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Teach me about chiles: fresh, dried, smoked, whole, ground...

I already know this might be too broad a topic.

I like chiles of all types, from all places, in nearly all possible forms. I like them dried and ground, I like them Thai, I like them warm off the plant from the backyard, I like them smoked, salted, tinned in sauces, packed in oil, deep-fried, powdered and combined with other spices, I like them Central American, Indian, Malaysian, African, Sichuan, I like them mashed with garlic. I like them dark, sweet, bitter, hot, mild, smoky, I like them even when they don't seem to belong. (Chiles or lovers?)

But I don't know anything about them. I've heard of anaheim, ancho, aleppo. By now everyone knows chipotles. My knowledge mostly stops there.

I have a lot of questions. You do not have to answer any of these, of course. But I would like to learn everything you can tell me about chiles. Chile? Chili? Chilli? Capsicum? Whatever. Maybe you happen to be an expert on one particular smoked type of one particular cultivar? Tell me.

What types are commonly used in what cuisines? What do they look like? (Is there a fetching visual guide I could find anywhere?) What purposes does each one serve?

Which ones can I readily buy fresh in North America? Which ones can I grow? What dried, smoked, ground or otherwise processed chiles can I order online and where should I order them from?

How do I store them? How can I cook with them? Where can I eat the best foods that really play on the strengths of a type of chile? What are your favorite sauces or dishes to cook with them? Have you come up with any unusual but brilliant combinations that use chile where it's unexpected?

Is it true that I can make lanterns out of them?

Most importantly: what safety tips should a neophyte learn for handling chiles in the garden or the kitchen?

I especially appreciate book recommendations if you have any.

Thank you all, you are all my sweetest burn.

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  1. We've grown habaneros, cayennes, jalapeños, and Hungarian yellow wax peppers. We found dried cascabeles (jingle bell peppers) at Penzey's Spice a few years ago and used them to decorate holiday gifts as well as grinding them for cooking.

    For handling them, consider wearing gloves and really wash your hands well. A former coworker grew only peppers in his garden and inadvertently rubbed his eyes and was in considerable pain.

    We buy chipotles in adobo for chipotle cornbread.

      1. Wait a minute, you profess this great love of chiles, and you don't even own 'The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia' (Dave DeWitt 1999)? :)

        Get thee to an online used bookstore and order a copy!

        There are several online collections of chile information. A web search for one of the more obscure types should produce them. Have you looked at the Wiki article?

        Reading that, and following the links there will keep you busy for a while.

        2 Replies
        1. re: paulj

          I agree, anything by DeWitt (who was the founder of the Chili Pepper Magazine) is worth it.
          I can't count how often I've used his "Whole Chili Pepper Cookbook" and his guide to dining in the Southwest greatly enhanced my trips there.

          1. re: paulj

            Other good books on the subject:

            Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits, by Amal Naj. This is particularly interesting for its extensive coverage of the politics of Tabasco.

            The Pepper Garden, by Dave DeWitt (see above) & Paul Bosland. The definitive guide to growing your own.

          2. It looks like you've asked too many questions, and scared everyone off. :)

            Something more specific, like what's the hottest pepper, is likely to generate more responses and debate - there was a thread of that sort a while ago.

            1. Which one's you can grow depends on 1) where you live and 2) how experienced a gardener you are. The Pepper gardener by Dewitt is a good resource.
              I live in Vermont (which has a very short growing season) so I have to use hoop houses to make growing peppers possible. You usually can find a regional distributor for seeds that are chosen for your area. Here in the North East I use Johnny's Select Seeds, but in Northwest Washington I used Territorial. Find a source that is in your region.

              2 Replies
              1. re: chilihead

                In FL, I have 8 plants, from habanero, datill, yellow banana (can't remember the exact name), 3 kinds of jalapenos. year round but spring to early summer is the main season for the actual peppers. Yes you need to check with your local agrig department to see what will work best. Your area is much different then mine. I never used seeds, ever. Down here too hard. I suggest plants for anyone but that is just me. Even in MI, when small plants became available, we used the plants as well.

                To learn, I went online and found a couple of great sites and also I bought a small book. 6 bucks and tells me all about the different chilis. It was and still is very helpful. Some I know about and use all the time, but others, I don't use often.

