Chiles are essential to Mexican cuisine.
Though some experts dispute the wisdom of calling chiles 'peppers', there's no disagreement about what they add to Mexican food: great taste and a lot of zing.
Chiles are now grown in many countries around the globe. India is one of the world's largest producers today, growing a millions tons per year. But, while the chiles grown in Mexico may be a small percentage of the total (about 15%), they could never be ranked second in value. Grown in every state in Mexico, they are popular the world over.
Jalapeño varieties account for about half the total acreage planted. They give a well known bite to a dish with a flavor that far outlasts the sting. There's simply no substitute for this yellow-green fruit rated between 3-6 thousand on the SHU scale. The Scoville scale measures the 'zing' of chile peppers. In pure form, the chemical capsaicin that gives chiles their bite is rated 16 million.
Anchos and serranos together account for a little over half of the remainder of Mexico's chile acreage. The ancho from Poblano -that also gives its name to a great mole- matures to a deep red that mirrors the rich flavor within. Another variety develops to a rich brown. Serrano, by contrast, is picked green to make a great sauce. Pasilla is another chile pepper that is a popular ingredient to a fine mole.
Tabasco chiles are well known, thanks to the popular hot sauce. In Mexico a few of these are grown in every garden in Veracruz and the native state that gives the chile its name.
Getting to know chiles and other peppers
Chiles or chili peppers are a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine. There are more than 150 varieties of peppers and each one has a flavor that is unique. If you choose to use peppers when making Mexican dishes, try to use the specific pepper recommended in the recipe. This will help your dish have an authentic flavor that can’t be denied.
Ancho chiles are the dried version of a Poblano chili pepper. It needs to be rehydrated for several hours before you can add them to recipes. Once they are rehydrated, they are often ground up before being added. If you’ve ever had Mole sauce, you have eaten Ancho chiles.
Chipotle, a smoke-dried jalapeño pepper, can be used in many dishes. They can be found canned, dried or whole. The smoky flavor is prized when added to black beans sauce. Chipotle is also a component of Huevos Rancheros and is a good accompaniment to tacos, burritos and other dishes.
Bell peppers are common to most of the United States. They come in several colors including; green, yellow, orange and red. Bell peppers are considered a "sweet pepper" as they don't produce capsaicin - the chemical that gives peppers their heat. Bell peppers are often used when making fajitas but are excellent stuffed or raw in salads.
Poblano peppers are mild in flavor and very versatile. They measure 1,000-2,500 Scoville units with red being the hottest. Poblano’s can be breaded and fried, roasted and stuffed or used in mole sauces. Chile Rellenos is one of the more widely known dishes where Poblano peppers are used.
The Jalapeño pepper is one of the best known of all chilies. It measures 3,500-8,000 Scoville units so while not the hottest pepper, it still has some heat. There are an endless number of uses for the jalapeno pepper. We often see them on top of nachos or diced in cheese dip but they're also great to make jelly with.
Serrano chiles are small cousins of the jalapeño. They measure 10,000 to 25,000 Scoville units, so are hotter than jalapenos. Serrano peppers are often used in pico de gallo or pickled in vinegar but many enjoy eating them raw.
Cayenne peppers are not native to Mexico but are often used in dishes where you want to add extra heat or as a substitute of the real chiles. They measure 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units and can pack a punch. Dried cayenne flakes, also called red pepper, has a multitude of uses and can often be found on the tables of pizza parlors.
Habaneros are a smaller pepper but don't let their size fool you. They measure between 100,000 to 360,000 Scoville units, so they are very hot. The habanero has a distinct citrus-like flavor with intense heat and is excellent in salsa, hot sauce and foods where you want a hot and spicy flavor.
Whether you’re in the mood for salsa, chili or another dish where you want great flavor with or without heat, you cannot go wrong with using one of the peppers listed above. One word of caution when cooking with the hotter pepper versions, either use the recommended amount given in the recipe you’re following. If you’re creating your own recipe, start by adding just a little of the pepper and allow it to blend with the food before adding more. Trust me, a little can go a long way!