How to Get Started Cooking With Dried Chilies

Guajillo chilies

Guajillo chilies. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

For a neat and tidy spice cabinet that’s actually useful, I’m typically a believer in less is more. Ground spices degrade with time, so it’s good practice to stock small, fresh batches of the ones you cook with regularly, rather than hoard a pile of mystery powders that you bought years ago.

But there’s one section of my spice cabinet where I just can’t contain myself: dried chilies.

At last count, I have eight varieties in my pantry, each with its own heat level and unique flavor, ranging from the sunny kick of Maras pepper to the sultry raisin sweetness of pasillas. Some bags go untouched for months at a time; others are used almost daily. (TBH, when a recipe says “season to taste with salt and pepper,” I usually sub in red chili flakes for black pepper.) But I’m glad all of them are there, because dried chilies are flavor workhorses that pull way more than their weight in the kitchen.

In fairness, they weigh very little. But roll with me here—these spices are worth collecting if you know how to use them right.

A Basic Chili Primer

De-seeding chilies. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

There are a few key things to know about dried chilies before we get started: They generally have different names from their fresh counterparts; smaller ones are usually hotter than larger ones; and darker colors, such as black and purple, typically mean richer dried-fruit flavors, as opposed to the more fiery red-hued specimens.

But most importantly, dried chilies are at their best within a few months of drying, which is a much shorter shelf life than the eight months to a year that we typically recommend for other whole spices. A quality dried chili shouldn’t be totally dry—you want peppers that you can bend and flex without breaking them, and that are plump like really good raisins. For the freshest dried chilies, head to Latin American and Asian markets with high turnover, or buy online from specialists.

We’d also recommend de-seeding your dried chilies before using them. Lots of people think the seeds are where the heat of the pepper lies, but that simply isn’t the case—in fact, the dried seeds taste bitter and aren’t that palatable compared with the chili’s flesh. We’ve covered how to clean dried chilies in depth, but, long story short, you’ll want to cut off the pepper’s stem end with a pair of kitchen shears and remove those seeds. (If you have latex gloves, now’s a good time to use them.) Once you’ve removed most of the seeds, you can snap the chilies into half-inch pieces with scissors or a chef’s knife.

Here are just a few of the more commonplace chilies I like to keep in my pantry, from sparky bright-red chilies to the moody sweetness of darker peppers. Do note that there are literally hundreds more chili peppers—this list reflects my personal tastes and cooking styles as much as anything else, but should get you started nicely.

  • Aleppo: These Syrian chilies are only available ground. With a bright, sunny demeanor, they’re well-rounded enough to replace your generic red pepper flakes (which means they’re great on pizza). Their character is sweet and fragrant, fresh and fiery on the nose, but they’re not too hot. As the city of Aleppo is undergoing one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century, growers in Turkey are filling the supply gap with their own red peppers, sold sometimes as Aleppo but increasingly by their domestic name: Maras.
  • Árbol: Short, thin, and needle-like, árbol peppers pack way more heat than flavor. They’re perfect for homemade hot sauces and spice mixes, where their subtle toasted notes add an extra layer of savoriness. You may see similar-looking peppers by the name japones, which aren’t Japanese at all but are just as good.
  • Guajillo: Long and thin, with dark-red skins, guajillo chilies are hotter than anchos (below), with a brighter character. Combine both varieties with pasillas (also below) for a balance of brightness, richness, and heat.
  • Ancho: The all-purpose pepper, anchos are dried Poblanos, with a meaty texture, a rich flavor, and a mild, smoldering heat. They add great flavor and heft to sauces and blend well with a wide variety of ingredients.
  • Morita: Though often confused with tawny chipotle chilies, moritas are dark and raisin-like, with a richer, sweeter, and smokier flavor.
  • Pasilla: A long, thin Mexican pepper that’s dark to the point of being jet-black. Spicier than anchos, with a more brooding, chocolate-like character. Great in moles and with beef.
  • Urfa: This not-too-hot ground Turkish chili is dark, smoky, and redolent of prune and raisin. Where Maras and Aleppo bring bright acidity, Urfa adds incredible depth to kebab mixes and scoops of yogurt.

I also pick up these wild cards when I can find them: round, thin-skinned, maraca-like cascabels, which pack notes of coffee; spicy hot, brightly fruity, itsy-bitsy pequins; and delicately sweet mulatos.

Here’s a taste of what these chilies can do once you’ve got your hands on them.

