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Dried ChilesDried Chiles (Chiles Secos)
Excerpt from The Great Chile Book, by Mark Miller & John Harrison

Ounce for ounce, a dried chile packs a more potent punch than just about anything else in the kitchen larder. The drying process intensifies and magnifies the flavors of the chile and gives it a higher concentration of natural sugars. The result is that the dried chile tends to have a much more distinctive taste than its fresh counterpart, with flavors that are deep and often quite complex. Dried chiles are an indispensable item at Coyote Cafe: we use them in large quantities, mainly in the preparation of sauces.

When buying dried chiles, select those that are uniform in color and that have deep or brilliant color. Make sure they are not faded, dusty, or dirty and that there are no white spots or other markings that indicate improper drying, disease, overlong storage. Select unbroken chiles, otherwise the essential oils that are contained in the flesh and that give the chiles their unique flavors will have evaporated. Good quality chiles will have a degree of flexibility, indicating freshness (in other words, the chiles are from a recent crop). They should also have a good aroma, like fresh spices. Store dried chiles (and chile powder) in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place. Although it is possible to store them for extended periods of time, it is better to use them within six months. If you do keep them longer, check through them occasionally and discard any that have spoiled.

In Mexican and southwestern cuisines, fried chiles are usually roasted and rehydrated before they are used. Unless your recipe outlines a different procedure, you can follow these general instructions: Stem and seed the chiles, then place them in a skillet, on a comal, or in a 250 degree oven and dry-roast them for three to four minutes. Shake them once or twice and be careful not to scorch them or else they will taste bitter. The chiles should then be added to water that has been heated to just below the boiling point - if it is boiling, the chiles will lose flavor. Use just enough water to cover the chiles and press them down with a lid. Allow them to sit for 20 minutes or until they are soft. At this point, you should taste the water to see if it is bitter, discarding if it is. The chiles can then be used as directed in the recipe.

To make sauces with dried chiles, you should roast and rehydrate the chiles as described above, then puree them in a blender (a blender does a better job than a food processor), adding some of the soaking water as needed. Use plain water if the soaking water was too bitter, or you can add a little tomato juice instead. Follow your recipe, using additional water as needed to achieve the desired consistency.

The most interesting hot sauces made with dried chiles are like musical chords in that they consist of bass, middle range, and high notes. It is advantageous to learn these "notes" and the ways in which they can be combined, although there are no set rules. The bass notes are created by the roasting or smoking process and these are the earthy, woodsy, or smoky tones. The middle notes are mainly fruit flavors, such as dried cherry or plum, particularly present in dried chiles such as ancho and the cascabel. The high notes are derived from the heat, and from the citrus qualities of chiles.

I have found that, as with the fresh chiles, using a combination of dried chiles adds interest and complexity to sauces. Where a sauce recipe calls for a single type of dried chile, try using a blend of two or three different varieties. The proportions can be 80 percent and 20 percent (or 80-10-10, or even 60-20-20), with the dried chile called for in the recipe in largest quantity. Use the sauce recipe in this book as a starting point: once you have mastered them, you can begin to experiment with different flavor combinations.

Learning about and understanding dried chiles is very much like developing an appreciation for fine wines - it is largely a matter of educating the palate so that it becomes sensitive to the range and depth of flavors present. As with wines, it is helpful to establish a tasting vocabulary that will help you conceptualize the flavors. This vocabulary includes the following flavor descriptors: berry, dried cherry and plum, chocolate, citrus, coffee, fruit, liquorice, prune, raisin, spice, tannin, tea, and tobacco; earthiness, smokiness, stemminess, and woodsiness. Mastering this vocabulary will also help you match wines with dishes containing dried chiles. In general you would select a wine that could be described in similar terms as the chile it is to accompany.

If you become as absorbed in the world of dried chiles as I have, here's something you'll enjoy. Gather together a selection of five to ten chiles and invite some friends over for a chile-tasting party!

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