Homemade salsas are unquestionably better than runny store-bought brands. They’re also easy to make. And yet we’ve all attended a party where the cook went all out creating beautiful hors d’oeuvres, and then dropped a jar of Pace Picante right in the middle of their Martha Stewart moment. The only logical answer to this asymmetrical spread is that many non-Mexicans are intimidated by salsa’s chief ingredient: chiles — especially those dried ones.
Mexico counts 64 types of chiles that cooks use fresh, dried, roasted, or smoked. You’re unlikely to find that kind of variety in the U.S., but your local supermarket or Mexican market, depending on where you live, should have at least a few types for you to work with. And with some basic knowledge of the techniques shared by Mexican cooks throughout the country’s 32 culinary regions, using chiles to make salsas, marinades, stews, and more could become your newest kitchen hobby. Here’s how to get started.
Creating a base for salsas
Having access to fresh tomatoes and tomatillos is important for great sauces, whether you’re using fresh or dried chiles. You can make a basic tomato or tomatillo base by roasting, boiling, or blending fresh tomatoes or tomatillos with a little water. There’s no need to add salt, onions, garlic, or other seasonings unless you are sure you want those ingredients in your salsa. You can freeze this mixture or keep it in the fridge for a couple of days.
If you want to make salsa from scratch any time of the year, canning your own tomatoes is a good idea, and when you have tomatoes that are unripe, stiff, and flavorless, lacto-fermentation can bring out some flavor. There are plenty of YouTube tutorials on these techniques, and you can use tomatillos or even a can of El Pato tomato sauce when you can’t find good tomatoes. As chef Marcela Valladolid wrote on a recent Instagram post about her fideos secos: “Used a can of El Pato. If you know you know.”
A primer on fresh chiles
In the Mexican kitchen, simpler is better, because chiles are full of natural flavors. Fresh chiles are best used for stuffing, pickling, fire-roasting, and making salsa verde, which is softened by tomatillos (fresh, roasted, or boiled), and often flavored with garlic and onions. Fresh chiles can be used raw or cooked, and it’s up to you whether to remove the seeds and membranes or to use all of the heat of the pepper. To familiarize yourself with fresh chiles, blend them with water and salt to taste, and add tomatillos for tartness and balance. Experiment with seasonings only after you’ve learned to appreciate the chiles’ flavors without them.
Anaheim and chiles poblanos, which are often mislabeled as chile pasilla in non-Latinx supermarkets, are relatively easy to find and great for stuffing or making roasted chile strips. In cities with large Mexican populations, like Los Angeles, you’ll also find markets that carry chilacas, which are a favorite for their stronger flavor, and chile de agua, the spiciest stuffing pepper used in Oaxacan cuisines.
Chile jalapeno and chile serrano are ubiquitous, and the standard chiles for adding spice to a salsa verde. These two can be roasted, blackened, grilled, boiled, fried, or used raw to attain various levels of heat, flavors, and textures in salsas. But a warning: Be prepared for them to be inconsistent in their heat levels — sometimes they are mild, and other times, they’re fire.
But if it’s fire you’re after, look for fresh chile de árbol, green habaneros, or chile pequin. You can apply the same cooking techniques to habaneros as you would to serranos and jalapenos, but these bright orange peppers can also be blended with carrots to keep their color, added to other salsas to increase the spice level, or sliced and cooked in lime with sliced onions and spices. If you’re lucky enough to find chile manzano, try pickling them in lime or adding them to a pico de gallo.
Fresh chiles are easy to work with: simply pop them in a blender with salt and you have a salsa. Still, the big question is what to do with those dried chiles, the true stars of the Mexican kitchen for their role in the majority of Mexico’s traditional plates.
Getting comfortable with dried chiles
The two most broadly used chiles (and two you should have no trouble obtaining) are chile ancho (dried poblano) and chile guajillo (dried mirasol). Both are mild chiles used in sauces, rubs, pastes, soups, stews — you name it — and form the base of salsas for red chilaquiles, red enchiladas, marinades like al pastor, and so on. But these are by no means the only dried chiles you can find at the grocery store. Chile California and chile Colorado are used for bright red northern Mexican stews. Chipotles add smokiness, while chile de árbol lends a strong spice. Both can be used on their own or added to other dried chiles. Some chiles are there for color, others for flavor, and others for spice — together, the use of various dried chiles can create wonderful complexities in flavor.
However, some chiles aren’t as widely available: You’re more likely to find chile puya, chile morita, chile pasilla, chile japones, chile pequin, and the round chile cascabel at Mexican or Latinx markets in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, or other cities with Mexican enclaves. Any of these are wonderful in salsas, blending with milder dried chiles, or in traditional Mexican recipes.
You can find extensive guides to dried chiles online, like this one from Mely Martinez’s Mexico in My Kitchen or this one from Mas de Mexico, but the best way to get to know their flavors and capabilities is by making basic salsas. Mirta Rodriguez of Tijuana’s Sonoran seafood truck Mariscos Ruben says, “I only use about three different chiles [to make around a dozen salsas], and just use different techniques for each salsa.”
