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A guide to cooking with chilli peppers.

Updated on April 28, 2013

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The many chiles all belong to the genus Capsicum and vary in degree of "hotness" and in flavor, not only between plants of the same species, depending on such variables as soil and climate. To confuse things even more, the same chiles may go by different names in the different states of Mexico. Wearing rubber gloves is a good idea when preparing chiles, as the pithy white placenta, or seed cluster, can burn the skin. Be careful not to touch your eyes. Remove the placenta and seeds if a less picante tastte is desired.

Chiles frescos (fresh chiles)

The fat, dark green chile jalapeno, named after the capital of Veracruz, is the most commonplace chile used in mexican cooking, along with the smaller chile serrano. Both of these hot chiles are eaten pickled or fresh in uncooked salsas and guacamole. Though each has a distinctive flavor, they can substitute for each other. The chile cuaresmeno of the central region is the same as the jalapeno. The chile poblano is another chile essential in Mexican cooking. Larger and much milder than the jalapeno, this chile is best known for making chiles rellenos. It is also cut into rajas (strips) and used as a garnish, mixed with vegetables or rice, or added to sauces. The Anaheim or unnamed long green peppers in the supermarkets are marginal substitutes. The chile guero or blond chile is any very light yellow or pale green chile. A Fresno chile, the long yellow banana or Hungarian wax pepper, or even a jalapeno can be substituted.

Roast fresh chiles

Chiles are roasted in order to remove the thin skin that covers them as well as to give them a unique flavor. There are several methods:

  1. Over direct heat
    This is the most commonly used technique. Place the chiles directly over a medium flame on a gas stove. Turn the chiles with tongs until their entire skins are charred (covered with black blisters). This will take 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the heat of the flame and the size of the chiles. Do not char the chiles too much or the flesh will burn and taste bitter. Immediately place the chiles in a plastic bag and close the bag. Or cover the chiles with a damp cloth. Leave for 10 to 15 minutes. This is called "letting the chiles sweat." This procedure has two functions: to make the thin sin easier to remove and to let the chiles cook slightly in their own steam.

  2. On a comal
    If you don't have a comal, you can use a heavy skillet (frying pan), preferably iron or nonstick. Heat the comal over medium heat. Place 2 or 3 chiles at a time on it and cook, turning, until the entire skin of each chile is charred. This will take 10 to 15 minutes. Be careful that the chile doesn't get too scorched or the flesh will burn, resulting in an unpleasant, bitter flavor. Remove the chiles from the comal and put them in the plastic bag or under the damp cloth.

  3. In a broiler
    Heat the broiler (griller) to medium-high heat. Lightly brush each chile with oil. Place all the chiles in the pan and put in the broiler. Broil, turning the chiles, until their entire skins are charred. This will take 10 to 15 minutes.Remove the chiles from teh broiler and use the procedure from number 1 with the plastic bag or the damp cloth.

  4. In oil
    This method is usually used to prepare stuffed chiles or chiles with nut sauce in large quantities because it saves a lot of time and labor in peeling the chiles. Heat a cup of oil over medium-high heat in a skillet. Add the chiles 1 or 2 at a time. Use a spatula or a slotted spoon to turn the chiles and fry them until their skins swell and turn golden brown, 5 to 10 seconds. Transfer the chiles to a bowl containing cold water and use your fingers to peel off the thin skins.

To peel chiles

Turn on the cold water tap so that a thin stream of cold water is running out. Hold each chile under the running water and use your fingers to remove the charred skins. If parts of the skin stick to the chile, use a paring knife to remove them. Or you can dip the chiles in a medium-sized bowl full of water as needed to peel each chile. Do not let them soak or they will lose flavor.

Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the hottest pepper in the world, with a scoville heat rating of over 2 million.
Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the hottest pepper in the world, with a scoville heat rating of over 2 million.

To remove the membranes and seeds

Some sauces and other dishes use chiles with their seeds and membranes, but more often the seeds and membranes are removed because the heat of the chile is concentrated in them.
If the chile is to be used whole and stuffed, do not remove the stem and be careful not to break the skin while cleaning the chile. Use a small knife and carefully make a lateral incision in the chile; remove the placenta, which is the small cluster of seeds attached to the base of the stem; also remove the membranes that run the length of the chile. Gently rinse the chile to remove any seeds that are still adhering to it.
If the chile is to be cut into strips, cut a lid in the top part of the chile, by the stem, and remove. Make a lateral incision in the chile, pull open and remove the seeds and membranes. Rinse the chile and cut it into strips.

To soak fresh chiles

Soaking fresh chiles consists of submerging them in a mixture of 1 cup (250ml) of water, 1 tablespoon white vinegar, and 2 teaspoons salt (double or triple the quantities depending on the number of chiles). The purpose of soaking is to remove piquancy. With experience, when you roast chiles, you will be able to tell from the odor given off how hot they are. If the chiles are too fiery, it may be necessary to let them soak for a little while; 40 minutesis usually long enough. After soaking, rinse the chiles briefly.

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