New Mexico Chiles, Capsicum Annuum, is a chile grown in New Mexico. The state may be best known for both their chile peppers and their red or green chili sauce -- which is practically the "state question". Whenever you visit a restaurant in New Mexico, your waiter or waitress will ask "red or green?" Sauces play an important role in New Mexican cuisine. And which one is better is always a hot debate throughout New Mexico.
Nestled in the center of the Rio Grande agricultural territory and located 37 miles north of Las Cruces is Hatch, New Mexico, the self-proclaimed Chile Capital of the World. The soil and growing conditions in the Hatch Valley are said by locals to create a unique terroir (similar to wine terroirs) which is responsible for the flavor of chile grown there.
According to Dave Dewitt the noted chile historian “There is no such thing as a Hatch chile, despite all the hype about them. It is not a chile variety, as many people think. Yes, there are chiles grown in Hatch, usually the varieties ‘Barker’ and ‘NuMex 6-4’" We've also found that other popular varieties grown in Hatch include 'Big Jim' and 'R-Naky'.
Our New Mexico Chiles are of the NuMex 6-4 variety and are grown in the Hatch Valley.
New Mexico chiles are often confused with their close relative the California Chiles (also called Anaheim Chile Peppers).
There are approximately 5 chiles per ounce.
New Mexico Chiles when ground into a powder is also known as the table condiment “molido” or “New Mexico Molido”.
History of New Mexico Chiles
Native to Central Mexico most of these New Mexico Chile varieties have been developed over the last 130 years at New Mexico State University.
According to the nonprofit organization Archaeology Southwest, chile peppers were one of the most vital foodstuffs among pre-contact (before European contact) Mesoamerican societies stretching from central Mexico down into Central and South America. Many food historians and anthropologists credit the introduction of chile peppers into this region to New Spain conquistador Don Juan de Oñate, who, in 1598, became the first colonial governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo México (modern day New Mexico).
It’s believed that many different varieties of chiles were cultivated during this time, most likely Chilacas (known as pasilla when dried), jalapeños, Poblanos (the dried version is ancho) and, Serranos. But one variety that adapted exceptionally well to New Mexico’s climate and soil was a long green chile that turned red in the fall. New Mexican chiles were cultivated for hundreds of years in the northern part of region with such meticulous care that multiple distinct varieties emerged. These varieties became known as “landrace chiles”.
DNA research conducted by the NMSU Chile Breeding Program concluded that many traditional Northern New Mexico landrace chiles contained a distinct genetic similarity to landrace varieties from Mexico. Landrace chiles are descendants of chiles historically taken through the Spanish and Portuguese trading routes between 1492 and 1590. They’re called landraces because the chiles have been collected and cultivated by individual families, and these specific “races” are closely linked to specific land areas where they’ve been grown for hundreds of years. Farmers still grow landrace chiles in Northern New Mexico typically in higher elevations (approximately 6,000 feet above sea level) where they have very remote fields and short growing seasons.
Landrace chiles are often named after the community where they're grown in (i.e. Chimayo and Espanola are two of the better known) but many family farms maintain their own unique named landrace chiles -- some of the best known of these include Hernandez, Escondida, Alcaldes and Velarde.
Northern landrace chiles tend to smaller, skinnier and have square shoulders and a more twisted shape. The aroma is flowery, the flavor intense and the heat levels range from medium to hot. They also tend to be more difficult to skin than the commercial southern New Mexico varieties.
Archaeological evidence exists that varieties of chile existed in the Southwestern US region before Oñate’s arrival. According to Archaeology Southwest, “The chiltepín, a wild relative of the cultivated chile, did grow in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Northern Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, and the region’s inhabitants presumably used the plant.”
While the popularity of modern New Mexico chiles is without a doubt tied to Spanish colonization of the area, the real credit for its survival as a vital crop in the state can be traced to Native American populations that adopted them into their own agricultural and culinary repertoires. For the 300 years after Onate’s introduction of chiles to New Mexico, other than with the Native Americans, they were barely recognized in the regional cuisine. Today chiles are coveted as New Mexico gold.
The commercially known Hatch New Mexico chile took a different path than the landrace chiles. The pioneering horticulturist Fabián Garcia was a member of the first graduating class of New Mexico A&M in 1894 (it became known as New Mexico State University in 1960). Upon graduation Garcia began improving the local chiles grown by Hispanic gardeners around Las Cruces and he later received his doctorate and became a professor at the university. In 1913 Dr. Garcia became director of the university’s experiment station where he set out to improve native chiles through hybridization and selection. His goal was to produce a chile cultivar that if milder would increase chile consumption among the Anglo population which in turn would create a viable commercial chile agribusiness for area farmers. He selected 14 chile accessions growing in the Las Cruces area that were either red or black in color. By 1921 only one line remained 'New Mexico No. 9' which he felt was the best and while not quite as hot as some of the non-selected cultivars was just hot enough for the Anglos.
