New Mexico chiles refer to a group of cultivars of the chile pepper Capsicum annuum that are grown in the U.S. state of New Mexico. The most common New Mexico chile varieties include the New Mexico 6-4, Big Jim, Sandia, Española Improved, Chimayo, and Hatch. These chiles are known for their unique flavor and moderate to high heat levels.
Chiles are an integral part of New Mexican cuisine and culture. The chile pepper has been cultivated in New Mexico for hundreds of years and can be traced back to the Pueblo people. Today, New Mexico leads the United States in chile pepper production, with thousands of acres dedicated to growing chile peppers across the state.
There are many different varieties of New Mexico chiles, ranging from mild to flaming hot. They come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Despite this diversity, New Mexico chiles share some common characteristics such as a crisp flesh, full flavor, and medium to hot spiciness.
History of New Mexico Chiles
It is believed chile peppers were first cultivated in Mexico over 6,000 years ago. As early Spanish explorers, conquistadors and missionaries traveled north, they brought chile seeds with them to the upper Rio Grande Valley region which would become New Mexico. The Pueblo Native American tribes, including the Navajo and Apache, were among the first to grow chiles in the area. They have continued to cultivate native chile varieties up to the present day.
New Mexico chiles started gaining commercial importance in the late 19th century. The creation of railroad links between New Mexico and the rest of the United States enabled New Mexican chiles to be shipped nationwide. The chiles grew easily in New Mexico’s hot, dry climate. Farmers began selectively breeding chiles to create improved varieties that had higher yields or more uniform sizes.
In the early 20th century, New Mexico State University began a chile breeding program that would give rise to iconic New Mexican chile varieties like the New Mexico 6-4 and the Big Jim. This helped establish New Mexico’s reputation as a premier source of chile peppers across the United States.
Major Varieties of New Mexico Chiles
New Mexico 6-4
The New Mexico 6-4 is one of the most popular and recognizable New Mexican chile varieties. It was released by New Mexico State University in 1911 as an improved, more uniform version of the native chiltepin pepper.
As the name suggests, the 6-4 chile matures from green to red in approximately 6 to 4 weeks. It has an elongated, tapered shape and smooth glossy skin. These chiles measure around 4-7 inches long and 1-1.5 inches wide.
The 6-4 chile packs a punch, with a Scoville rating of 1,500 to over 5,000 units when it ripens to red. This makes it a mild to medium-hot pepper on the heat scale. It has a distinctively sharp, citrusy flavor.
The New Mexico 6-4 works well for roasting, stuffing, or making salsa and chile sauce. Both the green and red stages are used in New Mexican cuisine.
The Sandia chile is a mild New Mexican heritage variety that comes from the village of Sandia, just north of Albuquerque. It has an elongated, curved shape and a classic toasty New Mexican chile flavor.
Sandia chiles grow 5-7 inches long and 1-2 inches wide. They turn from green to red as they mature. These chiles are only mildly spicy, with a Scoville rating of 500 to 1,500 units. The red ripe phase has a richer, sweeter flavor.
While the Sandia stands out for its mild heat, it can still make an excellent roasted or dried chile. It is also used for salsas, sauces, and stuffing. The thick flesh makes for good yields after processing.
The Big Jim is a large, mild to medium-hot pepper that was developed by New Mexico State University in 1975. As the name implies, this is a substantial chile measuring 6-12 inches long and 2-3 inches wide.
The Big Jim starts out as a glossy dark green pepper and transitions to a bright cherry red at maturity. It has a Scoville rating of 1,500 to 2,500 units. The heat builds slowly, making it more mild than other medium-heat New Mexican varieties.
This large pepper is ideal when you need big slices for chile rellenos, fat strips for grilling, or hefty pieces for stuffing. The thick walls also yield more flesh for sauces. The taste is pure New Mexican chile flavor with mild spice.
The Española Improved chile was created by Dr. Roy Harper at New Mexico State University in the late 1970s. It was named for the village of Española in the northern Rio Grande valley.
This chile has a classic tapered New Mexican shape. It changes from green to a deep burgundy red when ripe. On average, Española Improved chiles are 5-6 inches long and 1-2 inches wide.
In terms of heat, the Española Improved hits 5,000 to 8,000 Scoville units when red. This makes it a hot New Mexican variety, though it has a richer, sweeter flavor in addition to the heat. The walls are thick, making it great for processing.
Española Improved chiles work wonderfully in traditional New Mexican dishes like posole, carne adovada, enchiladas, or chile sauce. Handle with care when chopping!
The Chimayo chile is named after the village of Chimayo, nestled in the hills north of Santa Fe. It has emerged as an iconic New Mexican landrace chile celebrated for its unique smoky, earthy flavor.
Compared to improved New Mexican varieties, Chimayo chiles have an irregular shape with thinner flesh. The skin tends to be wrinkled. Chimayos range from 2-4 inches long and 1-2 inches wide. They transition from green to red when fully ripe.
