In a small and crowded taqueria, just blocks from the metro, plumes of smoke billow out and blanket the surrounding neighborhood in the aroma of beautifully charred meat. An eclectic mix of locals of all ages gathers around tiny, wobbly tables, decorated with a spread of house-made salsas.
It was here, at Los Palomos, that I would have my world rocked by their chile con queso — a stuffed, grilled Ancho chile served with tortillas that forever changed how I saw chille and their use in cooking.
No exaggeration. None.
The diversity of chile is often overlooked and most people put them all in the one proverbial basket of spicy. But the variety of flavors, aromas, and heat levels of chiles is remarkable.
There are over 150 varieties of chiles available in Mexico alone and one of the most popular and widely-used is the Ancho. Ancho chiles are the dried version of the commonly found Poblano — a long, green chile with varying heat that looks similar to bell peppers.
Anchos also happen to be one of the most delicious. The late harvest and drying process helps to develop a sweet, fruity, and smoky flavor. They’re also considered quite mild at around 1000 Scoville units.
Here are 6 ways to start using Ancho chile to kick your cooking up a notch.
Toast and grind for a smoky chile powder
Starting with the most simple — a basic chile powder that can be used as a garnish on pretty much anything.
Ancho powder can be used anywhere you’d use regular chile flakes and you can decide how coarse or fine to grind it.
In my opinion, Anchos are notorious for an inconsistent heat level, so if you’re after something very spicy, you’ll need to throw a couple of smaller, spicier chiles into the mix. Chile de Arbol or Bird’s eye chiles work great.
Be sure to toast the chiles before grinding them as it intensifies the flavor and makes it easier to remove the seeds. However, leaving the seeds in is fine and some people prefer it for extra heat.
Ancho compound butter
Don’t be fooled by a fancy name, compound butter is just any butter with something mixed through it that is reformed and rechilled. Not complicated, by any means.
I recently made an Ancho chile compound butter and it blew my mind. It hit so many different notes — sweet, spicy, smokey, and of course, fatty.
For me, Ancho chiles are reminiscent of raisins and add the perfect touch of sweetness to butter. The Ancho butter can be used on almost anything you’d use regular butter for.
Take a second to consider its application in sweet recipes though. Your vanilla cake may taste like shit if you throw a whole chunk of Ancho butter in there. Just sayin’…
How to make Ancho compound butter:
*Use 2–3 Ancho chiles per stick of butter
- Remove butter from the fridge and bring to room temperature
- Toast chiles in a pan until fragrant but don’t burn them
- Remove seeds and cut into strips
- Grind to a fine powder using a food processor or blender
- Mix half of the chile mixture into your butter and incorporate well with a silicone spatula
- Taste before you add the rest and make the call on whether you add more or not
- Add the rest of the chile and incorporate well
- Reform into a roll using plastic wrap and chill until firm
- Use it as you would use regular butter
How to use Ancho compound butter:
- Ancho garlic shrimp
- Chile chocolate brownies
- On your grilled corn
- Elotes (grilled corn 2.0)
- Toss with steamed or blanched vegetables
- Finish off a pan sauce
Chile chocolate brownies
Chiles and chocolate are made for each other. They go together so well that it’s hard to find a chocolate recipe that isn’t complemented by chiles — and brownies are no exception.
I normally find brownies pretty boring but my last batch was kicked up a notch by the added heat and smokiness of the Ancho.
Brownies are one of the best desserts to incorporate chiles into because the added touch of spice will balance out the richness and heaviness of the fudgy chocolate. A lighter dessert like a mousse wouldn’t carry the spice as well.
How to make Ancho chile brownies:
There are two ways you can incorporate Ancho chiles into your brownie mix:
- Create a compound butter (see above) and use some in your brownie mix
- Add toasted, ground Anchos directly to the brownie mix
I wouldn’t go and make a compound butter just to use it in a brownie mix unless, of course, you’d like some for later. Simply folding some Ancho powder into the mix is much easier and will achieve the same results.
Be sure to toast the chiles. Not only does it make deseeding them easier, but it also intensifies the flavor.
Relleno de queso (Stuffed with cheese)
I’d never thought to stuff a dried chile with cheese and grill it. I always thought it’d turn out as a leathery, unchewable mess.