This cultivar was important historically, not only because it was the first chile cultivar released from New Mexico A & M, but also because it introduced a new pod type --'New Mexican' -- to the world. Today NMSU has the longest continuous program of chile improvement in the world.
The New Mexico Hatch chile has a long family farm image that can be traced back to the Franzoy family -- Austrian immigrants who arrived in the Hatch valley about 90 years ago. When the Franzoy family settled here, they got into vegetable farming and chiles were one of the vegetables they really focused on. As the story goes, Joseph and Celestina Franzoy had 10 children who in turn also produced big families. Many of valley’s current chile farmers are still Franzoys, either by name or by marriage. The Franzoy’s became very involved with New Mexico A & M who worked closely with them in cultivating several successful varieties of chiles. The expanding family members bought up a lot of the farm land in the valley and today cultivates New Mexico chiles on thousands of acres of pristine farm land in the valley.
Cultivation of New Mexico Chiles
New Mexico chile peppers are grown from seeds and each of the individual pepper types is specifically bred and grown to be disease-resistant and provide consistent and healthy plants within their specific regions.
Altitude, climate and soil affects a crop's taste and heartiness, making the New Mexican region unique for plant propagation. The Caballo Mountain range to the west and the high deserts provide the ideal regional environment for growing chiles. To ensure that a variety's lineage remains disease-resistant and maintains optimal growth within its heritage region, seeds from specific plants are carefully selected. A quirky aspect of the New Mexico chile pepper regards reintroducing seeds from their heritage soil since each successive generation becomes susceptible to disease and it loses its flavor. Therefore, chile pepper farmers usually order seeds from their heritage soils, every few generations, to reinvigorate their crop.
These New Mexico chiles are planted by seed in early April and green chiles are harvested from around mid-July to early September and red chiles from mid-September to late October. As the green chiles ripen they become a deep, rich red color which changes the flavor of the chile, as it becomes a bit mellower and sweeter as it matures.
Challenges Facing Hatch New Mexico Chile Farmers
In 1992, the year before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was approved there were approximately 35,000 acres dedicated to growing New Mexico chiles and by 2013 this was down to only 9,000 acres and according to the New Mexico Chile Association 2014’s harvest was the smallest in recent memory.
The passing of NAFTA started the decline as New Mexican chile farmers couldn't compete with chile producers from Mexico who paid lower wages for this the labor intensive hand harvesting. To add more fuel to the fire even though Americans are consuming more chiles and spicier food than ever the state is facing increased competition not just from Mexico but also from China and India. New Mexico Business Weekly cited United States Department of Agriculture statistics several years ago which showed that US chile pepper imports soaring from 417 million pounds in 1999 to more than one billion pounds by 2008.
If that wasn’t enough New Mexico chile farmers are battling Mother Nature as the changing climate appears to be playing other tricks. During the last several years many growers have watched their green chiles mature to red much sooner than normal, which is causing problems in the harvest schedule.
More chiles are sold as Hatch New Mexico chiles than could possibly be grown in the small valley. In an effort to protect their chiles from counterfeiters trying to cash in on the reputation of New Mexico chiles, the New Mexico Chile Association launched a certification program in 2011 similar to other well-known product labels, such as "100% pure Florida" and "California olive oil."
Appearance, Heat and Flavor Profile
The dried New Mexico Chiles are 5" to 7" long and 2" wide while slowly tapering to a blunt end.
The heat is often described as crisp and clear. New Mexico chiles, while considered a mild heat chile, are a bit hotter at 800-1,400 SHU (Scoville Heat Units) and more flavorful than the California Chiles (500-1,000 SHU).
The New Mexico Chile possesses an earthy, sweet flavor with hints of acidity, weediness and dried cherry undertones.
Cooking with New Mexico Chiles
New Mexico Chiles are commonly used in Southwestern and Mexican dishes that add piquancy (or zest) to red sauces, chile con queso, chile rellenos, chile verde, chutneys, salsas, soups, seasonings, stews and dry rubs. We also love to roast them and use in salads, dips and sandwiches. One of our commercial baker customers infuses them into her chocolate.
You can add dried New Mexico Chiles directly to your recipes -- diced, sliced or pureed. The whole dried pod can be ground in your spice or coffee grinder (with or without the seeds, depending on your heat tolerance). You can also roast them first to release additional flavor in a nonstick skillet for 5-10 minutes. Be sure to use low to medium heat for this and be careful not to burn or scorch the chiles. They can also be re-hydrated by pouring hot (not boiling) water over them and letting sit about 10-15 minutes. Don’t let them soak longer, as they tend to become bitter.
New Mexico Chile Substitutions and Conversions
If you ask anybody from New Mexico about what to use as a substitute you’ll get an answer that there is no substitute. But if you’re in a pinch you can use California Chiles (a.k.a. Anaheim Chiles) or Guajillo Chiles.
1 Dried New Chile Pod is equal to 1 teaspoon of Ground New Mexico Chile.