In terms of heat, Chimayo chiles register 500 to 3,000 Scoville units. Flavorwise, they are known for a “sweet heat” and fruitiness along with signature earthy notes. This flavor profile results from the area’s soil as well as traditions around roasting and drying the chiles.
Chimayos are often dried and used in spices, marinades, sauces, and stews. Locals also eat them fresh during the harvest season.
The village of Hatch, located in southern New Mexico, has such an ideal climate and soil for growing chiles that “Hatch chiles” have become a generic term for all New Mexican-type chile peppers. There are different specific varieties grown in the Hatch Valley, but they all share a characteristic flavor.
Popular Hatch chile varieties include Big Jim, Sandia Select, and Joe E. Parker. On average, mature Hatch chiles are 5-8 inches long. Heat levels range from mild to fiery hot depending on the variety.
In addition to flavorful fresh chiles, the Hatch Valley is also known for producing excellent roasted and dried peppers. The Labor Day annual Hatch Chile Festival celebrates everything Hatch chiles, drawing lovers of New Mexican cuisine.
How New Mexico Chiles Are Grown
The state of New Mexico offers an ideal climate and terrain for growing chile peppers. The days are hot, with plenty of sunshine and little humidity. But the more moderate evening temperatures and mineral-rich soil allow the fruit to develop excellent flavor.
New Mexican chile farmers select seedlings started in greenhouses to transplant into fields in May or June. Rows are spaced 3-4 feet apart. Drip irrigation lines are installed down each row to water the crop.
Throughout the growing season, farmers will monitor the plants and provide fertilizer to encourage optimal growth. Chile plants produce white flowers in mid to late summer that develop into the fresh green chile pods.
Harvest takes place in late August through September, when the chiles reach their mature color. Farm workers hand pick the ripe chile pods daily as they turn red, to avoid letting them stay on the plants too long.
Yields per acre range from around 5,000 pounds for hot varieties like the Española Improved to 12,000 pounds for heavier producing types like the Big Jim. Total fresh chile production in New Mexico exceeds 80 million pounds annually.
A signature step for many New Mexican chiles is roasting, which transforms their flavor. Green and red chiles are roasted, peeled and then either frozen or dried for year-round enjoyment.
There are two main methods used to roast New Mexican chiles on commercial scale:
- Rotary drum roasting places the chiles in large rotating drums over propane-fueled flames. The chiles are constantly tumbled and roasted evenly.
- Oven roasting conveys the chiles through an oven on a conveyor belt. They are roasted for 25-45 minutes at temperatures reaching 500°F.
Both methods create signature toasted flavors and make the skin easy to peel off.
Once the roasted chiles are peeled, they can be dried. Commercial chile drying uses large gas-heated forced air dryers that circulate air through the chiles at controlled temperatures and speeds.
It takes approximately 8 hours in the dryers to reach the desired moisture levels below 5%. Dried chiles are very lightweight and easy to grind into powders or flakes.
Some iconic New Mexican chile varieties like the Chimayo are still sun-dried using traditional methods. Farmers will spread the chiles on screens under the intense New Mexican sun for 1-2 weeks until fully dried.
How New Mexico Chiles Are Used
Below are some of the most popular ways New Mexico chiles are enjoyed in homes and restaurants across the state:
New Mexican salsa features roasted chopped green Hatch chiles as a key ingredient along with tomatoes, onions and garlic. This salsa has a delicious charred chile flavor and nice moderate heat. Red chile salsas are also common.
Whether stacked flat or rolled, classic New Mexican enchiladas are topped with either red or green chile sauce. The salsa is ladled over corn tortillas filled with cheese, onions, and other fillings like shredded beef or chicken.
This beloved dish is made by batter-frying whole roasted green chiles like the Hatch or Big Jim. They are stuffed with cheese, dipped in egg batter and fried. The rellenos are served smothered in more melted cheese and your choice of red or green chile sauce.
In this traditional dish, pork is braised in a marinade of dried red chile, garlic and spices until ultra tender. The spicy, tangy pork filling can be served alongside eggs for breakfast or used in burritos and tacos.
Ground dried New Mexican chiles are incorporated into spice rubs, marinades, sauces and stews to add flavor and heat. Common varieties include pure red chile powder and “chili powder” blends with cumin and oregano.
|New Mexico 6-4
|Mild heat, pure chile flavor
New Mexico’s famous chile peppers have become a cultural icon and globally recognized cuisine. While the many varieties have their differences, they all share a uniqueness of flavor rooted in New Mexico’s soils and heritage.
Today, New Mexican chile farmers continue time-honored traditions of landrace cultivation as well as innovating new varieties. Chile pepper aficionados around the world eagerly await each year’s harvest of these special peppers that offer outstanding flavor with just the right amount of heat.