To many cooks, fresh chiles are something of a mystery. You know they’re spicy…or maybe very spicy…or even incendiary. But telling one from another—let alone how to use them—is another story. Learning how to coax that uniquely satisfying combination of heat and flavor out of fresh chiles will bring a bold new bravado to your cooking style, and it’s well worth it.
Fresh chiles are usually harvested in the green stage. Fully ripened red ones are most often used for drying, but they also turn up fresh in the market for a brief period in the fall. Before shopping, it’s always a good idea to look at a photo of the chile your recipe calls for—just in case your grocer calls it by another name.
You can certainly use fresh chiles raw by including sliced or minced serrano or jalapeño in your guacamole or Chinese stir-fry. Raw chiles are a must in Thai green curry, and jalapeño slices are always found on the garnish plates at Vietnamese restaurants.
Handling: It’s wise to wear rubber gloves when handling hot chiles so you don’t get any juice on your face or in your eyes.
But in my experience, the best way to get great flavor out of green chiles is to roast them, either in a dry skillet, on the grill, under a broiler, or over a gas flame. Think about the difference in flavor between fresh red peppers and roasted red peppers and you quickly appreciate what happens to a fresh green chile when you roast it. First of all, the chile becomes sweeter-tasting and the flesh becomes meatier. But equally important, cooking rounds out the heat, making it mellower and dispersing it more evenly. And there’s an added benefit—the cellophane-like skin on the outside of the chile slips off easily after the chile has been roasted and cooled. These recipes—easy quesadillas, a versatile green chile sauce, stacked enchiladas, a classic salsa, and sirloin tacos—each use a different green chile to its best advantage.
Fat, wide, and dark green, the poblano is rich in flavor. Poblanos are one of the most commonly used chiles in Central Mexican cooking, both fresh and dried. Named after the Mexican city of Puebla, where they probably originated, poblanos are generally roasted and peeled before use, though they can also be sautéed.
Good in: Chile relleno dishes, quesadillas, any melted cheese dish. Like Anaheims, poblanos are good roasted, cut into strips, and used as a flavoring for tacos, fajitas, or quesadillas.
Also called: Ancho or pasilla
In dried form: Called an ancho
These are one of the only chiles most New Mexicans and West Texans use, so they just call it a “green chile” (until it ripens and becomes a “red chile”). In the rest of the country, most of us call it an Anaheim. This light green chile has a pleasant vegetal flavor and ranges from slightly warm to medium hot. Anaheims are usually roasted and peeled before they’re used.
Heat: Mild to medium
Good in: Roasted and cut into strips called rajas, Anahiems can be used as a condiment on tacos and fajitas, and they make a great garnish. Use them diced or puréed for green chile sauce.
Also called: long green, Hatch, New Mexico, Chimayo
In dried form: called a red chile or chile Colorado
Chile names can be confusing
The names used for specific chiles vary across the United States—you’ll notice in the chile guides on these pages that some chiles also go by an alias, which can make shopping pretty confusing. Take the big green poblano and its dried form, the ancho, for instance. Poblano and ancho are the names used in Central Mexico and in most reference and cookbooks in the United States. But on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, the poblano is called a pasilla or ancho in both the fresh and dried forms.
Since most of the Mexican-Americans in Southern California come from the Pacific states (rather than the Central states), their nomenclature is used in Los Angeles (no, not all of California). But not only there: Many grocers on America’s eastern seaboard buy their chiles from the huge vegetable distribution center called the L.A. Produce Terminal. So, food stores in New York, Boston, and Washington DC often use the Pacific Mexican nomenclature for chiles, too.
The classic Tex-Mex hot chile and one of the world’s best-known. Originally grown in Mexico, it’s named for Jalapa, a town in the state of Veracruz. The fresh jalapeño has a strong, vegetal flavor to go with the heat. Although many Americans prefer to cook with fresh jalapeños, the jalapeño is most widely consumed in the United States in its pickled form. Red jalapeños are common in the fall.
Good in: Salsas, stir-fries, soups, vegetable stews; Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Indo-Pakistani cuisine as well as Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking.
In smoke-dried form: Called a chipotle
Why one chile can be hot (and another not)
Chiles can be unpredictable. Sometimes a chile you expect to be hot, like a jalapeño, will have next to no heat. And sometimes a chile that’s supposed to be mild, like an Anaheim, will tingle noticeably. There are a couple of explanations for this variation.
Growing conditions. Warmth and water play a large part. “The main reason for heat difference in the same variety of chile is stress on the plant—specifically, hot temperatures and lack of water. Chiles grown in drier, hotter weather will produce more capsaicin,” says Denise Coon of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.
Seed source. Horticulturists provide chile growers with seeds which have been certified to be a particular variety, and which usually produce chiles of a predictable heat level. But when you buy your chiles at the store, there’s no way to know the seed source. And even growers sometimes report wide variations in heat levels even from two chiles grown on the same plant.
In the end, the only way to tell the exact heat of a chile is by tasting it.
Similar to the jalapeño, the serrano is hotter and usually smaller. Often serranos have a fuller, more herbaceous flavor than jalapeños.
Good in: Salsas, and any place you’d use a jalapeño.
In dried form: Called a chile seco
What makes it spicy?
One of the great chile myths is that the seeds contain the heat, but it’s just not true. The fire in chiles comes from capsaicin, one of several pungent compounds produced in tiny glands located between the pod wall and the white spongy ribs. When you cut a chile, the knife ruptures capsaicin glands, and capsaicin spills onto the seeds, which can make them taste hot despite the fact that they themselves don’t produce the fiery chemical.
Every chile is hot in its own unique way because each variety contains a unique blend of capsaicinoids. (If you eat chiles regularly, your palate will develop and, as with wine or coffee, you can actually become something of a connoisseur.)
Capsaicin is a very stable compound, so there’s not much a cook can do to douse its fire. But by roasting a chile, you can intensify the other flavors lingering in the fruit so that heat isn’t the only thing your taste buds notice.
If your mouth does end up on fire from overdosing on chiles, don’t reach for water. It will spread the capsaicin around in your mouth, but it won’t put out the flames. Instead reach for a glass of milk or a spoonful of sour cream, yogurt, or ice cream. Casein, a protein in milk, seems to strip capsaicin from the nerve receptors in your mouth.
—Kimberly Y. Masibay