Building blocks of Mexican cuisine

Hugh Carpenter

Hugh Carpenter is an acclaimed teacher and award-winning cookbook author. He has teamed up again with photographer Teri Sandison for a primer on contemporary Mexican cuisine with Mexican Flavors. (You can enter our contest for your chance to win one of three copies.) The book includes classic recipes as well as gastronomic surprises such as banana salsa, quesadillas with papaya and Brie, and barbecued Caesar salad with chile croutons. 

We asked Hugh to expound on his latest work, and he elected to focus on one chapter in the book called "Flavor Building Blocks." This chapter is an in-depth exploration of chile peppers, a fundamental ingredient in Mexican cuisine. The synopsis below is like getting a free master class from this renowned instructor.


Chiles are central to Mexican cuisine - The King of all ingredients. Native to the Americas and cultivated for at least one thousand years, the Spanish spread chiles around the globe within a hundred years following the arrival of Cortez and thus transformed the cuisines of far-flung countries. Before the 16th century, there were no chiles found in Szechuan!

Remember, when fresh chiles are dried, their name always changes. For example, fresh poblano become ancho, and jalapeño become chipotle chiles. Generally, the size determines the spice level. Most dried chiles of the same size have about the same level of hotness.

Fresh Chiles: 

Jalapeño and Serrano chiles are the two most commonly used fresh chiles in Mexican cooking. Jalapeño chiles vary in spice, ranging from moderately spicy to as mild as a bell pepper. Serrano chiles are hotter, but these, too, vary in intensity. Here is a simple way to know how hot the chile tastes: cut off the stem and taste the cut surface for hotness (in other words lick the cut stem!). Adjust the quantity to use accordingly. 

Anaheim and Poblano chiles are mildly spicy. Used for Chile Rellenos and for many other dishes, they have about the same spice level and can be used interchangeably. These are never eaten raw, and are always given a preliminary charring. When dried, poblanos are called ancho chiles and Anaheim chiles are called New Mexican chiles ("chile seco del norte") or chiles Colorado. 

To seed or not to seed: I'm always amazed when I see a cook cutting a serrano lengthwise in half and then carefully scraping away the seeds.  It's true that the seeds and ribbing have the most spice - but when using jalapeño and serrano chiles, never extract the seeds and ribbing! Just adjust the hotness of the dish by mincing less of the chile. To mince, use an electric mini-chopper. 

The plastic bag technique:  Habanero and Scotch Bonnet chiles are extremely spicy. When handling these, always protect your hands by placing them inside plastic baggies, or wear plastic food gloves. The chile will burn your skin and eyes if you don't remember to protect your hands. If substituting habanero or scotch bonnet chiles for serrano chiles: 1 habanero or scotch bonnet = 8 Serrano chiles.  

How to char fresh chiles: All Mexican cooks char fresh chiles by placing them on a thin metal pan called a "comal" over the highest heat on a gas stovetop. Any heavy frying pan can be substituted for the comal. No oil is added to the pan. Or, gripping chiles with tongs, hold the chiles directly over a gas burner turned to high. This can prove frustrating since the chiles are inclined to fall into or away from the gas flames, and causes constant repositioning, but can be solved by using a metal screened cooling rack that is dedicated to this function. When chiles char on one side, rotate and continue to char until blackened on all sides. Don't try to char the chiles on a gas grill or under the broiler. The heat won't be sufficient to blacken the chiles.

To wash or not to wash charred chiles: Never wash the chiles to remove the char. Once the chiles are charred on all sides, transfer the chiles to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, or place in a paper bag and then seal the bag.  (Note:  don't use a plastic bag as the plastic bag will melt if there is any contact with the hot tongs used to rotate the chiles).  After five minutes, rub off the char using paper towels.  Don't wash the chiles as this will wash most of the roasted flavor down the drain.

Ancho chiles and their confusing name: In California, ancho chiles are packaged as "pasilla chiles." But in Mexico ancho chiles are dried poblano chiles, and pasilla chiles are a different chile called "chile negro."

Don't obsess about finding the "correct type" of chile: I know that Mexican cooking authorities recommend specific chiles; but chiles of the same size can typically be used interchangeably. Always check the hotness of chiles, both fresh and dried, by taking a little "taste test" and adjusting the amount to use accordingly. Most chiles of the same size have roughly the same amount of "hotness." The following dried chiles can all be used interchangeably:  Ancho (dried poblano), Cascabel, Guajillo, Mulato, and Chile Negro (or Pasilla). 

Dried Chiles

To toast or not to toast dried chiles: Mexican cooks usually give dried chiles a preliminary toasting in a hot skillet or pan (comal). But if the chiles are toasted a few seconds too long, the chiles acquire a bitter taste and the recipe is ruined. If you skip the preliminary toasting, the chiles will still give the food a fantastic taste. A preliminary toasting of the dried chiles is unnecessary. 

To seed or not to seed before adding to liquid: Mexican cooks soften dried chiles by submerging them whole in boiling water or chicken broth. Then the softened chiles are stemmed and the seeds rinsed out. But some of the soft, pulpy interior of the chile can be lost. A better techniques is to snip off the dry stem end, and shake out the seeds. Now the dried chiles are placed in a saucepan or bowl and covered with boiling water or chicken broth. Submerge the chiles with a small plate or bowl. Soak 30 minutes until softened (Note, the water or broth is not kept at a simmer during the soaking process. It gradually cools during the soaking process). Sometimes dried chiles are too wrinkled to cut them open and shake away the seeds. In that case, just remove the stem and seeds after submerging the chiles. 

Other Mexican Chile Products

Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce: These are smoked jalapeños simmered in a spicy sauce, and sold in 4-ounce cans at every Mexican market, and many American supermarkets. To use: Finely mince the chiles, including the seeds, and use along with the sauce. Warning: these are extremely spicy. To store:  transfer to a plastic container and refrigerate.  Lasts indefinitely.

Chile sauce, your favorite: This is a general term covering many chili sauces such as Cholula. Easily substitute with the Asian chile sauce, Rooster Brand Sriracha hot chile sauce, sold in a clear plastic bottle with a green cap. And remember to always refrigerate after opening. Crushed red pepper also serves as a great substitute to chile sauce and is sold in the spice section of all markets. It's also what appears on the table at all pizza restaurants and is very spicy, so use sparingly.

Chili powder, ancho and chipotle: If you can't locate this in your local market, it is always available in Mexican markets. You can also make your own by cutting the dried chiles into small pieces, and powdering them in an electric spice blender. Package, label, and store with your other spices. One powdered ancho chile equals 2 tablespoons.


  • ellabee  on  8/28/2014 at 9:09 PM

    >> Don't try to char the chiles on a gas grill or under the broiler. The heat won't be sufficient to blacken the chiles. << Flame is flame. A gas oven broiler chars the chiles just fine; I don't know about electric oven broilers. A charcoal grill also works, and I have trouble imagining why a gas grill wouldn't.

  • Rinshin  on  8/28/2014 at 9:46 PM

    I normally blacken chiles, eggplant, and peppers on my indoor gas stove top. No problem doing it.

  • hillsboroks  on  8/29/2014 at 2:02 PM

    I have an electric stove and have used the broiler in the past but it takes a long time and isn't very efficient. In a recent recipe that I was reading they suggested you use your kitchen torch that you normally would use on caramelizing creme brulee. I was planning to try this next time I needed to char chiles.

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