How to Be a Chile Whisperer

May 25, 2019 | Posted by The B-Team

A rainbow of fresh chiles has hit the tables of the Union Square Farmers Market, just down the street from the B-Team's New York headquarters, and dried chiles are staples in our cooking (and Bobby's, of course!). Want to learn to master chiles in your own kitchen? Follow this handy guide, excerpted from The Mesa Grill Cookbook, and you'll be a chile whisperer in no time...

"I simply love the range and depth of flavor both varieties add to my recipes and I use them in everything from vinaigrettes and sauces to spice rubs. Chiles are about much more than just heat. The more you use them the more you will come to learn and appreciate the complexity of their flavors."

Fresh Chiles
When purchasing fresh chiles it’s important to buy chiles that have shiny, smooth skin and are heavy for their size. They should be dry and firm to the touch. Chiles should be kept dry and stored in the crisper section of the refrigerator. Never wrap them in plastic because too much moisture can spoil them.

When handling fresh chiles, I recommend wearing rubber gloves or disposable plastic gloves to protect your hands from capsaicin, the volatile chemical in chiles that is responsible for their heat. Most of the capsaicin in located in the internal rib of the chile and removing both will significantly reduce the level of heat. If you choose to forego the gloves then just be careful not to touch your eyes or face after handling fresh chiles.

Fresh Chiles

Jalapeño – Named after the region of Jalapa, Mexico, this is probably the most well-known and available fresh chile in the United States. It comes in both green and red varieties. Jalapeno’s heat can be inconsistentdue to the soil and climate they are grown in. It’s always good to add it in increments to your recipe or – if you dare - cut off a little piece and taste it before using to gauge how much heat it will add to the recipe.

Fresno – Named after Fresno, California where they were first grown, the Fresno chile is similar to a jalapeno in flavor and appearance but are often less spicy. They are available in green and red varieties with the red variety being sweeter. If you can’t find them you can definitely substitute jalapenos.

Poblano – This dark green chile tapers down to a point and is normally about 4 to 6 inches long. This is the chile that is used to make chiles rellenos. I consider this the ultimate chile because of its incredible pepper flavor and perfect amount of heat.

Serrano - turning from green to red as they mature, The serrano is long and slightly curved and varies between 1 to 4 inches in length. Serranos are very spicy but also flavorful.

Habanero or Scotch Bonnet - Fresh or dried, these small, bell shaped chiles are the hottest of all chiles, closely related to the Scotch Bonnet. Both habaneros and Scotch bonnet are green in their unripe stage, but their color at maturity varies, turning to orange then red. These chiles are full of perfumy, tropical flavors.


Dried Chiles
Drying chiles concentrates their natural sugars and intensifies their flavor. I love using them to deepen the flavor of a sauce, soup or vinaigrette. Dried chiles not only add an earthy flavor but a spiciness too. More and more supermarkets are carrying them today but as with fresh chiles, if you can’t find them near you, the source section in the back of this books list internet sites for mail order.

When selecting dried chiles, look for those that are clean and not discolored; they should not be faded, dusty or broken. Freshly dried chiles will be soft and supple with a distinct earthy aroma. They will keep, stored in an airtight container, and out of direct sunlight, for several months. Most dried chiles should be toasted or rehydrated before using.

Ancho - Dried poblanos, anchos are red and have a spicy raisin flavor

Cascabel – These chiles look like large Bing cherries and are medium to very hot with a nutty, woodsy flavor.

Chipotle - Dried and smoked jalapeno, chipotles are brownish in color with a fiery, smoky flavor. They are often sold canned in adobo sauce.

Chile De Arbol - Brilliant brick red chiles with an herbal quality, these are very spicy and most often used in powdered form.

Guajillo - Guajillos range in color from orange-red to black-brown. They have a piney, slightly fruity flavor and range in heat from mild to medium.

New Mexican Red – These chiles are a brick red color with a long pointed shape that measures around 6-inches in length. They have a deep, roasted flavor but not a lot of heat.

Pasilla – In Spanish, pasilla means "little raisin" also known as chile negro. Named for their raisin-like aroma and shriveled, black skin, these are medium-hot. They are used in moles

Scoville Units - Determining the Precise Pungency of Chiles
In 1912, Wilbur L. Scoville, a pharmacologist with Parke Davis, the drug company using capsaicin in its muscle salve, Heat, developed the Scoville Organoleptic test. This test used a panel of five human heat samplers who tasted and analyzed a solution made from exact weights of chile peppers dissolved in alcohol and diluted with sugar water. The pungency was recorded in multiples of one hundred "Scoville Units."

The following are the approximate Scoville units and numerical ratings from the official Chile Heat Scale for the variety of chiles used at Mesa Grill. The higher the rating, the hotter the chile. Ten is the highest/hottest possible rating. Keep in mind, that these ratings are not foolproof because chiles can vary in degrees of hotness due to the local conditions of where they were grown. To pretest the heat of a chile, I suggest cutting off a very small piece and tasting it raw before adding it to a recipe. Make sure to have a glass of cold milk or bowl of yogurt on hand just to be safe; dairy is the only way to cool the burn of a hot chile.

Chile Scoville Units
Habanero, Scotch Bonnet 100,000-300,000
Cayenne 30,000-50,000
Chile de arbol 15,000-30,000
Serrano 5,000-15,000
Jalapeno 2,500-5,000
Fresno 2,500-5,000
Chipotle 2,500-5,000
Cascabel 1,500-2,500
Guajillo 1,000-1,500
New Mexican Red 1,000-1,500
Ancho, Pasilla 1,000-1,500
Poblano 1,000-1,500
Bell Peppers 0

Capsaicin - The Heat Source of Chile Peppers
Capsaicin is produced in chiles by glands at the junction of the rib and the pod wall. It spreads unevenly throughout the inside of the pod and is concentrated mostly in the ribs. The seeds are not sources of heat as commonly believed. However, because of the their proximity to the rib, they occasionally absorb capsaicin through the growing process. Capsaicin is an incredibly powerful and stable alkaloid seemingly unaffected by drying or temperature. It will retain its original potency no matter how long the chile is dried, cooked, or stored in the freezer.

Toasting Dried Chiles
Toasting chiles intensifies their flavor. Heat a dry sauté pan over high heat until almost smoking. Add the chiles to the pan and toast for 20 to 30 seconds on each side. Remove and let cool slightly, then remove the stems and the seeds. Toasted dried chiles can be kept stored in a cool, dark place in a container with a tight-fitting lid for up to 6 months.

Chile Puree
Soak dried chiles in a bowl and pour boiling water on top and let soak for 30 minutes or until soft. Remove the chiles from the water and remove the stems and seeds, reserving the water. To puree them, place the chiles in a food processor with a little of the soaking liquid and process until smooth. To make chipotle puree, empty the contents of a can of chipotles in adobo sauce into a food processor and process until smooth. Chile puree can be covered and stored for up to 5 days in the refrigerator. Chipotle puree will last up to a month because of the vinegar in the adobo sauce.

- excerpted from The Mesa Grill Cookbook