Chile peppers are the foundation of traditional Mexican cooking. But with the vast variety of peppers and the fear of choosing one that is too hot to enjoy the dish you are cooking, it can be a bit intimidating to venture outside of the jalapeno.
Let’s start with the one we’re probably most familiar with. The jalapeno is a medium size pepper that has a mild heat. They’re particularly palatable when you remove the seeds, which contain much of the pepper’s spice.
Most often, jalapenos are picked while still green but you can also find the red variety, which have been allowed to fully ripen on the plant.
Jalapenos are used in salsas, pickled, stuffed, baked, fried and can even be muddled into cocktails to add a soft warmth to a margarita.
The serrano pepper originates in the mountainous regions of Mexico. It’s smaller than a jalapeno and quite a bit hotter. Like a jalapeno, if left to ripen the pepper will turn deep red. Serrano peppers are used in salsas and are one of the few peppers those don’t do well with drying.
Chipotle peppers are ripe jalapeños that have been smoked, which means they give dishes a rich, smoky flavor. Often you’ll find them re-hydrated and made into a salsa or a meat marinade, called adobo. Chipotle peppers can be found whole, ground or canned and referred to as “chipotle in adobo”. They have a moderate amount of heat.
Chiles De Arbol
This small, vibrant red chile is also known as bird’s beak chile or rat’s tail chile. Chiles de árbol can be found fresh, dried or powdered. And, if you can’t find them, cayenne can be substituted. They’re a medium-high heat level.
I like to tuck one of two dried chiles de árbol into the pot when I’m cooking beans, or even when I’m making a stock that I know is destined for something with a bit of a Latin flair. Outside of cooking, these peppers are often used to make wreaths, as they maintain their vivid color when dried.
Watch out — these ones bite! Habanero peppers are the hottest pepper used in Mexican cuisine. It’s wise to wear gloves when working with any kind of pepper, but this one in particular requires great care when preparing it.
Habaneros range in color depending on when they’re picked and how old they are. With a flavor that is both citrusy and floral, habaneros are often used to make hot sauces.
Poblano Pepper (also known as Ancho Chile)
The poblano is one of my favorite peppers. Roasted and stuffed with beans and cheese? Yes, please.
Poblanos have a more mild in flavor, although the fully ripened red ones contain quite a bit more heat. A dried poblano is known as ancho chile, which is a common ingredient in mole sauce.