Flavor Every Stew

About once a week, I head down the street to my Mexican grocery and pick up whatever meat or beans look good, along with a supply of onions, garlic, and dried chilies. These chilies are so freshly stocked that they’re still floppy and moist, like dried fruit—which is exactly what they are. I stew everything together until the protein turns tender, then whizz the stock, softened onions and garlic, and rehydrated chilies in a blender until they’re nice and smooth. The result is a thick, rich, spicy chili sauce for pork, poultry, or beans, with no extra fat required. And, with pulverized chili in every bite, the braise is unbelievably fragrant and flavorful.

This is a typical Latin American cooking method that Kenji has interpreted into kitchen praxis for everyone: Rather than grind dried chilies into powder, soak them until they’re soft, then blend them into a paste. You get more flavor and more heat in every mouthful of sauce, and no ground-chili grit. Put this method to work in classic chili con carne and all kinds of braises—Sohla’s spicy braised lamb with dates is a particularly good choice.

Turn Them Into Hot Sauce

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

You can use this same technique to make your own hot sauce. When I see rare and exciting chili varieties at the market, I fridge-dry them, then soak them in a bit of hot water and blend them up into a salsa or hot sauce. Vinegar or citrus juice extends the salsa’s shelf life; the latter is the go-to choice for the pre-Columbian hot sauces of Latin America.

But that’s just one way to preserve dried chilies for spicy condiments: You can also simply drop a few into your favorite bottle of vinegar to make a punchy pepper vinegar within a week or two. (Small, spicy chilies, like árbols or pequins, are the best choices here, since you don’t need to chop them up to fit in a bottle and they pack a lot of heat in small packages.)

When Helen You and I were working on The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook, one of the first recipes I tried was her chili oil flavored with ground dried chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, and ginger. That was over a year ago, and the same jar of chili oil has never dipped below half empty. You start by heating a neutral oil, like canola, until it’s almost smoking, then dump in whole árbol chilies and remove it from the heat. Let it cool, and that’s all there is to it. When the jar starts to run low, heat up more oil and more chilies and top it up. It’s a never-ending soup pot of toasty heat, and it’s just the thing to dress wontons (even if they’re boiled frozen ones from the grocery store).

Grind a Super Seasoning…

Chili pastes may beat chili powders in stews and sauces, but ground dried chilies still have lots to offer. In a dry pan on medium-high heat, toast árbol or pequin peppers, tossing frequently, until they darken a shade and smell a little toasty, about 30 seconds to one minute. Then pound them into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle for an A+ seasoning to sprinkle on pad thai. Larger ancho or pasilla chilies are great with fruits like mango and avocado—or both, on toast. And take a page out of Sichuan water-boiled cooking by coating thin slices of cooked beef or chicken in a sauce of finely minced red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.

…That’s Great With Sweets

Chili powder is especially handy to keep around for baking, since it won’t throw off your liquid and acid proportions the way chili paste will. I love adding ground ancho chilies to my standard brownie recipe, along with fragrant cinnamon. When I bake with cocoa powder, I reach for a rare but delicious Peruvian pepper called aji panca, which adds a buoyant blueberry note to icebox cookies.

There’s a lot more to spicy sweets than chocolate (see also: mango, spice cake, and tequila or rum), but the two do go especially well together. Which makes sense, considering they’re both Latin American fruits. For more chocolate-and-chili-pairing advice, consult our complete guide.

And Add a Touch of Heat to Everything Else

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The above methods are all handy for putting the fruity spice of dried chilies front and center, but sometimes you don’t want to load a dish up with lots of heat. If you’re after just a smidge of chili presence, cook your dried chilies whole instead.

Making some cacio e pepe? Toast a couple of small dried chilies in olive oil and butter before straining the infused fats into your pasta. Simmering a pot of dal? Finish it with hot oil seasoned with dried chilies, cumin, and mustard seeds—what Indian cooks call a tadka, or “temper”—for a final aromatic note. (The same method works wonders in this coconut chutney.) By toasting your chilies whole, you activate new flavor compounds, but mute the intensity so as to emphasize that flavor, not heat.

Toasted whole chilies wind up in more and more of what I cook; I love their roasty fragrance and delicate crunch. And, while I’ve yet to try my hand at Chongqing chicken, which uses about five chilies for every popcorn-sized chunklet of poultry, I appreciate the dish as a cook’s goal: a reminder that the seasoning matters just as much as the main ingredient.


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