                1. re: kchurchill5

                  Two sources for chile seedlings


                  Both have a very wide selection of chiles. I think Chileplants.com has better general information about chiles and growing them, but both are good sites.

              2. Chilis and for that matter bell peppers are all members of the capsicum family.

                Jalapenos and serranos--fresh green chilis--are readily available in grocery stores, at least where I live. You can seed and devein or not, when using fresh, depending on what you're going to use them for and your heat tolerance. Every chili is also different in the heat it packs--depends not only on the variety but on growing conditions. I use jalapenos and serranos for Mexican and Indian food. One or the other is what you should use in guacamole, not bottled hot sauce, to be authentic. Chop up a little jalapeno or serrano with some onion and fresh tomato; saute the mixture in a bit in either oil or butter. Then scramble in some eggs--huevos Mexicana!

                You can toast jalapenos or serranos in a dry skillet, turning, until they're a bit charred on the outside. That mellows them out a bit, so they're not so raw tasting. Mexicans often do this when they're going to use them to make a salsa. Pickled jalapenos should also be readily available in groceries, at least they are in Seattle.

                Poblanos are also fresh green chiles--much bigger than jalapenos and serranos. And mild. These are what Mexicans use to make chile rellenos and chile rajas (chile strips)

                Chipotles are smoked jalapenos. They come dried or in adobo sauce in a can. Besides those, popular Mexican dried chiles include ancho (a dried poblano), pasilla, guajillo, and cascabel. Well-stocked groceries with a good hispanic section should have anchos and possibly guajillos, either in powdered or whole form. Ancho is fairly mild and gives chile powder its distinctive flavor (although American chile powder has other stuff in it). I don't know where you live but if you have any sort of a Mexican or Central American population, check out whether they have a mercado that sells dried chiles--may be your best and cheapest bet for getting pasillas and cascabels. Penzey's may have them mail order. I'm sure there are other places online--use google.

                Mexicans will toast dried chiles, after cutting them open, seeding, deveining and flattening them, for a short time in a hot dry pan until they change color a bit--don't burn (although Mexicans will burn chile seeds to make the famous mole negro). Then they soak them in hot water until pliable and then puree with other ingredients to make a seasoning sauce.

                Each region of Mexico has its own distinctive chile, most of which you can't find in this country. The Yucatan makes liberal use of habaneros--extremely hot--part of one goes a long way.

                Go to the library or bookstore and get Rick Bayless's cookbooks. They give you a wealth of information on what Mexicans do with chiles, not to mention wonderful, clearly written recipes. I usually will cook up a bunch of his different salsas during the summer and freeze them for later use. Much better than anything you can get in the stores,including Bayless's own brand.

                In my limited experience, the Mexicans are the kings of using chiles in different and imaginative ways . One of the thrills of going to a market in Mexico is to see the barrels and barrels of different types of dried chiles, most of which Americans have never heard of. To my knowledge, other cultures seem to use them more for the heat and their preservative qualities (I'm sure others will contradict me!). Query what people on the subcontinent, Africa, and SE Asia--all heavy chile users-- did without chiles before Columbus??

                I expect the subcontinent has its own chiles, but it's the Mexican ones that are readily available where I live, so I use them in Indian food. You will also see small dried red chiles stir fried whole in some Chinese dishes-kung pao chicken is an example.

                In Seattle one of my favorite restaurants offers a dessert called El Diablo--a large cube of intense chocolate sitting on a bed of soft meringue drizzled with caramel sauce. The exterior of the cube is dusted with a powdered chile. Toasted whole almonds garnish the dish. Everyone I know who has ever had it raves about it. A local magazine recently dubbed it one of Seattle's classic desserts. Chile and chocolate are pre-Columbian foods that just seem to go together. Dried red chile that is.

                After handling hot chiles, NEVER use your hands near your eyes or you will regret it. I always put on protective glasses when I chop fresh chiles--twice, I've had chile juice squirt in my eye. Our local poison center told me to flush out my eye with water for a half hour. Not fun.

