An Ode to the Dried Chiles of Mexico

From another white guy who isn’t Mexican

Alex Heery
7 min readSep 13, 2021

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those that love dried chiles and those that haven’t realized they do yet.

Because even if you think you don’t like dried chiles, you do. You love them; we all do.

So far, apart from giving a shit and trying hard, and fish sauce, dried chiles have had the most significant impact on my cooking.

As many see it, chiles are the most important ingredient after corn in Mexico. They’ve been cultivated for over 6000 years and represent one of the pillars of Mexican cuisine: corn, chiles, and beans — and cacao, in Oaxaca.

In Mexico, chiles are ground, chopped, pickled, blended, and stuffed for everything from sauces and side dishes to full meals in themselves. A good chile relleno de queso (stuffed chile) will have you forgetting about meat altogether. Chiles have also helped transform the humble masa into a seemingly endless variety of antojitos (snacks).


But there’s a lot of nonsense around chiles, like anything, I guess. At one point, it all became a contest; breeders lost their shit, and chiles became spicy to the point of inedible. What the fuck are we supposed to do with a Carolina Reaper anyway?

But dried chiles never got as much attention as their fresh counterparts. Most people I talk to barely use them, apart from chile flakes as a garnish. But who can blame them? I was like that too until I had my understanding of dried chiles shattered by an exceptional taco de chile ancho con queso. How something so simple can be so tasty is beyond me.

Dried chiles lend unique flavors that fresh chiles can’t. Chile ancho adds fruitiness and a slow burn, while morita (little blackberry) bumps up the heat and smoke. Salsa macha, the addictive chile oil from Veracruz, is a brilliant way to use moritas.

The seemingly endless varieties of dried chiles are on show at every mercado and tianguis in Mexico, piled high and always neatly. Without even trying, you quickly realize their importance in Mexican cuisine. They even have their own goddess — Tlatlauhqui cihuatl ichilzintli, or the respectable lady of the little red chile.

Every time I walk into a market, they’re the first thing I smell. I often wonder who was genius enough to dry and smoke a jalapeño to turn it into what we now call morita, or the origin of mole — the undisputed national dish of Mexico and probably the best sauce you’ll ever try.

Dried chiles can be sorted into two groups — rojos (red) y oscuros (dark).

Rojos tend to be more acidic and pair best with poultry, fish, and other light meats. Oscuros are sweeter, smokier, and are redolent of raisins and plums. They pair well with darker meats and especially well with chocolate.

But that doesn’t always hold true; it’s not a rule, after all. If it were, we wouldn’t be blessed with the likes of chicken in mole negro or chirmole.

You’re likely to be able to source at least three dried chile varieties — árbol, guajillo, and ancho.

Chile de árbol is the most common variety available inside and outside of Mexico, and they’re mainly used to contribute spice. They’re the workhorses for many a salsa taquera (taco sauce) and have an agreeable spice level, provided you’re not heavy-handed with them.

Look for chile de árbol with the stem still attached. That’s a sign that they’re more likely from Mexico and not from China. The stemless, brittle, and almost orange variety are often Chinese. I’ve got nothing against China or their chiles; Mexican-grown chiles just taste better.

Guajillos, dried mirasol chiles, are a little more exciting than árbols in that they impart slightly more aroma and a lot more texture to sauces, adobos, and stews. They combine deliciously with pretty much any other dried chile, especially ancho, mulato, and chipotle.

As with árbol, look for guajillos that are well-dried but not brittle; leathery but malleable, with bright red color and a discernable aroma.

Guajillos gave us emblematic dishes like pozole rojo, tacos al pastor, pambazos, and birria, but by no means are they limited to traditional preparations.

Use some broth from your next soup or stew to blend a few toasted guajillos and add it to the stew for extra color and flavor that’s otherwise difficult to replicate. Or blend them with garlic, onion, salt, and oregano for a simple adobo for marinating meat or vegetables — somewhat like a simplified al pastor marinade.

Unfortunately, like árbol, we’re seeing more and more guajillos from China getting around, so do yourself a favor and ask where they’re from when you buy.

It’s hard to pick a favorite dried chile, but ancho is probably mine. I’m obsessed with them. They look and smell fucking incredible, and they’re easy to find. Their leathery, wrinkled skin is reminiscent of raisins, and they add body and a smoky, fruity flavor to sauces, adobos, moles, and even desserts.

Anchos are dried poblanos, which are notoriously inconsistent, so their usually-agreeable spice can sometimes kick your ass for no particular reason. As I see it, I think that makes them all the more exciting to work with.

Going beyond sauces, adobos, and stews, you can throw ground anchos into brownies, cookies, and other desserts for a slightly smoky, fruity slow burn. Or use them to kick your mayonnaise or butter up a notch.

I used ancho butter with garlic prawns once, and my mom almost lost her shit. Garlic prawns are her favorite dish, and she couldn’t quite fathom that some random chile she’d never heard of had made it undeniably better.

Anchos are also great pickled with onion and garlic. It’s a breeze to prepare and rewards you with an addictive relish that you’ll basically want to bathe in.

If all of this seems like a lot to take in, just remember that you can do whatever you want with dried chiles. Because like most things, once you buy them, they’re yours.

Mexican dried chiles have also made it into much of my Thai cooking these days. Anchos and moritas compliment my heavier curry pastes — like massaman or hung lay — with an extra hint of smoke and fruitiness that would be otherwise hard to achieve without adding questionable ingredients to the paste. I also like to use ground morita in one of my favorite dipping sauces, jeaw, which happens to be the seasoning for laap.

Massaman curry paste with some ancho in there.

If you’re lucky enough to find the tiny, potent piquin variety, please buy them, fry a few, and throw them into a Thai salad. You won’t be disappointed.

Dried chiles can be complicated, but there’s a lot you don’t need to know starting out. Just focus on the three essentials — buying, preparing, and cooking. You can forget the rest, for now.

If by now, I haven’t convinced you that dried chiles are a godsend, perhaps I never will, or perhaps you just like bland food or something?

When you buy dried chiles, you create demand, and demand creates work for the hardworking farmers of Mexico who deserve better.

Ask where they’re from when you buy. Questions create conversation, and conversation fuels much-needed change in our food system. After a few encounters with dried chiles, you’ll soon realize why they’re a food of the gods.



Alex Heery

Cook and food writer based in Mexico City. Thoughts on food, LATAM, and feelings. | IG: