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Mexican Chiles: A Quick Survey


On the subject of chiles, Mexican cooking experts have opinions as strong as the chiles themselves. Virtually every Mexican traditional dish uses one kind or another. To the uneducated palate, chiles taste either “hot” or “mild” and that is about it. In reality, chiles come in a wide spectrum of flavors. But if you are outside of Mexico, and the recipe calls for a “guajillo,” you may want to know what a “guajillo” is and whether you can substitute for it or do without it. This primer on chiles may help.

Chiles are relatives of the pepper family, but they are NOT peppers. They can be used in their fresh form or dried, ground up (as in cayenne pepper) or tossed into a pot with other ingredients. Often the seeds are used alone, as they are a source of the “hot” or “picante” taste. Dried chiles are easily stored at room temperature. It is best to keep them in plastic bags to preserve their flavor. Fresh chiles should be refrigerated and used within a few days of purchase. Many chiles are preserved in oil or vinegar, and used as sauce for just about any sort of Mexican food.

Most cooks classify the “heat factor” of chiles on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the hottest. These chiles most the ones most often called for in popular recipes.

Fresh Chiles:

Poblano (1). Sometimes wrongly called an “Ancho” or “Pasilla,” it is large, thick and heart-shaped, ideal for “chiles rellenos” (stuffed chiles). They are in season during the summer. Bell peppers are a poor, but generally available substitute for stuffing purposes. Serranos are a somewhat hotter option when poblanos are called for as a flavoring agent.

Chilaca (1). These chiles are also relatively mild, and not nearly as large or thick as poblanos. Poblanos can be used as a substitute in recipes, but it is best to steam and peel them first, to give them the softer texture. A “Pasilla” is a dried Chilaca, but many cooks use the two names interchangeably.

Sweet Banana
Banana Chile (1). This is a sweet chile, yellow in color, but soft in texture. Do not confuse it with a yellow wax chile, which is much firmer and hotter.

Güero (2). The name means “light skinned,” and these chiles are yellow. Sometimes called “Caribe” chiles. Jalapeños and Serranos can be substituted, though they are both higher on the “heat factor” scale than Güeros.


Jalapeño (3). This variety is the one most likely to be found in markets outside Mexico. They are flavorful and hot. They are at their best at the end of the summer. In autumn, look for red jalapeños instead. If you buy canned jalapeños, do not expect them to be as “picante” as the fresh ones. Fresh cayenne pepper is a possible substitute for the heat, and Serranos or Güeros for a somewhat similar flavor. Be careful, as Serranos run hotter than Jalapeños.

Serrano (4). Whenever the recipe calls for a lot of “picante,” Serranos fill the bill. They have less flesh in the walls of the chile than Poblanos and Güeros, so steaming and peeling is usually unnecessary to make their texture tender. In a pinch, Jalapeños can be substituted, but the quantity may need to be increased to make up for their milder heat and flavor.

Habanero (5). The Habanero is the hottest of the common varieties of fresh (not dried) chiles. They also have a distinctive, almost fruit-like taste. Habaneros are in season during the early and middle parts of summer. The standby Jalapeño or Serrano can be used instead, but more must be added to bring the “heat factor” up to 5, and there will be an inevitable compromise of flavor.

Dried Chiles

Ancho (1). These are dried Poblanos. Do not confuse them with the smaller, Pasillas. The chile turns dark brown or even black when dried, and it wrinkles up a bit. For heavier, “earthy” flavor, substitute a Mulato if you can find one. Pasillas can be used instead.

Pasilla (1). The dried version of a Chilaca chile is long, wrinkled and very dark in color. It is an important ingredient in Mole. Anchos and Mulatos can be substituted, but the flavor will be noticeably different, with Anchos being milder, and Mulatos stronger.

Guajillo (2). This chile is best soaked before use in cooking, as it has a tough outer skin. They are rust-colored or darker brown and have a smooth surface. Outside of Mexico, their nearest cousins are called “New Mexico” chiles.

Mulato (3). Prior to drying, the Mulato is a dark green that turns to a wrinkled brown or black as it cures. They are larger than most chiles, about 10 cm long and a little more than half as wide. They are roughly heart shaped and flat. The fresh version is a species of Poblano, but the dried version acquires a rich flavor sometimes identified as similar to licorice.

Chipotle (3). The popular Chipotle is a dried, smoked, Jalapeño with a rich flavor especially desirable in sauces. Canned Chipotles work well in most recipes, but the dried version is more versatile in the preparation of adobo sauces and marinades. Generally available outside Mexico, it is hard to find a suitable substitute with the same smoky flavor.

Chile de Arbol
Chile de Arbol (4). Those who subscribe to the myth that darker means hotter will be surprised by Chiles de Arbol. They are very hot, and stay a brilliant red after drying. A fresh version also can be purchased, but most often this chile is used in the dried form, most often mixed as a mash in oil and then spread over the food it is to season. It is best to use restraint at first. A good substitute is dried Habaneros or Chipotles.

Habanero Seco
Habanero (5). Like their fresh version, the dried Habanero is at the hot extreme of the spectrum. The color varies between bright orange and rust, and they are wrinkled and flat. Chile de Arbol can be substituted, though dried Habaneros are usually easier to find.

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