A guide to cooking with Red Chiles from how to pick them for your favorite recipes like red chile sauce for enchiladas, pozole, and tamales.
Learn which red chiles you can substitute and how it will affect how spicy a dish is.
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When I was working in produce at Whole Foods Market, I would be often asked what is a red chile.
It was a pretty frequently asked question.
The motivation behind it was that the customer was looking for a red chile because they had a recipe that called for one. They did not know what to use.
I would led them over to the hot pepper section and give them the run down. The only red chile we had were Fresno and didn't always have them in stock. I would always help them find something that would go with whatever they were cooking.
But nothing beats a red chile in a recipe that calls for a red chile.
What is a Red Chile?
For the purpose of this post we are defining that a red chile includes any pepper that is red with the exception of a bell pepper.
Have you ever wondered why chiles are called peppers or if there is a difference? The term "pepper" was used by Columbus when he came looking for peppercorns and other spices in what he thought was India. He called the chiles he was finding peppers (thanks Alton Brown for that tidbit)
There is also a difference between the word "chile" and "chili". Chili is a dish that may or may not have chiles in it but is often made from chile powder.
What to Buy When a Recipe Calls for Them?
?️ Most importantly I want to say is that you really can use whatever you want. The level of heat that people like varies a lot.
Some people like using the ridiculous hot Ghost pepper and some people think a Jalapeno is too much and bell is the only pepper for them. Choose whatever you are most comfortable with. It's your dish, don't be afraid to own it.
That being said if you really want to replicate what the recipes calls for, then there are a few options that I would look for.
The key thing to understand that in general red peppers are sweeter. They have spend longer time on the plant and have matured from green to red.
Jalapenos are general picked green, but if you leave them on long enough they will turn red and be sweeter. Think about the difference in flavor between green and red or orange bell peppers.
Let's spend some time look at the different types of red chiles you may encounter at the store or market. You can often substitute these peppers for one another depending on your hot or smoky you want your final dish to taste.
When I think of red chile peppers, the Fresno is the first one I think of. This pepper named after the city in California looks similar to a Jalapeno, but has a thinner skin.
?️ The heat level on the Scoville scale which measures the heat of a pepper ranges from 2,500–10,000 for the Fresno.
Jalapenos can range from 1,000-20,000. The mildest Fresno is hotter than the mildest Jalapeno.
The Jalapeno has a greater potential to be hotter though. You can't be sure quite what you are going to get at the grocery until you take them home. But I can say they are close enough in heat to use them interchangeable. The Fresno will be sweeter in taste.
If you can find a red jalapeno that should work in a recipe calling for a red chile. Fresh red jalapenos are a rare find, usually only at farmer's market, or occasionally I have seen them at Whole Foods Market in the late summer time - those were from a local source.
Most red jalapenos are smoked and dried. At this point they are called chipotle peppers.
If you find them, you can re-hydrate them and use them as your red chile, especially if your recipe would benefit from some smoky flavor (a ton of recipes would!). I have also seen dried red Thai chiles if you want something with more bite.
Red Thai Chile Pepper
While being small in size, red thai chiles aren't small on the heat.
?️ Sometimes you can find red Thai chiles that will be really hot up to 225,000 on the Scoville scale.
Only use them if you like it really hot. I mean that.
Red Chile Sauce
If you are looking to make a red chile sauce, most recipes will call for Red New Mexico chile pods. Yes, sometimes you will hear the word "pod" being used instead of peppers. I was recently in New Mexico and I found this sight all over the place.
If you are not in New Mexico and having a hard time finding these, find a local Mexican food market or just use what dried chiles you can find in your store.
Or you can look to online sources to buy them from. Try to find ones that were actually grown in New Mexico, especially Hatch, NM. This region is known for producing some of the best tasting peppers in the world. The combo of very warm days and cooler nights is great for chile growing.
I hope that helps you decide what to do when your recipe calls for red chiles. Leave a comment below and let me know what you have picked and where you got your red chiles. Remember there is really no wrong choice. Your making the recipe, feel the freedom to make it as you please.