Mexican cooking employs a range of dried chiles in its cuisine. Why? Dried chiles, as opposed to fresh chiles, possess a more intense flavor. Additionally, they can be kept in the pantry for an extended period without spoiling. Consequently, fresh chiles are often used to garnish or finish a dish, whereas dried chiles are employed to create a salsa (sauce) or adobo (pureed paste poured into a soup, braising liquid, or marinade).
The Chiles and their Flavors
Dried chiles are the mark of Mexican cuisine. They vary vastly in terms of heat, and they contain so many different flavors, from smoke, berries, and sweet paprika, to chocolate, coffee, and licorice. These markers come bursting through authentic Mexican dishes such as birria de chivo, enchiladas with salsa Roja, and tamales.
The ratios of chiles depend on their tasting notes and the strength of those notes that one wishes to impart upon a dish. Listed below are some dominant dried chiles that are used in Mexican cuisine and their corresponding flavors:
- Guajillo chiles: mild spice, smoke, green tea, berries.
- Ancho chiles: mild spice, rich smoke, and sweet paprika.
- Chiles de árbol: hot spice, grass, nuts.
- Mulato chiles: mild spice, smoke, chocolate, licorice, cherries, coffee.
- Pasilla chiles: dried fruit, smoke, earth.
- Chipotle chiles: spice, smoke, sweet.
- Cascabel chiles: spice, smoke, earth, wood, nuts.
- Habanero chiles: extreme hot spice, golden raisin, apricot, orange zest.
How to Store the Chiles
The shelf-life of dried chiles is three to six months. When storing dried chiles, store them in airtight containers in a cool dark place. Alternatively, you may store them in airtight containers in the freezer. This step will ensure that the chiles stay fresh for the maximum time.
Treating the Chiles for an Adobo or Salsa
To make an authentic Mexican salsa or adobo using dried chiles, you must follow these three essential steps before blending them with other ingredients:
- Remove the Seeds and Stems
- Toast the Chiles
- Soak the Chiles
Remove the Seeds and Stems
The seeds of the chiles are intensely spicy and bitter. Accordingly, they are often removed before the toasting and soaking processes. To remove the seeds, either slice them open using a paring knife or cut them in half. Then, use the paring knife to scrape the seeds from the flesh of the chile. Most seeds are loose and will fall out of the chile once they are sliced open.
The stems may remain affixed until after the chiles are soaked. Once they are soaked, you may remove the stems with ease.
Toast the Chiles
Before use, toast the chiles in a dry sauté pan at medium heat to enhance their flavor by releasing their natural oils. When they appear intensely aromatic, they are ready for use. The toasting process should only take 1 minute. Be careful not to burn them as they will develop a bitter taste.
Soak the Chiles
Dried chiles must be re-hydrated before use. To re-hydrate dried chiles, you must soak them in hot water for 30 minutes or until they are fully hydrated. Use a spoon periodically to push them into the water so that the entire chile is adequately soaked. Once soft, they are ready to be blended.
Noteworthy Additions to the Adobo or Salsa
Once the dried chiles are toasted and soaked, blend them in some form of liquid. The addition of spices or other ingredients depends mainly on what type of adobo is being made and the purpose for which it is used. The following is a list of popular additions:
- Fire-roasted tomatoes
- White Onions
- Olive Oil
- Bay Leaves
There you have it, you are now ready to try your hand at Mexican cuisine including treating any variety of dried chiles like a pro and blending up your own amazing adobo or salsa! The next section contains a few recipes to get you started.