                Depending on how hot your summers are, you can grown your own. Red chiles are mature chiles. So if you grew a jalapeno and didn't pick the fruit while green, they would eventually turn red. That said, jalapenos are not a good chile to dry, because the meat is so thick. Your local gardening store should be able to advise you on chiles that can be dried. Or go to www.territorialseed.com or other online seed companies. You can make your own chile flakes by stemming whole dried chiles (usually very thin--like cayenne or superchiles) and whirling them, seeds and all, in a blender. They keep a long time in a glass jar, stored in a dark cool place

                3 Replies
                1. re: PAO

                  > After handling hot chiles, NEVER use your hands near your eyes or you will regret it.

                  May I also add, Wash your hands well BEFORE going to (as Americans so nicley put it) the restroom. I didn't once and, boy, did I suffer. :-)

                  1. re: sumprat

                    and don't touch a loved one in a delicate spot. i apologize to tisha still, even though i have not seen here since the late 70's

                    1. re: sumprat

                      Washing doesn't get everything off trust me. If sensitive, wear a glove. I don't with most but with habaneros I do.

                  2. No mention yet of the large variety of chili pastes available in Mexico, for flavor, mole, and thickening.

                    1. i've recently discovered Naga Jolokia peppers
                      holy moly them's hot

                      i used one small one in a big jar of daikon kimchee recently. one was enough


                      1. You're right...broad topic ;-)

                        The workhorse chile in Mexican cuisine is the guajillo. It's a dried chile with a somewhat tough outer skin. It is generally fairly inexpensive and is often substituted when other chiles are either too costly or not available. Before toasting the chile feels not unlike vinyl, but after toasting and soaking, the interior can feel a lot like velvet. The heat level is generally moderate, and has a mild, fruit flavor. It can be used in almost anything.

                        Poblanos are fresh green chiles that become ancho chiles when dried. Next to jalapenos and serranos, poblanos are another work horse chile in the Mexican kitchen. They're crisp, with a somewhat grassy flavor that deepens when roasted. When dried the poblano becomes the chile ancho.

                        Someone upthread recommended Rick Bayless for chiles. One of his least known cookbooks *is* a good place to start, especially for someone without a lot of background in Mexican cuisine and cooking. "Salsas that Cook" is a small book. The first section of the book is a series of what he calls essential salsa recipes. He give different quantities and yields, but the value in the part is that he also give suggested chiles, combinations of chiles and substitutions if the recommended chile is not available. The remainder of the book is 50 recipes all using the chile sauces and based from the first part of the book.

                        Soemthing I do with friends and employees who want to know more about chiles is a chile tasting. For fresh chiles I thinly slice different chiles and have people taste them and then tell me what they taste (i.e. grassy, herbal, floral, earthy, etc.) and where in their mouth they taste it. For the dried chiles, there are a number of ways to taste. You can simply slice and taste, puree and taste or toast, soak, puree and taste. Once again pay attention to how the chile tastes and where in the mouth the taste occurs. Too many people focus so intently on the heat that they never realize chiles pack a huge payload in flavor. And understand the basic flavor profiles of different chiles helps the cook to use them in ways and with foods with which they are most compatible.

                        And if I can leave you with one tip - dried chiles LOVE salt. Salt will make the flavor of a chile bloom. You can taste it and feel in in your mouth when the level of chile and salt is balanced because the flavor become very soft (in spite of the heat), round, supple and big. Over the last 20-30 years Americans have been trained to be afraid of salt, so we tend to use it sparingly. I'm saying to indiscriminately add great handfuls of salt to anything with chiles, I'm saying that tasting and then adding more salt little by little to a dish with chiles will ratchet up the flavor without making the dish overly salty.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: DiningDiva

                          The Bayless salsa book is particularly good for making up batches of salsa of varying sizes for freezing or canning.

                        2. You may already know this, but in case you don't....

                          DO NOT use your fingers to remove the seeds/veins from hot peppers, especially habaneros. Either become very dextrous with your knife or buy some latex gloves to have around the kitchen.

                          I got severely burned by habanero seeds when I was in high school and didn't know any better - the burn lasted for hours and the skin on my fingertips actually started peeling!

