Let’s start this story with a public service announcement: It is chiles, not chilies. Chilli is the hearty bean dish from Texas and chile refers to the fruit of the plants that pertain to the capsicum family.
They are the secret weapon that makes Mexican cuisine one of the greatest in the world. They add varying levels of complex heat and beautiful hues of burgundy to virtually any dish that you incorporate them to, from birria to mole to chocolate cake. This is because the flavor of all chiles is heightened by the drying process and once you properly learn to toast and rehydrate them, those flavors come right back from preservation better than ever.
Nonetheless, if you’re not familiar with working with dried chiles or let alone know your way around what chiles are best for what, it is understandable to feel a little overwhelmed by it all. Thus, we present this cheat sheet so that you can maneuver yourself through them as effortlessly as a Mexican mom. Always remember to toss the woody ends before using any of these chiles, and if you would like a little less heat, toss the seeds inside them as well.
Chile de Árbol
Arguably the most important dried chile in all of Mexican cuisine is also the most easily available of them all. This little sucker always comes through for you when you just need an element of dry heat for your dish. This chile’s flavor is subtle compared to others because it focuses on packing a punch to whatever it touches. It benefits a lot from being toasted in a little bit of oil to release its full flavor. Try tossing a few in a blender with some roasted tomatoes, garlic, and onion for an amazing all-purpose salsa that tastes amazing on pretty much anything.
Chipotle chiles were launched into the mainstream when Food Network chefs started adding it to mayonnaise for a “Southwest” touch and butchering its Nahuátl-derived pronunciation. With its bacon-like smoky flavor from being smoked and its instant heat, we can understand why this smoked jalapeño became a trendy chile. We recommend the chipotle chiles that are canned in a tomato adobo sauce because they are easier to handle and tastes excellent when chopped and swirled into some crema on top of your fish taco. Then again, it is also amazing when blended up with a tomato sauce for a nice taco de carne asada.
Literally translated to “wide” chiles, these are the chiles to reach for when you need a beefy and fruity chile to add body to a sauce. They are, essentially, dried chiles poblanos, which are infamous for their chile relleno duties. The heat level varies wildly from one from chile ancho to another, though the majority of them should not be very spicy. We recommend passing these dried chiles directly over an open flame until toasty. Then throw them in hot water until they are soft again, then blend them into a sauce to fry your enchiladas in.
These slender chiles with a tapered look are renowned for their ability to add a very appetizing shade of orangey-red to soups like pozole or any stews where braising chicken or pork is involved. It benefits from a toasting on a comal and a good soaking in hot water to make them tender enough to just dissolve into the broths. They are not too spicy, but we definitely still recommend that you taste after each addition of chile nonetheless.
These stunning chiles are jet black and are medium spicy. They are the dried versions of chilaca chiles and are abundant in mole because of its dark color, especially when deeply toasted. These chiles are a little bitter so they are ideal for rounding out rich meats and the tacos made out of them. They are also wonderful when toasted, rehydrated, and added to a blender with a bunch of roasted tomatillos.
These peppercorn-like tiny red chiles are a little harder to find and one of the more expensive of the pack but they make magic happen when freshly ground and sprinkled on top of raw Mexican seafood preparations like fish ceviches or cocteles de camarón. Proceed with caution though, as their size is extremely misleading.