How to Cook Chili Peppers


The subject of chili peppers can be very confusing for beginning and experienced cooks alike. There are more than 100 varieties of chilies in Mexico, each with its own unique characteristics. They are used both fresh and dried, and either type can be whole or ground. The same chili can even be found under different names depending upon its region of origin. Chilies range in degree of heat from very mild to incendiary, and the heat can vary within a variety.

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Due to increasing interest in Mexican foods, chili peppers that were once available only in Mexican grocery stores are now readily available in gourmet food stores and many local supermarkets. Not all chilies are available in all areas at all times.

Below are descriptions of the most common varieties and individual chili traits. This way, you'll be able to substitute one chili for another. The character of the dish may change slightly, but it will still be delicious and enjoyable.

A Note of Caution

The heat of chili peppers comes from the seeds, the veins (the thin inner membranes to which the seeds are attached), and in the parts nearest the veins. For milder dishes, the veins and seeds are removed and discarded. The oils from the seeds and veins can be very irritating to the skin and can cause painful burning of the hands, eyes, and lips. Do not touch your face while handling chilies. Wash your hands well in warm soapy water after handling. Wear rubber gloves if your skin is especially sensitive or if you are handling a number of chili peppers.

Fresh Chilies

Fresh chili peppers will keep for several weeks refrigerated in a plastic bag lined with paper towels. The towels absorb any moisture. When purchasing fresh chilies, select those that have firm, unblemished skin.

Anaheim, Jalapeno, Poblano, and Serrano chilies are used in Mexican cooking.
From top to bottom: Anaheim, Jalapeño, Poblano, and Serrano chilies. See more spice pictures.

Anaheim (also called California Green Chili)

A light green chili that has a mild flavor with a slight bite. They are 4 to 6 inches long, about 11/2 inches wide and have a rounded tip. Anaheims are also sold canned. For a spicier flavor, poblano chilies can be substituted.

Jalapeño

A small, dark green chili, 2 to 3 inches long and about 3/4 inches wide with a blunt or slightly tapered end. Their flavor varies from hot to very hot. They are also sold canned or pickled. Serranos or other small, hot, fresh chili peppers can be substituted.

Poblano

A very dark green, very large triangular-shaped chili with a pointed end. Poblanos are usually 31/2 to 5 inches long. Their flavor ranges from mild to quite hot. For a milder flavor, Anaheims can be substituted.

Serrano

A medium green, very small chili with a very hot flavor. It usually ranges from 1 to 11/2 inches in length and is about 3/8 inch wide with a pointed end. Serranos are also available pickled. Jalapeños or any other small, hot, fresh chilies can be substituted.

Dried Chilies

Dried red (ripe) chilies are usually sold in cellophane packages of various weights. They will keep indefinitely if stored in a tightly covered container in a cool, dark, and dry place.

Pasilla, Pequin, Mulato, De arbol, and Ancho chilies are used in Mexican cooking.
From top to bottom: Pasilla, Pequin,
Mulato, De arbol, and Ancho chilies.


Ancho

A fairly large, triangular-shaped chili, slightly smaller than the mulatto chili. It has wrinkled, medium to dark reddish-brown skin. Anchos are full flavored, ranging from mild to medium-hot.

Chipotle

A smoked and dried jalapeño chili. It has wrinkled, medium-brown skin and a rich, smoky, very hot flavor. Chipotles are also commonly available canned in adobo sauce.

De arbol

A very small, slender, almost needle-shaped chili with smooth, bright red skin and a very hot flavor.

Mulato

A triangular-shaped, large chili that has wrinkled, blackish-brown skin. Its flavor is rich, pungent, and medium-hot.

Pasilla

A long, slender, medium-sized chili with wrinkled, blackish-brown skin. It has a pungent flavor, ranging from mild to quite hot. (Pasillas are sometimes called negro chilies.)

Pequin (also spelled piquin)

A very tiny chili shaped like an oval bead. It has a slightly wrinkled, orange-red skin. Use pequin chilies with caution as their flavor is very, very hot. (These are sometimes labeled tepin chilies.)

Cutting chili peppers is a skill you must learn if you want to add a little spice to your cooking. Find out more in the next section.

Not what you're looking for? Try these:

  • How to Cook Tortillas and Beans: Tortillas and beans are staples of Mexican cuisine. Learn how to prepare them properly in this article.
  • Mexican Recipes: From enchiladas to tortilla soup, the delicious ideas on our Mexican Recipes page are sure to be a hit at your next fiesta.
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.