                          Also, the hotness/flavor of chiles can vary greatly depending on the soil they're grown in - I'm no gardner, so I'm not sure about the particulars, but some of the books suggested by others may help you find the answers.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Antithesisofpop

                            Hahah, yeah, I always get that after working with chiles. The worst one lasted 3 or 4 days, and at first felt like a burn on a hot stove. Towards the end of the ... experience, It only hurt when I put pressure on my thumbnail (I think something must have got under my fingernails). I don't mind it when it's not super-harsh chiles, but the 4 day one was birdseye, and I barely touched them!

                            lol, it was so painful my hands wouldn't stop shaking!

                            1. re: Antithesisofpop

                              I had the peeling skin thing from garlic. I was mincing a ton of it one day and that's what happened.

                              Also, I wear glasses and it doesn't bother me so I scrape out the seeds with a spoon but every once in a while it will squirt. Without those glasses.........
                              Do not get that stuff in your eyes.


                              1. re: Antithesisofpop

                                I bought a box of rubber gloves from the drug store for just this purpose. I always use gloves for cutting any kind of pepper with the exception of bell peppers. I used to make a habanero-basil mayo and the fumes would literally choke me.

                                Interesting thing happened a few weeks ago: I was making a curry and bought 2 jalapenos. When it came time to dice them, I could only find one. The other day I pulled forward my food processor and i found the errant pepper hiding behind it, and it had dried out, shrunken in sized and turned red.

                                1. re: MysticYoYo

                                  Some people are susceptible. I can cut anything hot except habaneros. Otherwise no problem. But if you don't know use cloves if you can use a baggie, they work too. I cut jalapenos, a couple times a week and they don't bother me but habs do. Just be careful.

                              2. Wooow, I went out of town and came back to find all of these awesome posts. Thank you all for the detailed responses.

                                I will look for some DeWitt and Bayless books ASAP. I am very interested in savory combinations of chocolate and chile and I trust that in addition to salsas Bayless may be able to provide a few basic good recipes for mole. If anyone has a preferred mole book I would be happy to hear about it. Or other chocolate-chile combinations. Nearly twenty years ago in Bakersfield I tasted a homemade salsa at a friend's home that contained almost nothing but chile but also had a whisper of cocoa to it, it has haunted my memories since then because I have not had a similar one.

                                I like the heat and buzz from a good hot chile as much as anyone but to me it is the least interesting aspect, it sounds like I have company on that point. Last night we made "fridge burgers" from leftovers: we coarsely mashed some black beans that had been cooked with bay, garlic, onion, carrot, pepper, a bit of bacon fat; a plain sort of pork sausage we kept for breakfast on Sunday; to this we added some pimentón and a generous spoon of some ground smoked peppers given us by an old friend who puts up his own peppers. Some heat to them but not much and oh, what a complex aroma they have.

                                Anyway, I would add them to my breakfast cereal if I could. Thank you all. I will browse at Penzey's to see what I can find.

                                10 Replies
                                1. re: crackle

                                  Hey Crackle.

                                  Just another little guideline for you if you're ever out at a market and see some chilies and wonder what they'll be like. When it comes to heat, a pretty good way to tell is, green is hotter than red. Thin is hotter than fat and small is hotter than large. That will give you an idea. Of course, habaneros and scotch bonnets don't follow those rules but most do.


                                  1. re: Davwud

                                    also the curvier the hotter, within a specific type

                                    1. re: thew

                                      Now that's something I've never heard before. Is it your personal observation, or something for which you could provide a reference?

                                      I've also been told that with peppers like jalapeños, the ones with the dry-looking striations are hotter than the smooth-skinned ones, but have never done a comparison tasting to verify this.

                                      1. re: BobB

                                        it was first told to me by a waiter at sun lok, i later also heard in explained on TV, but i don;t recall from who (i'm thinking alton brown, but really i don't recall)

                                        as the ribs are where the heat is, the curvier the more ribs there are.....

                                        1. re: thew

                                          AB is where I got my little rules from. Seems to be relatively accurate.
                                          I hadn't heard about the curviness part but it seems to somewhat contradict the smaller is hotter. Since curved means longer.
                                          Also, since he heat is in the ribs, I'm not sure what the appearance of the skin would mean.


