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The Best Peppers for Chili

One of the top questions we’re asked on a regular basis is, “What are the best chile peppers to use when I make chili?” The debate about how to make chili the “proper” way is passionate, as fiery as the stew at the center of the question. Chili is adored from one side of this country to another, and each region has its preferred recipe. Americans make chili with beans, or no beans. Tomatoes, or no tomatoes. Over pasta. With crackers. Or a side of cornbread. You need to ask yourself if you want to stick to classic chili seasonings, or if you want to get experimental and try an adventurous seasoning to give your chili a personalized twist. At its best, homemade chili is a masterpiece of comfort cooking, regionally influenced but shaped by the hands that cook it. Despite regional differences and personal preferences there’s one thing that all chilis agree on: Chile peppers are a critical ingredient.

When you look at the list of chile peppers, with an e, that could potentially go into chili, with an i, it’s easy to see where confusion can creep in. What’s the difference between chipotle morita and meco? Does it matter if you use New Mexico Red or Pasilla de Oaxaca? Depending on what you want your chili to achieve, yes, your choice of chile pepper matters. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best dried chiles for chili, arranged them by Scoville Heat Units (SHU) from mildest to hottest, and highlighted their characteristics. When you see what you like to add as a base flavor, or what you prefer to grind and garnish, take notes! It’s a great way to keep track of the chiles that match your tastes, as you move forward toward your perfect pot of chili.


Our Favorite Peppers for Chili

New Mexico Red – 800-1,400 SHU. New Mexico Red Chiles are earthy and sweet. They have a bit of piquant acidity, balanced by a bit of grassiness and deep cherry bottom notes. Good to use as a flavoring base.

Pasilla Negro – 1,000-2,000 SHU. This chile is pungent and complex. It tastes chocolatey and raisiny, with some woodsy undertones. So its nuance doesn’t get lost, add crushed Pasilla Negro chiles as a garnish on top of chili. To amplify the flavor, rehydrate and sauté for a base flavor, too.

Mulato – 1,000-2,000 SHU. The flavor profile of Mulato chiles is a bit sweet with hints of smoky chocolate, licorice, cherries and coffee. Excellent rehydrated and cooked in to the chili as a flavor base.

Ancho – 1,000-1,500 SHU. Sweet and chocolatey, with deeply earthy flavors and hints of tobacco, cherry, and raisin, the complex Ancho chile is Mexico’s top pepper. It makes for a rich and resonant flavor base for hearty chilis, when sauteed at the start of cooking time.

Guajillo – 2,500-5,000 SHU. Guajillo chiles are fun and sprightly, bringing a tart berry fruit and playful sweet heat to a dish. They also have astringent, tannic qualities, a hint of pine, and some smoky depth. They are excellent as a flavor base, but also do well ground and sprinkled on top of a dish to finish.

Pasilla de Oaxaca – 4,000-10,000 SHU. There’s a ton of flavor packed into these peppers. While there is a hint of deep cherry fruit, the Pasilla de Oaxaca is known for its smoky, meaty flavor. Rehydrate and add at the start of cooking for rich, porky flavor that can serve as the backbone of any pot of chili.

Chipotle Meco – 5,000-10,000 SHU. A less common version of the chipotle pepper, Chipotle Mecos are jalapeños that are dried and smoked for twice as long as their cousin, the popular Chipotle Morita. The flavors in Chipotle Meco chiles are allowed to intensify, so it has strong grass and smoke flavors, along with the spicy heat one expects from a chipotle. Use sparingly until you can gauge the intense flavors to meet your palate. Can be used as a flavor base but excels ground and added at the end of cooking.

Chipotle Morita – 5,000-10,000 SHU. Chipotle Morita is what most people think of when they think chipotle. Moritas are ripe jalapeños, dried and smoked until wrinkly and deep purple. Spicy, raisiny, and smoky, Chipotle Moritas add tremendous depth to chili con carne, a delicious starting layer to build upon. Add early, and use sparingly at first.

Puya – 5,000-10,000 SHU. Slender Puya Chiles offer flavors of berry-like fruit with deeper notes of licorice and cherry. This chile has thin flesh, so it’s valued more for its flavor than for its ability to add bulk to a dish. It makes an excellent paste for early sautéing, but if you want to highlight the fruitiness of this chile, grind some and sprinkle on the chili at the end of cooking.

