New Mexico chili peppers and chili powder are two related but distinct ingredients used in Southwestern and Mexican cuisine. While both derive from peppers grown in New Mexico, they have some key differences.
What are New Mexico Chili Peppers?
New Mexico chili peppers refer specifically to cultivars of Capsicum annuum peppers grown in the U.S. state of New Mexico. There are several popular varieties:
- New Mexico 6-4: A mild, rich-flavored pepper that turns from green to red.
- Big Jim: A milder pepper that grows up to 12 inches long.
- Sandia: A hot, light green chili with medium thick flesh.
- Chimayo: An intensely hot pepper with a rich, smoky flavor.
New Mexico chili peppers have a bright, crisp flavor and are mildly to moderately spicy. They are used both fresh and dried in Southwestern cuisine. Popular dishes featuring New Mexico chilies include chiles rellenos, chili con carne, and stuffed peppers.
What is Chili Powder?
Chili powder is a spice blend made from dried, ground chili peppers. It originated in the cuisine of Texas and the American Southwest. Most commercial chili powder blends include the following ingredients:
- Dried New Mexico or California chili peppers: These usually make up the bulk of the blend.
- Cumin: This adds an earthy, warm flavor.
- Oregano: A seasoning that contributes a subtle herbal, slightly bitter taste.
- Garlic powder: Provides a boost of garlicky aroma and flavor.
- Salt: Enhances overall flavor.
- Ground cloves or allspice: Extra notes of spice and warmth.
The exact ratio of the ingredients can vary between brands. Some chili powders also include peppercorn, coriander, onion powder, and red pepper flakes. The blend can range from mild to hot depending on the types of peppers used.
Differences between New Mexico Chili Peppers and Chili Powder
While both come from New Mexican chili peppers, there are some key distinctions:
- Whole vs. ground: New Mexico chilies are whole, fresh or dried peppers. Chili powder consists of dried peppers that have been ground into a coarse powder.
- Single variety vs. blend: New Mexico chili peppers are just one pepper variety. Chili powder is a blend of several spices and seasonings.
- Flavor complexity: New Mexico chilies have a simple, peppery taste. The extra spices in chili powder result in a more complex, layered flavor.
- Heat level: Chili powders can range from mild to spicy depending on the peppers used. New Mexican chili varieties range from mild to hot.
- Color: New Mexico chilies are green when fresh, and turn red when dried. Chili powder has a rich, deep red color.
- Preparation: New Mexico chilies are used whole or chopped. Chili powder is sprinkled on like any dry spice.
Substituting Chile Peppers and Chili Powder
New Mexico chili peppers and chili powder are not directly interchangeable. However, with a few adjustments, home cooks can substitute one for the other:
Substituting chili powder for New Mexico chili peppers
If a recipe calls for fresh New Mexico chilies, replace with 1 teaspoon chili powder + 1 teaspoon water per pepper. This approximates the flavor without the texture.
For dried chilies, use a 1:1 ratio of chili powder to chopped rehydrated chilies.
Substituting New Mexico chilies for chili powder
For fresh chilies, remove seeds and dice peppers very finely. Use a 3:1 ratio of fresh peppers to the amount of chili powder specified.
For dried, grind rehydrated peppers into a powder. You may need to add cumin, garlic powder, and other spices to approximate the flavor.
Keep in mind when substituting that the overall dish may end up with a different level of spiciness, flavor complexity, or texture. Adjust other seasonings as needed.
How to Choose the Best New Mexico Chili Peppers
Look for New Mexican chili peppers that:
– Have taut, smooth skin free of blemishes
– Are firm and spring back when pressed gently
– Have vivid green color (for fresh) or deep red (for dried)
– Have an aroma of fresh green pepper or concentrated ripe pepper
– Are harvested close to maturity for optimal flavor
– Are quality graded by growers
The very best peppers will have “New Mexico certified” on the packaging or tie on ristras. This indicates they are certified by the New Mexico Chile Commission for meeting quality standards.
How to Select a Good Chili Powder
Here are tips for picking a top-quality chili powder:
– Choose pure chili powder rather than seasoning mixes like chili seasoning, fajita seasoning, etc. Pure chili powder allows more control over flavor.
– Read the label to see what types of peppers are included. “Chili powder” can contain any dried chilies, so look for “New Mexican chili powder” for the most authentic flavor.
– Avoid chili powder with additives like salt, sugar, MSG, sulfates, artificial colors, etc. Opt for chili powder with just whole dried chilies and basic spices.
– Look at the color. It should be a vivid, deep red. Dull brown powder may be old.
– Sniff the chili powder. It should smell bright, rich, and spicy – not musty.
– For bolder heat, get chili powder labeled as “hot” or indicating the pepper variety like ancho, chipotle, arbol, etc.
– Buy chili powder from a brand known for quality like Frontier, Penzeys Spices, or a local New Mexican spice company.
– For the freshest and brightest flavor, purchase chili powder in small batches and store away from light and humidity.
4 Tips for Cooking with New Mexico Chili Peppers
Take your New Mexican chili pepper cookery to the next level with these pro tips:
1. Roast or grill peppers to intensify flavor
Dry roasting or grilling peppers before use caramelizes natural sugars and adds depth of flavor. This works great for milder pepper varieties.
2. Use both green and red peppers
Combining unripe green and ripe red New Mexican chilies provides a flavor contrast. Green chilies have bright, grassy notes while red chilies offer fruitiness and sweetness.
3. Adjust heat with additional spices
If a recipe calls for hot peppers but you prefer milder heat, seed the New Mexican chilies before dicing them. Ground cumin, cayenne, or paprika can add back lost spice.
