Finding the Right Chile for Your Chili

Finished chili with toppings.

I crave chili during weather extremes — when it’s very hot or when it’s very cold. Okay, I also crave chili when I’m running late for book club and need to throw together a fast dish for the group (see: how many times has Kassia made Frito Pie featuring Amy’s amazing vegetarian and gluten-free chili in the past year?).

Seriously, chili is a great dish for parties, for dinner, for lunch, for just about any meal. It can be hot and spicy or suffused with a nice mellow heat. Best of all, with a little prep work, chili can cook away in your crockpot all day — it’s just a braise, when you get down to it — while you secretly dream of toppings while you’re pretending to work.

It makes me sad that more restaurants don’t serve gluten-free chili. As you can see from the recipe linked below, this dish really doesn’t need the addition of wheat-based ingredients!

I probably don’t have to warn you — but I will — that there are chili purists out there. You know the type: they insist that the only true chili is meat, chiles, and other spices. No beans, no pasta, no fun. Yes, if you’re planning to enter a competition, this matters. But if you’re just cooking for your family and friends? Let your chili make you happy.

Seriously, you want beans in your chili? Go for it. You want veggies such as corn in your chili? I will not judge. You want vegetarian chili? I’m on board. In fact, the only rule I believe is hard and fast when it comes to chili is the addition of a good dose of cumin. Seriously, don’t skimp on the cumin (listen to or read this great Splendid Table piece on how Arabic flavors ended up in Mexican food).

Now for a brief discussion of chile peppers. Not every pepper brings the heat; in fact, different types of peppers add flavors that range from fruity to sweet to smoky. While you can buy fresh chiles — something I do when I’m using habañero or jalapeño chiles since they’re very common in my area — you can also buy canned or dried. If you’re using a dried chile, rehydrate with hot water or broth before using them.

A good rule of thumb for chiles is that the smaller the chile, the hotter the chile. Also, if you want to reduce the heat in chiles, remove as many seeds and veins as possible before adding them to a dish.

Some commonly used chiles, and how they’ll impact your cooking:

  • Anaheim Chiles: These long, green chiles are often used in chile rellenos or other stuffed chile dishes. They don’t bring a lot of heat to a dish — though sometimes you’ll get a hot one! — but they do bring sweetness and a lot of clean, green chile flavor.
  • Ancho: Ancho chiles are dried poblanos. They help give a dish a deep red chile color while adding a slightly chocolate or raisin flavor. These dried chiles bring more heat than their green versions. I always add these to my chili dishes.
  • Cayenne: Long and narrow, these chiles are the source of the powdered condiment. They are generally fairly hot — a little goes a long way.
  • Chile de Arbol: These tiny chiles are often confused with Thai bird chiles as they are similar sizes. Moderately hot, these chiles are often found dried or powdered.
  • Chipotle: Chipotles are usually jalapenos that have been smoked. They are generally canned or jarred in a spicy adobo sauce or dried. I always have a couple of cans in the cupboard for emergencies; I also keep some dried chipotle on hand for grinding into spice blends.
  • Guajillo: A common dried chile. It brings a little heat to a dish, and it helps add lots of rich, red color — so important when you’re making chili.
  • Habañero: These are seriously spicy chiles. Handle carefully (wear gloves!) and remember, a little goes a long way. In addition to heat, habaneros have a fruity flavor. Scotch bonnet chiles are a bit smaller than habaneros.
  • Jalapeño: Jalepenos bring a good dose of heat, but not nearly as much as a Thai Bird chile or habanero. I like them fresh in dishes, and because they can be bright green or red, they make nice garnishes as well.
  • New Mexico: This lovely chile ranges from light green to red, and is extremely popular for roasting (they’re available fresh in the fall). The heat level ranges from medium to hot. They have a clean, “chile” flavor that is enhanced by the roasting process.
  • Pasilla: Pasilla chiles are actually dried versions of chilaca peppers, though you may find poblanos marketed under this name. They bring a light heat to a dish, and help enhance the color of a chili. These are the chiles that are at the foundation of the chocolate-y mole sauces.
  • Poblano: This mild chile is similar to Anaheim chiles. It’s sturdy, which makes it great for stuffing, and it brings a lot of flavor to chilies and other dishes.
  • Serrano: These green to reddish orange chiles are a bit hotter than jalapenos. They are generally used fresh, particularly in salsas.
  • Thai Bird: These tiny chiles bring a lot of heat. Their colors range from green to red, with some lovely yellows and oranges in between. Often used in Thai cooking, especially curries.

Tip of the Week

When I’m making chili, I use a mix of fresh and dried chiles. The dried chiles are generally milder but used to give the chili that deep red color. The fresh chiles, such as jalapeno and habanero, add heat. If your chili is a bit too spicy, a tablespoon or so honey or agave can help balance out the flavors.

Menu of the Week

Chili is on the menu this week, and it’s a filling dish on its own. Still, I like corn tortillas on the side, and a bit of flan — a terrific gluten-free dessert — to end the meal. Depending on your personal style, you can serve your chili alone, or with rice, pasta, or beans. Add chopped onions, cheese, sour cream or crema…make it yours!

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