Toasting dried chiles on a comal (flattop), taking care not to burn them, will bring out the flavors of chile ancho, chile guajillo, and other dried chiles used for bases. (Do this before freezing them or keeping them in the fridge for short-term use.) Frying dried chiles in oil, boiling them in water, and, in the case of chile de árbol, blackening them on a dry comal will yield different results.
Once you’ve decided on which chiles and which cooking technique to use, you’ll need to make a chile paste or powder to preserve the dried chiles for incorporating into cooking later. But first, a note on storing dried chiles: Many of the dried chiles you bring home may already have pantry moths, larvae, or other pests, and can be pretty dirty, so if you’re using them right away, clean them with a damp cloth. If saving them for later, place them in freezer bags, removing the air, and store them for up to six months in the freezer, advises Mely Martinez. This will kill any pests and keep your pantry from being overrun by a colony of pantry moths.
How to make chile pastes and powders
Having a chile paste or chile powder handy means all of the time-consuming preparation is done and a great salsa is just minutes away. In Oaxaca, the chile paste is called chintestle, but all Mexican cuisines store chile paste to add later to tomatoes or tomatillos to make salsa.
“My town’s chintestle is just chile de árbol, water, and salt,” says Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez of Poncho’s Tlayudas in LA. Sinaloan home cook Lety Beltran uses chile ancho and chile guajillo with a little water, adding salt later. You can use cleaned chiles or keep the seeds for added spice, but anchos, guajillos, and other mild dried chiles are best cleaned before blending.
The amount of water you add to your paste depends on when you are going to use it — less water is for when you’re storing the chile paste longer. You can refrigerate this paste for a couple of weeks or freeze it. Blend the paste with tomato or tomatillo sauce for a salsa, add it to frijoles de la olla, or use it as a marinade for any kind of protein. “I use my mom’s paste to make pozole rojo, or birria de chivo,” says Beltran.
“My master sauce is chile ancho and guajillo for enchiladas rojas, asado rojo, pozole rojo, and for tamales rojos,” adds Alfonso Martinez. Once you have a paste you like, the sky’s the limit, and you can move one step further in making and freezing a salsa base.
In traditional Sonoran cooking, according to Elsa Olivares Duarte’s El Sabor de Sonora, the recipe chile Colorado en pure is a salsa of chile Colorado with salt, oregano, onion, garlic, and beef stock, which is strained and cooked; it can be refrigerated or frozen for later use. This salsa is used for enchiladas, carne con chile, tamales rojos, and many regional plates, and the base is thickened with flour when the dish calls for a more dense salsa.
Afro-Mexican cook Maria Elena Lorenzo of Tamales Elena makes a paste of chile costeno, chile guajillo, chile puya, and chile California and adds seafood or meat stock, depending on what she’s preparing. “My mom uses this salsa for caldo de camaron con jaiba, picaditas, and pescado a la brasa,” says chef Heidi Irra, Lorenzo’s daughter. Lorenzo and Irra keep various salsas in their freezer ready to go.
Another method of preservation is to make chile powder using a spice grinder. Beltran grinds chile guajillo to add to grilled shrimp and fish as a seasoning. “I like to add chile powder to black beans and chicken soup,” says Alfonso Martinez.
“Adding some ground chile ancho is nice to color masa for tamales and empanadas,” says Mely Martinez. Fresh-ground chile powder can become the base of a salsa, for seasoning, making a hot sauce, or mixed with salt to rim the glass for micheladas, palomas, or margaritas. Stored in a cool, dark place in an airtight container, chile powder can last up to three years, but keep in mind its flavor will diminish over time.
Putting it all together to cook Mexican dishes
You now have powders, pastes, salsa, and flavor bases to cook Mexican cuisine, or Mexican-inspired creations at home. Start with common dishes found in all Mexican restaurants in the United States, like enchiladas rojas, chilaquiles rojos, huevos rancheros or divorciados, red salsa for taco night, stews, soups, and beans. Remember that the 32 provincial styles of Mexican cooking all use different dried chiles, so when using regional recipes, feel free to use the chiles you have available as substitutes for any of them.
Chiles are made for experimentation. Combine tomato or tomatillo sauces with your pastes or powders, or add a complete salsa to a dish, and don’t be afraid to mix pastes and salsas. Make an adobo or al pastor marinade by blending ancho-guajillo paste with vinegar or lime juice, herbs and spices, and other citrus, or incorporate chile powders into a rub for seafood and meats. The more you get to know the dried chiles at your local supermarkets — or Mexican or Latinx markets, if you’re lucky — the more comfortable you’ll be using them for any dish, Mexican or not.
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano.
Photo credits: Poblano: Stewart Waller/GettyRed, orange, green pepper: Cathy Scola/GettyDried poblano: Carlos Rodriguez/Getty