Which chilli when? – The Guardian

September 17, 2022
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Dried chillies work best in stews and heavier dishes, fresh ones in zippier, south Asian fare. Our cooks debate a hot topic …
Got a culinary dilemma? Email feast@theguardian.com
Are chillies interchangeable? I never know which variety to use, and when to go for fresh, dried, powder or flakes.
Emily, London E2
“The thing is,” says Adriana Cavita, chef-owner of Cavita in London, “we have hundreds of varieties of chillies in Mexico – there’s so much choice.” And that’s before considering those grown in other parts of the world (India, Thailand, Spain, for example). While this offers ample opportunity to get creative, it’s no wonder Emily is confused.
Different chillies perform different roles in cooking, and they’re not just about heat; chillies bring sweet, sour, fruity, earthy and smoky notes, too. So you need to understand why a chilli is there in the first place before switching it for an alternative. “Look at the dish as a whole and assess,” says Noor Murad, head of the OTK (that’s the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen) and co-author of Extra Good Things. “For stews and broths, you can generally go with whatever dried chillies you like,” she adds, depending on the heat. “If, for example, the recipe calls for habanero or scotch bonnet, and you’re like, ‘Hell, no’, use a milder chilli such as kashmiri or guajillo, if you don’t think it will massively affect the result.”
But when should you use dried and when fresh? Self-confessed chilli obsessive Chet Sharma, who is chef-patron of Bibi in London, has some guidelines: “If you think of traditional north Indian foods – heavier curries, dals, butter chicken – they’re all made with dried red chilli. But when you start thinking about brighter flavours, whether it’s southern Indian cooking or Thai, you want something vibrant and zingy, and that you’ll get from fresh chillies.”
And what about varieties? Sharma’s fresh chilli preference would be small, spicy, Indian green chillies (“sometimes sold as finger chillies”), while Murad uses “the ones labelled ‘red’ and ‘green’ at the greengrocer” for stir-fries, homemade hot sauce and pickles for salads. Cavita favours jalapeños and poblanos for guacamole, salsa, roast tomato sauce and, in the case of poblanos, for stuffing (with mince or veg). It’s worth remembering that size is also a factor: “The smaller the chilli, the spicier it will tend to be,” Cavita says. Well, Thai, bird’s-eye and scotch bonnet are among the hottest around.
Once dried, a chilli’s flavour intensifies. Ancho, chipotle, pasilla and guajillo all work well in pastes, rubs and sauces: “Ancho is more earthy and tobacco-y,” Murad says, “but if I want something smoky or fruity, I go for cascabel or chipotle.” Cavita, meanwhile, uses powdered pasilla, chipotle and ancho for marinades and dressings. Sharma also keeps three powders in his arsenal: kashmiri red chilli (“it imparts colour and flavour without bringing lots of heat”), deggi (“slightly spicier, but with a more rounded characteristic”) and yellow chilli (“very hot, but super-fruity”). Those should be used in anything that’s cooked low and slow, “whether that’s curries or things braised in the oven”.
Finally, Murad reserves chilli flakes for sauces and for sprinkling on pizzas – but err on the side of caution: “You never know how hot they’re going to be, so start with less and add more only if you need.” After all, this isn’t a chilli-eating competition.
Got a culinary dilemma? Email feast@theguardian.com

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