4. Don’t discard the juices
When preparing fresh New Mexican chili peppers, save any juices expressed during dicing or seeding. The flavorful liquid makes a great addition to marinades, sauces, and stews.
5 Tips for Using Chili Powder Like a Pro
Master the full flavor potential of chili powder with these tips:
1. Bloom the chili powder
Blooming chili powder briefly in oil deepens the flavor. Sauté it in the oil first before adding other ingredients.
2. Use it in both savory and sweet dishes
Chili powder isn’t just for Tex-Mex foods. Use it to give a spicy twist to barbecue rubs, chocolate, toasted nuts, etc.
3. Combine with other dried herbs and spices
Mix chili powder with cumin, garlic powder, coriander, paprika, and other spices for complex flavor.
4. Make your own signature blend
For tailor-made flavor, mix your own chili powder using pure ground chilies and your choice of spices.
5. Add it at the end
When cooking, save some chili powder to sprinkle on right before serving. This preserves its vibrancy.
6 Iconic New Mexican Chili Pepper Dishes
New Mexican chili peppers shine in these characteristic regional dishes:
Chiles rellenos – Fire-roasted New Mexican chilies stuffed with cheese, dipped in egg batter, and fried crisp.
Carne adovada – Pork marinated and braised in a paste of dried red New Mexican chili, garlic, and spices.
Chili con carne – Traditional meat and bean stew spiced with bold red New Mexican chili sauce.
Posole – A hominy and pork stew made red with dried New Mexican chili peppers.
Salsa – Fresh uncooked table salsa made from chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic, New Mexican green chilies, cilantro, and lime.
Hatch green chile cheeseburger – Juicy burger smothered with roasted Hatch chili strips and melted cheese.
7 Popular Dishes Showcasing Chili Powder
The complex flavor of chili powder shines through in these Southwestern and Mexican specialties:
Chili con carne – The namesake dish featuring bite-sized beef simmered in a tomato-based chili gravy.
Tacos al pastor – Chili-marinated pork sliced from a rotating spit and wrapped in tortillas.
Texas-style chili – Lone Star State classic with chopped beef cooked in an ancho chili based sauce.
Chili crisp – A condiment made from chili flakes or powder fried in oil with garlic, shallots, and spices.
Mole poblano – Mexico’s quintessential mole sauce with over 20 ingredients including chili powder, chocolate, nuts, spices, and more.
Dry chili chicken rub – Chicken coated with a bold, flavorful blend of spices including chili powder before grilling.
Spicy oven fries – Crispy oven-baked fries seasoned with a mixture of chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, and paprika.
How New Mexico Chili Peppers and Chili Powder Can Benefit Health
In moderation, both New Mexican chili peppers and chili powder offer some potential health benefits:
Fresh New Mexican chili peppers are very high in vitamin C, an essential nutrient and antioxidant. Dried chilies used in chili powder still retain some of this vitamin C.
Both fresh and dried red New Mexican chili peppers contain carotenoids like beta carotene that the body converts into vitamin A. This supports eye and immune health.
New Mexican chili peppers and chili powder contain the antioxidant compound capsaicin. Some research indicates this can reduce inflammation associated with conditions like arthritis when consumed regularly.
New Mexican chilies have shown promise in early studies for their content of health-supportive plant compounds like flavonoids and phenolic acids. More research is needed on the benefits.
Capsaicin has mild pain-relieving properties when applied topically, though it must be used with caution to avoid irritation.
However, keep in mind that overdoing hot peppers may cause gastrointestinal upset in some individuals. Moderating spice level can allow you to gain benefits while avoiding discomfort. Those with chronic health conditions should check with a doctor before increasing hot peppers in the diet.
How to Store and Preserve New Mexico Chili Peppers
To retain maximum flavor and longevity of fresh New Mexico chilies:
– Store fresh peppers unwashed in paper towels in an open container or bag in the refrigerator crisper. They will keep about 1 week.
– Place whole dried peppers in an airtight container away from light and humidity. They will keep 6 months or longer.
– To freeze fresh chilies, blanch in boiling water 1-2 minutes first. Pat dry, then pack into freezer bags or containers, removing air. They’ll keep up to a year frozen.
– Pickle fresh peppers in vinegar to make pickled jalapeños and other escabeche-style condiments. Refrigerate for up to 4 weeks.
– Further dry fresh peppers in a dehydrator or low oven until completely dehydrated and brittle. Then grind into homemade chili powder.
How to Store Chili Powder to Maintain Freshness
To best preserve freshness and flavor:
– Keep chili powder in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot away from excess light and moisture. Chili powder stored properly in an ideal environment will retain optimum quality for about 2 years.
– If possible, purchase small quantities of chili powder that can be used within 4 to 6 months for greatest vibrancy.
– Avoid storing chili powder near the stove or oven, where heat can accelerate flavor deterioration.
– Transfer used chili powder from a tin or packet into an airtight glass jar or other container with a tight seal to block humidity and oxygen. This helps prevent caking.
– Take care not to introduce moisture into chili powder when taking portions out. Always use dry utensils and keep the container tightly sealed.
– It’s ideal to store whole dried chilies to grind as needed. But pre-ground chili powder can still retain its potency for some time with proper, low-humidity storage.
While both originating from peppers grown in New Mexico, chili peppers and chili powder are used differently to provide unique flavors and heat to Southwestern cuisine. By understanding their distinct qualities and how to select, prepare, and store them, cooks can make the most of these iconic ingredients’ spicy, robust taste. With some care and know-how, New Mexico’s signature seasonings can infuse dishes with authentic regional character and zest.