                                          1. re: Davwud

                                            i always thought smaller is hotter than larger refers to different varieties, while the curved/straight is within a single variety - but i could be wrong on both counts

                                            1. re: thew

                                              You're correct - "smaller is hotter" is a good rule of thumb when comparing different varieties, or when speculating on the general heat level of a basket of unidentified peppers. Within a single variety size is more or less irrelevant.

                                              As for curviness meaning more heat, this sounds like a theory that deserves a taste test!

                                      2. re: thew

                                        I just read this 'curvier' bit in a Korean cookbook, but the author admitted it was hearsay, and that she'd encountered hot straight ones as well. Even if true, it might apply more to the skinny Korean types than a compact ones like habaneros.

                                    2. re: crackle

                                      Oaxaca alone has seven different moles (I believe only one contains chocolate, maybe two). Puebla has its famous mole. Rick Bayless will have a few of these, but if you're really interested in moles, check out Susanna Trilling's Seasons of My Heart Oaxacan cookbook.

                                      1. re: PAO

                                        While the best known mole (outside of Mexico) has chocolate in it, most (as you point out) do not. A mole really isn't about combining chiles and chocolate. A mole is more characterized by the use of chiles with ground nuts, though there is one (mancha mantales - tablecloth stainer) that is characterized more by its use of fruit.

                                        Chocolate (or rather some version of cacao beans) was used with chiles to make a royal drink in pre Spanish days. While people try to recreate an unsweetened cocao drink like this, I don't think it survived as a popular drink anywhere.

                                    3. crackle, Americans are just geting to know and appreciate a few - largely Mexican - of the thousands of chile varieties and cultivars (and wild relatives).

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                        I wonder if the genetic diversity among chiles in Mexico is greater than in most other areas, and hence they grow truer to form. In other words, one can reliably classify poblanos as medium hot (with an occasional hot one), jalapenos as hot, serranos a bit hotter, etc.

                                        Chiles in a place like Korea can be traced back to a few samples brought by traders in the 17th c. The diversification there is has occurred over a shorter time, resulting in a more fluid variability.

                                        I believe the Andes are even closer to the original wild chiles, so I'd expect even greater genetic diversity. But only a few varieties are known outside of those countries. The 3 common ones in Latino markets are rocoto (very hot, small apple shape, black seeds), aji amarillo (medium hot, yellow), and aji panca (mild, deep red, skinny).

                                        1. re: paulj

                                          The number is small in Latino markets in the US because they sell a few popular varieties in large quantities. Visit small farms all over the chile eating world and you find lots and lots of varieties. Th\e first chiles in Korea may have been few, but you would be surpised at how easily germplasm spreads around the world, is then crossed with others, some times resulting in new traditional varieties. Korean chiles represent a far wider range of germplasm than what was initially introduced. People travel and take seeds to and fro, leading to genetic crosses. This is especially the case where people culturally like something.

                                          1. re: paulj

                                            Actually I read a few years back, it might have been in Chili Pepper magazine, that the seed stocks in Mexico and Central America are becoming fewer due to large corporate seed banks buying up smaller companies.
                                            I grew rocoto peppers while living in Oakland CA, the yields were huge.

                                            1. re: chilihead

                                              The great variety is found on the small farms and kitchen gardens all over the rural areas.

                                        2. After a couple of dishes made with smoked (there we go again - smoking) Nada my friend and I came to a conclusion. Adding more chillis does not make a dish hotter. We made a curry using 2 whole Nada, it was nicely hot. A couple of days later we had the same sort of curry but reduced the chillis to 1. The curry was exactly the same heat. We concluded that the number of chillis doesn'y matter once you have reached the chemical saturaton level of heat. i.e. 1 chilli is just as hot as several.
                                          I hope I explained that clearly. Look forward to comments on my thoughts.

                                          1. This has probably been said, but dried chiles are great, and tend to give a smokier flavour. you toast them, let them cool, then crumble them. They work great in a chili (con carne). My favorites are poblanos.

                                            6 Replies
                                            1. re: Soop

                                              Poblanos are not a dried chile, they are a fresh chile. They can be dried, at which point they become an ancho.

                                              1. re: DiningDiva

                                                Are you saying that peppers from Puebla no longer come from there once they are dried and become wide? :)

                                                1. re: paulj

                                                  Well, jalapeños become chilpotles when they're smoked, so it wouldn't be the only pepper to change its name with its state.