How wrong I was…
Not only was my first chile con queso at Los Palomos a delicious experience, but it was also an educational one. That was the day that I learned that the wrinkled and somewhat leathery skins of dried chiles are more forgiving than they seem.
The Ancho is stuffed with queso Chihuahua and grilled on the plancha until softened and gleaming with oily deliciousness. Slapped on two corn tortillas, you’re presented with what seems like a pretty unappetizing mess. Low and behold, it tastes like everything you’ve ever wanted in a taco — sweet, smoky, spicy, fatty, and cheesy.
I’ve never been so impressed by a meal so simple. Ever.
How to make stuffed Ancho chiles:
- Slice off tops of chiles and remove the seeds
- Fill with a cheese that melts well — like Manchego, Mozzarella, or a Cheddar mix
- Grill on medium until cheese starts to melt and the chiles soften from the fat of the cheese
- Remove from grill, cut everything up and mix well
- Put back on the grill for a moment to finish melting all of the cheese
- Serve on double-stacked corn tortillas with spicy salsa
Fermented hot sauce
Probably the most obvious thing to do with chiles is to make hot sauce. It’s (normally) quick, easy, and can be added to just about anything savory.
But why fermented hot sauce?
Fermentation allows bacteria like lactobacillus to thrive and consume lactose and other sugars present in the food, converting them into lactic acid.
This achieves a few important things:
- The flavor profile becomes more complex and tangy.
- The lactic acid acts as a preserver and the hot sauce will last (basically) forever.
- The fermented food becomes rich in probiotic bacteria which are good for your gut health.
I prefer fermented hot sauce over its regular counterpart for almost every application and rarely buy hot sauce anymore. Not only choosing what chiles go into your hot sauce but also having control over the flavor profile and level of heat is incredibly rewarding.
It’s worth noting that Anchos will never be the only chilli in a hot sauce. They don’t contain enough heat and the final product would be overwhelmingly smoky and sweet. Consider keeping them at around 10–20% of the total amount of chillies.
How to make fermented Ancho hot sauce:
- Gather your chiles (The majority should be made up of small, spicy chiles like chilli de Arbol and Guajillo). The chiles de Arbol will add the majority of heat and Guajillos will bulk out the sauce and add great flavor.
- Add 1–2 Ancho chiles for every 100g of base chilli — like Guajillo and Chile de árbol.
- Weigh all the chiles
- Create a salt brine with 2% of the chillies’ weight in salt, dissolved in filtered water
- Add chiles and brine to a jar, weigh them down so they’re submerged, and seal for at least one week.
- Burp the jar every couple of days to release excess gas.
- After a week, smell the mix, taste a chile, and decide whether to continue or not (time depends on ambient temperature).
- Once fermented, strain (reserving liquid), blend with ¼ of liquid, a pinch of salt/sugar, and vinegar to your preference.
- Thin out with more reserved liquid if the sauce is too thick.
- Pass through a sieve and store in a bottle or jar.
- Keep chilled as the sauce will continue to ferment at room temperature, creating gas that can explode the bottle/jar.
When used properly, Ancho chiles add a sweet and smoky flavor to a hot sauce that kicks it up a notch. The final product can be used on just about anything you’d add regular hot sauce too.
Make a liquor
If it weren’t for the delicious Ancho Reyes liquor that’s found everywhere in Mexico, I wouldn’t have thought of ever making liquor with Anchos.
Ancho Reyes is extremely affordable in Mexico, and arguably much better than what you could make at home, so there’s little reason to make your own.
Not everyone lives in Mexico and not everyone can get their hands on Ancho Reyes, but making your own is very achievable. You just need a handful of Anchos and some neutral liquor like Vodka.
The process is simple enough — macerate the chiles in liquor for six months, strain, and add sugar, if desired, to balance the flavor. The only issue with the entire process is how long it takes.
Six months is considered the minimum as any less than that will give you negligible results, flavor-wise.
The versatility of Anchos is almost endless and how you use them is limited only by your imagination. The forgiving heat level means you can play around with them without ever worrying about ruining a dish with too much spice.
Chiles have changed the way I cook and I’m always looking for a new way to incorporate them into my dishes. Every chilli is extremely unique in terms of flavor, so play around with different varieties and find new flavor profiles that you like.