Smoked Red Serranos – 8,000-18,000 SHU. Narrow Serrano peppers are often mistaken for jalapeños, but they have more of a kick. Allowed to ripen on the vine, these peppers are picked at maturity and smoked. Their smoky flavor is surprisingly brisk, with plummy fruit flavor and hints of citrus. Serranos offer a medium heat that lingers, so it can stand up to long cooking times. Add at the beginning of cooking.

Aji Amarillo – 30,000-50,000 SHU. Bright orangey-yellow Aji Amarillo is a mild-to-hot chile pepper. This chile smells grassy and raisiny, with the rich, fruity flavors of mango and passionfruit that help hold the heat in check. Rehydrate and add to the base of chili for a playful, bright change of pace. Should you want to make flavors pop, add at the end of cooking, but add sparingly, since the heat will not have a chance to dissipate.

Pequin - 30,000-60,000 SHU. Small and mighty, the Pequin pepper tastes like jammy fruit, with a peanutty flavor that comes out when toasted. It has a ton of heat, and that heat tends to linger. Pequin peppers can be ground and added at the beginning of cooking time, or sprinkled on top at the end, but they should always be used judiciously. One or two of these small peppers is usually plenty for a pot of chili. Or, sauté a handful of peppers in oil and strain, then let friends and family stream Pequin oil into their bowls so they can have personalized levels of heat.

Chiltepin – 100,000-250,000 SHU. Roughly the size of a peppercorn, Chiltepin chiles are a heat powerhouse. They are pungent, earthy and smoky, and have a huge upfront heat. Their heat does not linger long, though. If you want their heat to be the first thing you meet in a bowl of chili, crush them and add them at the end. If you would prefer the heat to permeate the entire pot of chili, add them at the beginning of cooking.

Habanero – 200,000-300,000 SHU. If you want truly fiery chili, choose the Habanero pepper. This little heat bomb has surprisingly light and fruity flavors, but comes with kick-in-the-pants heat. The Habanero is often reconstituted and added at the beginning of cooking, so its heat disperses through the entire dish. Handle cautiously, and use judiciously. One pepper should be plenty for a spicy chili; use two if you’re feeling daring.


Preparing Chile Peppers

There are a variety of ways that chile peppers can be prepared to make them chili-ready. Rehydrating is a common technique to use with dried chile peppers; simply soak cleaned chiles in hot water for twenty minutes, then drain off the soaking water. Chiles can then be diced, sliced into ribbons, or pounded into paste. Our blog can give you step-by-step instructions on how to rehydrate chiles. This is often a method used to prepare chiles for the base layer of flavor, though slices of rehydrated chiles can be used as a garnish.

You can also pulverize dried chiles in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. This may be more successfully accomplished with thinner-fleshed chiles if you are grinding by hand. The chile powder can be added either at the beginning of cooking or at the end.

If you have dried chiles and aren’t concerned about creating a uniform dice, the peppers can be torn apart and thrown into the hot pot. They will cook in the chili as long as they have at least twenty minutes to soften. This is used more successfully with thinner-fleshed peppers, like guajillos. Cooks can also add a whole, dried chile to a pot, let it cook with their dish, and retrieve it once it’s softened in order to process it further. Since adding the chiles to a dish while still dry inherently requires cooking time, this is a method that’s generally used for base flavoring.

Occasionally, cooks may take a whole, dried chile, add it to a dish, let it cook enough to impart some of its essence, and then retrieve the pepper and discard it. This is often done with very hot peppers like habaneros; do this toward the end of cooking and check frequently to make sure the dish is not getting too spicy for your taste.

Chilis can also be garnished with a stinging chile oil, made by steeping chile peppers in oil. The heat and flavor of the chile peppers disperses into the oil, making it spicy and flavorful. We love to finish our chili with a drizzle of spicy Pequin Chile Oil; it's got a Tex-Mex base with global flair. Spiced oils should always be used to finish a dish, not to cook in.


Personalizing Your Chili

This list is a combination of the peppers that deliver classic chili flavor, with a sprinkling of peppers that chili purists might find surprising. Chili is a dish that can embrace a vast array of interpretations. While regional chilis may have specific flavor profiles, an individual pot of chili can be intensely personalized. For the home cook, the possibilities are wide open. You can use just one of these peppers listed here as your primary flavoring agent, or you can try them in combination with one another and create a mix that’s completely your own. If the weather is right and the thought of a steaming bowl of something spicy speaks to your heart, then pick your peppers and get to cooking.

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