                                                  1. re: BobB

                                                    Just about all chilies have a different name when dried.


                                                  2. re: paulj

                                                    Nope, just a name change :-)

                                                    Same chile, one name fresh, another one dried.

                                                  3. re: DiningDiva

                                                    Sorry, you're right there. My bad.

                                                2. The book answered so many questions. I know this sounds horrible, and I cooked and grew peppers but for the longest time I didn't know a ancho was a poblano, just dried. The book answered so many questions as well as gave me the heat level of everything which really helped. Especially to those peppers I wasn't as familiar with.

                                                  1. you wanted some cooking ideas, crackle? here is a nice recipe for peruvian roast chicken with aji (pepper) verde sauce. http://sundaynitedinner.com/peruvian-...

                                                    here's a "daisy cooks!" recipe for cuban black bean soup: http://www.daisycooks.com/pages/recip...

                                                    and seviche de camarones (shrimp "cooked in citrus): http://www.daisycooks.com/pages/recip... (very refreshing for summer!


                                                    see this thread about aji: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3488...
                                                    it has info on other latin american sauces using peppers.

                                                    1. Sichuan pepper isn't a chili pepper like jalapeno or habanero; it's a peppercorn. The part that's good to eat is the shell of the seed, not the seed, itself.

                                                      It's different from the other chilis you mention in that it numbs your tongue a bit when you eat it. In Sichuan cooking, chefs combine it with hot chili paste to get a "mala" (tongue-numbing hot) flavor. Sichuan peppercorn isn't super spicy by itself.

                                                      Dried Sichuan peppercorns shouldn't be too difficult to find in the US. They're common in Chinese / Thai / Malaysian and some Japanese food stores in NYC and CA.

                                                      A great recipe to try it in is "mapo dofu". There are a lot of not-so-great recipes floating around. Fuschia Dunlop's is actually very good:


                                                      There are a couple of other recipes on that website that use Sichuan peppercorns as an ingredient.

                                                      8 Replies
                                                      1. re: cimui

                                                        cimui, thanks for that site! superb!

                                                        1. re: cimui

                                                          Sichuan isn't related to black pepper (white is black without the outer dry fruit layer). You can easily find the botanical names on the web (wiki article). I believe Sichuan comes from a variety of ash. The shells are a bit larger than black pepper. They generally are sold whole, in several oz bags that will last you years (unless you really are into that type of cooking).

                                                          1. re: paulj

                                                            Zanthoxylum piperitum, Z. simulans, and Z. schinifolium. Black or white pepper is Piper nigrum.

                                                            1. re: paulj

                                                              yep, good info, paulJ. is the word "peppercorn" only reserved for black pepper? sorry to misuse, if so; all my packages are labeled "sichuan peppercorns", but this wouldn't be the first time that things got a little garbled in translation. :)

                                                              sichuan pepper(corn)s make a great rub or brine for meats, too. that helps use 'em up.

                                                              1. re: cimui

                                                                It was noted on a 'white pepper' thread, that the Chinese name for sichuan pepper can be translated as 'flower pepper', and black pepper as 'foreign pepper'. So they have long recognized an overlapping 'pepperiness'.

                                                                English usage is only a few decades old, so the practice has not been enshrined in tradition.

                                                            2. re: cimui

                                                              I was just reading this week's issue of <<Time Out New York>> with a description of a pretty entertaining Sichuan peppercorn dish and thought it was too good not to share with the 'hounds:

                                                              "Tea-smoked oysters at Desnuda

                                                              "Order the tea-smoked oysters... and discover what might happen if a stoner got a hold of high-end ingredients.... [O]wner Peter Gevrekis... whips out a makeshift gravity bong and packs it with Lapsang souchong tea and Szechuan peppercorns. While holding the bong over a bucket filled with water, he lights a blowtorch and singes the tea-packed bowl. 'Woah, dude,' one customer comments as Gevrekis collects the thick white smoke in a glass dome, which he places over the freshly shucked oysters. The diner is then instructed to remove the glass, inhale the fragrant, spicy smoke and immediately slurp down the cold-smoked bivalves."

                                                              Nice. I could see myself getting through a lot of Sichuan peppercorns this way.