How to Cut Chili Peppers

The most important thing to keep in mind when cutting chili peppers is that a little goes a long way!
  1. Put on rubber gloves when handling chili peppers. They can sting, burn, and irritate skin. Do not touch your eyes during or after handling chili peppers.

  2. Rinse chili peppers; pat dry with paper towels. Cut peppers into halves with utility knife. Scrape out stems, seeds, and veins with tip of knife; discard.

    Use rubber gloves when cutting chili peppers when cooking Mexican food.
    Use rubber gloves when
    cutting chili peppers.
  3. For strips, cut seeded pepper halves lengthwise to desired thinness.

    Cut peppers in half when preparing Mexican food.
    Cut peppers in half.
  4. For small dice, group strips together on cutting board. Chop crosswise with chef's knife to desired size.

    Cut peppers in half when cooking Mexican food.
    Dice by chopping crosswise.
  5. When you are finished handling the chili peppers, remove and discard gloves. Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling chili peppers, even if you've worn gloves.

Many recipes call for roasted chili peppers. Learn this technique on the next page.

Not what you’re looking for? Try these:

  • How to Cook Tortillas and Beans: Tortillas and beans are staples of Mexican cuisine. Learn how to prepare them properly in this article.
  • Mexican Recipes: From enchiladas to tortilla soup, the delicious ideas on our Mexican Recipes page are sure to be a hit at your next fiesta.
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.

How to Roast Chili Peppers

Roasting really brings out the flavor of chili peppers. For those without gas ranges, try roasting fresh chilies in the broiler.
  1. Using tongs to hold the chili, place it directly in the medium flame of a gas burner; roast, turning as needed, until the chili is evenly blistered and charred.

    Use tongs to place chili directly in the flame when roasting chili peppers for Mexican cooking.
    Use tongs to hold chili
    directly in the flame.
  2. Immediately place the roasted chili into a plastic bag; close the bag. Repeat with the remaining chilies.

  3. Let the roasted chilies stand in the closed plastic bag for 20 minutes. Peel each chili under cold running water, rubbing and pulling off the charred skin.

    Peel chilies under cold running water when preparing hot chilies for Mexican cooking.
    Peel chilies under cold running water.
  4. Slit the chili open lengthwise using scissors or a knife.

    Slit the chili with scissors when roasting chili peppers for Mexican cooking.
    Slit the chili with scissors.
  5. Carefully pull out and discard the seeds and veins. Rinse the chilies well and drain; pat them dry with paper towels.

    Rinse the chilies and drain well when preparing chili peppers for Mexican cooking.
    Rinse well and drain.
To roast fresh chilies in the broiler:
  1. Place the chilies on the foil-lined broiler rack.

  2. Roast chilies 2 to 3 inches from the heat until they are blistered and charred, turning as needed.

  3. Place the roasted chilies in a plastic bag; close the bag.

  4. Repeat steps 3-5 above.

Not sure what to do with dried chili peppers? Try toasting them as described in the next section.

Not what you’re looking for? Try these:

  • How to Cook Tortillas and Beans: Tortillas and beans are staples of Mexican cuisine. Learn how to prepare them properly in this article.
  • Mexican Recipes: From enchiladas to tortilla soup, the delicious ideas on our Mexican Recipes page are sure to be a hit at your next fiesta.
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.

How to Toast Dried Chili Peppers

Toast dried chilies for a unique flavor.
  1. Heat an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat; place the chili peppers on the griddle in a single layer.

  2. Cook the chilies 1 to 3 minutes until the color changes slightly (but do not burn) and the chilies become fragrant (but not to the point of emitting a harsh aroma), pressing them down with a spatula and turning over occasionally.

    Press chilies down with a spatula when toasting dried chilies for Mexican cooking.
    Keep a spatula handy
    when cooking the chilies.
  3. If you are toasting a large number of dried chilies, place them in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 350°F oven for 3 to 5 minutes until the chilies are hot to the touch and fragrant.

  4. When the chilies are cool enough to handle, but still pliable, cut each one open lengthwise with scissors; carefully pull out the seeds and the veins.

  5. Only if the recipe specifies, rinse and rub chilies under cold running water.

Is your mouth burning up from just the thought of all these hot peppers? Start cooking up some chili peppers for a real spicy treat.

Not what you’re looking for? Try these:

  • How to Cook Tortillas and Beans: Tortillas and beans are staples of Mexican cuisine. Learn how to prepare them properly in this article.
  • Mexican Recipes: From enchiladas to tortilla soup, the delicious ideas on our Mexican Recipes page are sure to be a hit at your next fiesta.
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.