Let’s talk about dried chiles! They are a staple in Mexican cuisine. The first time I was introduced to dried chiles was at a cooking class held by The Pantry in Seattle. The instructor ground up a combination of dried chiles, garlic, and onions to make a thick paste called adobo. She combined the adobo with masa harina to make fresh corn tortillas. It was magical!
Dried chiles are used across all types of Mexican dishes. They can be made into an adobo paste like we did in the cooking class, then used in fresh tortillas, soups, and stews. They are frequently combined with fresh ingredients to make salsas, which can stand alone as a dip or be used for dishes like enchiladas. You can grind them into a powder to use as a seasoning, or add a couple of dried chiles to a braise to impart extra flavor.
Dried chiles have a complex flavor that you just won’t get with fresh chiles. There are a ton of varieties with flavor profiles ranging from smokey to spicy, fruity, earthy, sweet, and everything in between. I could write pages about the different dried chiles you can try, but as an introduction, I’m only going to focus on the chiles I use in my salsa roja.
Salsa roja is a traditional salsa in Mexico that is commonly used as a sauce for enchiladas. You will find a variety of different interpretations out there, but my favorites are the ones that incorporate dried chiles.
So what varieties of dried chiles should you use?
This dried chile is workhorse. Its flavor is earthy and sweet, with mild heat. They are pretty large, and normally bright red. Because of their mild flavor, they combine well with other chiles, and are typically used as a base in sauces. Since they are larger, they provide a good volume for sauces and serve to carry the flavors of more bold chiles.
These are dried, ripe poblano peppers. They are another workhorse chile used to carry flavors, but not overwhelm. Ancho chiles have a flavor that is fruity, and a little grassy; they can be a little smokey at times, but not so much that it dominates their other flavors. They are not technically a spicy chile, but you should still be careful. Every so often you’ll find an acho that is spicy enough to rival a fresh jalapeño or serrano.
These are my personal favorite! Chipotles are smoke dried jalapeños. They are commonly recognized in a can with tomatoes, garlic, and other spices; however, I think the dried ones are just a good. There are two types, mecos and moritas (or moras). Moritas are the smaller of the two types. They are pretty small, and almost black when dried. Their flavor is much more bold than an ancho or guajillo, so you typically won’t find these making up the bulk of a sauce. They are smoky and spicy, with a deep, sometimes slightly sweet, molasses flavor.
What should you look for when purchasing dried chiles?
- Similar to spices, dried chiles have a definite shelf life. Look for chiles that are soft and supple.
- They should feel like fruit leather, and be very aroma.
- You should be able to bend the chile without breaking it. If it cracks or is very fragile, it’s past its shelf life and shouldn’t be used.
- Avoid purchasing chiles that have obvious moisture or condensation in the package. This can lead to mold growth.
Where do you find dried chiles?
Dried chiles have become more available in recent years. A lot of grocery stores have started to carry common types of chiles such as guajillo or ancho. However, other chiles such as moritas, may be a little harder to find. If your grocery store doesn’t carry them, search for a local Mexican grocer; they should have a good selection available. If you can’t find anything locally, there are plenty of online shops that will ship dried chiles. My personal favorite is World Spice.
How do I prepare dried chiles?
Wake up the Flavor
This is accomplished through toasting and re-hydrating. Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat, and toast the chile for 2-3 seconds per side. Toasting much longer at high heat can scorch the chiles, and turn them bitter. After toasting, add to a large bowl filled with hot water. Use something heavy (like a plate) to keep the chiles submerged for 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove the Veins & Seeds
Dried chiles still contain heat in the veins and seeds. You want to remove these completely. They can also be bitter, so even if you love spice, I recommend removing them. You can do this prior to toasting, but I find it easy to toast and hydrate first. Then I keep the chiles submerged in the water while I remove the seeds, stems, and veins.
Always use gloves!
The capsaicin from the chiles can linger on your hands for awhile after handling them. It’s something you can’t remove with soap and water, and can be transferred to different areas of your body through touch. Don’t be like me and end up with a burning, watery eye because you forgot you handled chiles gloveless earlier in the day.
I hope this post gives you a good introduction to dried chiles! Try out my salsa roja, and let me know if you have any questions in the comments.
Fruity, smoky salsa roja packed with the flavors of guajillo, ancho, and morita chiles; a perfect sauce for enchiladas.
- 2 plum tomatoes, halved
- 6 dried guajillo chiles
- 2 dried ancho chiles
- 1 dried chipotle morita chiles
- ⅛ tsp ground cumin
- ⅛ tsp dried oregano
- 2 tsp agave
- ¼ white onion
- 2 cloves garlic, whole with peel on
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- Juice of ½ a lime
- ¼ cup water
- Heat a medium cast iron skillet (or other heavy bottomed skillet) over high heat. Meanwhile, fill a medium bowl with hot water, set aside.
- Toast the dried guajillo, ancho, and morita chiles for 2-3 seconds per side, being careful not to scorch the chiles.
- Place the dried chiles in the bowl with hot water. Place a plate or other heavy object over the chiles to keep them submerged under water. Set aside for 20 to 25 minutes.
- Meanwhile, reduce the heat under the skillet to medium-high. Add in the garlic, onion, and plum tomatoes. Turn frequently to make sure the veggies don’t burn.
- Remove the garlic from the pan after 3-4 minutes. Set aside to cool. Once cooled, remove the skin from the garlic.
- Remove the onions and tomatoes from the pan after 8-9 minutes. Set aside to cool.
- After the chiles have soaked, remove the stems, seeds, and veins. Use gloves! *See note
- Add all ingredients to a blender, and blend on high until smooth.
- If desired, strain the salsa through a fine mesh strainer. *See note
- Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week or freeze for up to 3 months.
- I find it easiest to remove the seeds while the chile is submerged in water. Tear off the stem and tear the chili in half. Run your fingers over the inside of the chile to remove the seeds and veins.
- Deciding to strain the salsa depends on your personal preference and your blender. If you are using a high quality blender, like a Vitamix, you shouldn’t be left with tiny pieces of chile. However, a less powerful blender may not catch every piece of chile. You want the salsa to be smooth, so if you find pieces of chiles, pass the salsa through a strainer before serving.
- Category: Sauces, Condiments
- Cuisine: Mexican
Keywords: dried chiles, guajillo, ancho, chipotle, chipotle morita, salsa roja, red salsa, tomato, garlic, white onion, cumin, oregano, chile peppers, jalapeño, poblano, enchilada sauce, salsa