Ancho chiles are a stepping stone into Mexican cuisine’s deep flavors and storied traditions. Their rich, mild, and sweet flavors form the foundation of countless salsas, stews, moles, and meat marinades. It should come as no surprise that Ancho chiles are the most widely used chile pepper in Mexico. The name “Ancho” is even Spanish for wide, but that is actually a nod to the dried chile’s stout appearance.
What Are Ancho Chiles?
Ancho chiles originated in the central Mexican state of Puebla, where chiles have been grown since before the days of the Aztec empire. These dried chiles begin their lives as fresh Poblano peppers, a local cultivar of the chile pepper species, Capsicum annuum. Poblanos are those easygoing green peppers used in famous dishes like chiles rellenos and chile verde.
For a Poblano to become a proper Ancho chile, it must be left on the plant and ripen to a cherry-red hue before it is delicately dried in the sun. The chile pepper’s sugar content increases as it ripens, resulting in a sweet and mild dried chile pepper.
Quality Ancho chiles should contain a little moisture and bend easily. They should also smell deliciously rich and sweet, with earthy notes of raisins, prunes, and chocolate. Their heat level is almost non-existent, measuring between 500-1000 Scoville heat units. (This is about an eighth as hot as a common jalapeño.)
Ancho chiles are closely related and often confused with Mulato chile peppers. Both chile peppers come from closely-related varietals of the fresh poblano chile pepper. The main difference is that Ancho chiles ripen to a bright red color, while Mulato chiles ripen to a rich brown color.
How to Cook With Ancho Chiles
In Mexican cuisine, Anchos are frequently paired with Pasilla and Mulato chiles, forming what is known as the “holy trinity” of chile peppers for mole recipes and stews. The gentle Ancho forms the body and soul of a dish, rounding out and enhancing flavors of hotter chiles like Guajillos, Chipotles, and Chile de Arbol. Ancho chiles also pair well with spices and herbs like allspice berries, cloves, cocoa powder, vanilla, Ceylon cinnamon, cumin seed, Mexican oregano, cilantro, coriander seed, garlic, onion, and sesame seeds.
To use a whole dried ancho chile, it must be reawakened with hot water. Begin by removing the woody stem, inner seeds, and seed veins. This can be done simply using your hands to tear open the chiles. Lightly toast the chiles in a dry pan to draw out the aromatic oils. Steep chiles in a covered bowl of hot water for 20-30 minutes. Puree in a food processor, blender, or with a mortar and pestle.
Just like fresh poblanos, ancho chiles can also be stuffed whole. To do this, submerge the whole pepper in hot water for 20-30 minutes. Gently cut into one side of the pepper and remove the seeds before stuffing with seasoned rice, cheese, or meat. The stuffed ancho chile can be coated and fried or baked in the oven.
Substituting Ground Ancho Chiles for Whole Chiles
Ground ancho chiles are more convenient than whole chiles, and have a few culinary advantages too. Ground ancho can be used as a quick condiment for freshly cut fruit, especially cantaloupe and honeydew melon. You can also sprinkle right into scrambled eggs before cooking, or use it to season oven-roasted vegetables like potatoes and zucchini.
To substitute ground ancho for whole chiles; add 1 generous tablespoon of ground ancho chile for every whole chile called for. If the ground ancho is going into a sauce or stew, we recommend blooming it gently in hot oil to enhance the spice’s flavors like you would with paprika or a curry powder.
Ground ancho forms the base of the legendary Tex-Mex seasoning—Chili powder. Ground ancho marries with cumin, garlic, onion, and oregano to form the quintessential spice blend for chili con carne, stewed beans, enchilada sauce, and spice rubs for cowboy steaks.
Chicken Enchiladas in Red Sauce
Few recipes are better to showcase this staple chile pepper than good old fashioned enchiladas. Enchilada literally means “seasoned with chile peppers” in Spanish. While ancho peppers form the hearty base of this dish, feel free to experiment by including hotter chiles like guajillos or New Mexican.
Article by Geoff Marshall, Staff Writer