it’s worth it to make some of the tastiest chili (the ground beef and bean soup kind) you’ve ever had.

Plus if you make extra chile powder, it makes for a pretty sweet gift. Mom, please act surprised when you get a jar in your stocking this year 🎅

Make an adobo

An adobo is pretty much just a dried pepper smoothie. Or at least that is how I like to think of it 🍹. Yeah except not really as refreshing. Or sweet. Or cold.

Okay, it’s not exactly like a smoothie. But maybe more wonderful.

Adobo is a versatile paste that you can use as a marinade for fish, a liquid to braise pork shoulder in, a flavor booster to stir into tortilla soup, and more.

So how do you make an adobo?

First off you need to rehydrate the peppers. Put the toasted peppers in a bowl and then cover them with boiling water. Let them soak for about 10 minutes. This bath time gives the peppers enough moisture so they blend smoothly.

After soaked, take the peppers out of the liquid and add them to a blender. (Or you can use an immersion blender too!). It’s okay if some of the soaking liquid comes along for the ride. The extra liquid just helps everything blend together.

At this point, you can also add other flavors to the adobo. Maybe a couple of tomatillos for some acidity or roasted garlic for sweetness. A touch of vinegar or lime juice is also tasty. While there is a blurry line between adobo and salsa, adobos are typically made of mostly peppers and tend to be thicker than salsa. So don’t go overboard here with extra add-ins. Or do. It’s your kitchen. Do whatever your heart desires!

Where I learned this: Gonzalo Guzmán’s Nopalito Cookbook, this article from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, and Gabriela Cámara’s MasterClass