Cooking with dried Mexican chillies requires a specific technique. While a fresh bird’s eye chilli can be finely chopped and chucked in a pan, a wrinkled ancho or a leathery guajillo should be cooked the traditional Mexican way. The process takes a little longer, but you’ll reap the rewards – chilli sauces made from scratch are worlds apart from store-bought varieties, perfect for authentic enchiladas and moles. If you haven’t cooked with them before, start with our step-by-step guide to how to cook with dried Mexican chillies below. 

At Sous Chef we stock ten different varieties of dried Mexican chillies. Perhaps the most commonly used combination is ancho and guajillo. Each other variety has its own distinguishing characteristic though – from the chilli de arbol’s wicked hotness to the mulato’s fruitier notes. The same cooking method applies to all the dried Mexican chillies, so once you’ve mastered a basic chilli paste, start experimenting by adding and taking away different chillies – and before you know it you’ll be tinkering your way toward a thirty-ingredient mole.

Step-by-step: How to cook with dried Mexican chillies

Step 1 – Preparing the chillies
Pull the stem off the top of the chilli. Use your hands or a paring knife to split the chilli open, spatchcock-style. Collect the seeds and put them to one side. You might want to add these to the sauce later, to give it an extra kick. You might prefer to wear gloves during this step – if not, make sure you don’t touch your eyes. It will burn.

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Step 2 – Toasting the chillies
Traditionally, toasting is done on a heavy, cast iron skillet – but a frying pan will work, and it can even be done on charcoal if you happen to have a barbecue on the go. Use a wooden spatula to press the chillies down onto the dry heat, so that they start to blister and turn a darker colour. This should take between 35-45 seconds.  Some recipes go a step further and toast the chillies until blackened – for 2 to 3 minutes – introducing more bitter notes. The best way to control the process is to toast the chillies in small batches.

Pressing a chilli against a dry pan until it blisters is a counter-intuitive process for a European cook. Traditionally, recipes start with oil or butter in a pan – so forcing out extra flavour by blistering the chillies directly against a hot surface may feel like a brutal technique. The toasting process intensifies the flavour though, and introduces rich, caramelised notes to a dish. At this stage blacken some of the seeds as well, but keep them separate – to add later for extra heat if needed.

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Step 3 – Soaking the chillies

Once the chillies have all been toasted, plunge into warm water. This rehydrates them – and the flesh will become moist and supple.

Some writers suggest that it’s important not to soak the chillies in boiling water, as it will leach out too much flavour, instead recommending simmering for 15-20 minutes is ideal. We prefer the easier route. Instead pouring water from a freshly boiled kettle over the chillies, and leave in a bowl to soak – they are not in too hot water for too long, and the soaking water can always be added to the sauce or stew later. Chillies float, so rest a plate or mug over them to keep them submerged.

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Step 4 – Blending the chillies
This is the point that the sauce starts to take shape, and some decisions need to be made. First is what other ingredients to blend with the chillies. A traditional chilli paste will might use blackened onions and garlic, along with a selection of other seasonings such as Mexican cumin and oregano. Use a blender to turn the ingredients into a thick paste – adding a little oil or the soaking water to help the mixture keep together. Taste the blended mixture, if you want it slightly hotter add a teaspoon of blackened chilli seeds at a time, and blend again.

The second decision is the thickness of the paste or sauce. To create a chilli sauce with pouring consistency, thin with a fresh or tinned tomatillos, tomatoes, or even a little stock or oil. If the chilli paste is being used as a marinade, then it’s best to keep it in its richest, most intense form while it flavours the meat – as in the Mexican birria recipe. It can then be thinned out at a later stage in the recipe.

The final decision is the sauce’s texture. Some people will strain the sauce through a sieve to make it perfectly smooth. Others will leave the sauce in a more rustic and textured form – there’s no right or wrong, just personal preference.

Step 5 – Cooking the paste (optional)
As with a tomato sauce, the process of slow-cooking a chilli sauce or paste will enrich and deepen the flavour. Pour a little oil into the bottom of a deep frying pan, and then add the paste. Heat to just below a simmer, and keep an eye on it – stirring occasionally – for 20 minutes or so. By the end of cooking, the colours deepen, and the hard edges of the paste will mellow to a full-flavoured rounded sauce.

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Two chilli recipe ideas, to get started

1. Simple all-purpose three chilli paste
An all-purpose chilli paste to keep on hand to add richness and spice to almost any dish: add a couple of tablespoons to a chilli con carne, add a teaspoon to a fresh zingy tomato salsa, or add a little salt and use to marinade a pork shoulder before slow-roasting.

For approx 200g of chilli paste, use 4 (approx 30g) of each chilli – 90g of dried chillies in total.
Ingredients: 4 ancho chillies, 4 guajillo chillies, 4 pasilla chillies

  • Prepare chillies as in steps 1 to 5 above.
  • Add a teaspoon of sugar to the paste.
  • Store in an airtight jar in the fridge covered in a little oil.

2. Salsa de chile de Arbol
Recommended to us by our chilli supplier, this is the perfect accompaniment to tacos. Plus it can be made straight from the store cupboard in 10 mins.

Ingredients: 3 chile de arbol, 3 cloves garlic (unpeeled), 10 tomatillos (half a can)

Prepare chillies using steps 1-4 above. They are small and tender so only need soaking for 5 mins. Whilst the chillies soak, strain the tomatillos, and blacken for around 5 mins in a hot skillet. Remove to a blender, and then blacken the garlic cloves. Peel the garlic, and blend together the peeled garlic, soaked chillies, and tomatillos. Serve with tacos, or even for dipping tortilla chips.