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Food

A Complete Guide to Mexican Chile: 13 Essential Chile Peppers

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Apr 15, 2020 • 5 min read

The Mexican Chile (or the Americanized ‘chili’), is a staple ingredient in many traditional Mexican recipes. There are many different kinds of chiles prepared in a number of ways to enhance and develop the flavor of these dishes. The type of chile you use depends on the cuisine you’re making, so it’s important to know which chile peppers are the best ones to include for your recipe.

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All About Mexican Chile Peppers

With more than 60 types produced in Mexico, chiles are a fundamental component of Mexican cuisine. The wide array of chiles available in the country adds complexity, depth, and heat to countless dishes. Fresh chiles can be used to add color, texture, and heat to any dish. They’re typically eaten raw and only need to be washed, deseeded, and destemmed before serving. Dried chiles bring the most to a dish when they’re toasted on a griddle or comal, deseeded, and destemmed. They also need to be soaked in hot water for about half an hour before being used in a recipe.

4 Types of Fresh Chiles

All chiles start out as fresh chiles. Fresh chiles can be dried, roasted, or smoked in order to add additional layers of flavor.

  1. Jalapeño: The most recognizable of all fresh Mexican chiles, jalapeños have a smooth green or red appearance and medium spiciness. They can be eaten straight or stuffed, pickled or fried. They are often served whole and charred as an accompaniment to tacos. Jalapeño heat ranges between 2,500 and 5,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) on the Scoville Scale.
  2. Habanero: Small, round, and orange or red upon maturity, habaneros are hot peppers that pack a serious punch at 100,000 to 350,000 SHU, so take precautions when preparing them—like wearing plastic gloves. Habaneros are versatile and can be made into pastes, salsas, hot sauces, and jams. Habaneros can also be pickled or dried, or combined with fruity flavors for a layer of sweet heat.
  3. Serrano: Smooth, green serranos originated in the mountainous regions of Puebla and Hidalgo. Like jalapeños, they have a bright, fresh kick with a medium to medium-hot spice level that varies depending on their size. While serranos can serve as a flavorful garnish for a variety of dishes, they are primarily sliced up and mixed into salsa, pico de gallo, and guacamole. Serranos can reach a heat level between 10,000 and 25,000 SHU.
  4. Poblano: Poblano peppers are large green or red peppers that hail from the city of Puebla. Poblanos are typically mild, though spice levels can vary widely (the ripe reddish version tends to be the hottest). They’re most often stuffed to make chile rellenos, but try adding them to guacamole or soups. Poblanos only register at around 1,000 to 1,500 SHU.
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9 Types of Dried Chiles

Fresh chiles often take on another name once they’ve been transformed—for example, red jalapeños become chipotle peppers once they’ve been aged to maturity, dried, and smoked.
Dried chiles form the foundation of Mexican cuisine, but also offer nuanced flavor to pastes, sauces, and stews.

  1. Ancho: Ancho chile peppers are the dried version of poblano chiles that achieve a deep red color when fully ripened. Ancho chiles vary in spiciness, but they are generally mild to medium and have a light smoky flavor that’s well-suited to marinades as part of an adobo, or chile paste. Same as the fresh poblano, anchos also carry a SHU range of 1,000 to 1,500.
  2. Cascabel: Also known as the “rattle chile,” cascabel chiles are plump, round chiles that take their name from the sound they make when shaken (the seeds rattle around inside of the shell). With a mild heat level and earthy flavor, they can be added to sauces, stews, and more; in salsas, they pair particularly well with tomatillos. Cascabels have a SHU range of 1,000 to 3,000.
  3. Guajillo: Guajillo chiles are the dried version of the mirasol chile—large thin chiles that have bright red skin and a mild kick, with some natural sweetness and a touch of earthy flavor. They are frequently used in pastes and rubs. Chile guajillo is a popular dried pepper that is versatile in its use and blends well with other chiles, and also pairs well with chocolate and soups. Guajillos range between 2,500 and 5,000 SHU.
  4. Pasilla: A dried chilaca chile, pasilla, which translates to “little raisin,” boasts—true to its name—dark wrinkly skin and a deeply sweet dried-fruit flavor. Thanks to a heat that isn’t overpowering, the pasilla chile is often used in Oaxacan mole sauces and other complex sauces, registering between 1,000 and 2,500 SHU.
  5. Árbol: Bright-red chiles de árbol are long and slender, and they’re often used to make decorative wreaths or garnishes. In cooking, they bring a serious cayenne-like spice and earthiness to salsas and sauces. You can toast or fry the chile de árbol before rehydrating it to intensify its heat and nuttiness. With a SHU level between 15,000 and 30,000, these chiles are also great in spicy salsas and hot sauces.
  6. Mulato: A fully-matured and dried poblano pepper, these brownish-black peppers are wrinkly and flat. They have a mild spice, accompanied by a smoky, sweet, and chocolatey flavor, making them great for mole sauces. Mulato chiles are also widely used in stews and salsas, and have a SHU range of around 2,500 to 3,000.
  7. Morita: A smoked red and ripened jalapeño, the morita is a common chile found in the United States. This chipotle pepper is smoked for less time, letting it retain a soft texture and fruity flavor. Morita chile peppers are great for salsas, soups, sauces, and chilis, and carry a bit more heat than the standard jalapeño—anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 SHU.
  8. Pulla: The pulla (or the Americanized ‘puya’) chile is similar in flavor to the guajillo chile, except smaller in size and much spicier. This red chile pepper turns black when ripe, and is often made into sauces after being pureed or mashed. Spicy and fruity, puya chiles can register between 5,000 and 8,000 SHU.
  9. Pequin: Pequin chiles are nutty and citrusy, and pack at least ten times more heat than the jalapeño. Pequin peppers can be found in hot sauces, but are also dried and turned into chile powder that can bring up the spice level of any dish. Pequin chiles may be small, but should not be underestimated. The smaller a pepper is, the hotter it is, and little pequin chiles can have around 40,000 to 60,000 SHU.

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