Mexican cooking uses chili in copious amounts, both fresh and dried. Fresh serrano, jalapeno or even habanera add a quick grassy floral heat, and are an integral part of the cuisine; but to really make Mexican food you need to have an understanding of the treated chili's.
The complex heat of dried chili provides the backbone for most of the cuisine, and while making a simple discharged chili salsa or a mole sauce, dried chili's are essential.
Some of the more common dried chili's used in Mexican cooking are:
This is truly the workhorse of Mexican cooking, and is the most widely used of all chili's. The ancho is simply a dried poblano, and has a lovely, rich, smooth and slightly sweet taste, with overtones of bitter chocolate. Because it's not overly spicy, it can be pureed to thicken sauces.
A more aggressive chili, the guajillo is very often paired with the ancho. Spicier, and less complex, the guajillo adds the heat to a lot of famous Mexican dishes. Smoky and less sweet than the ancho, it has a more straight dried chili taste.
A red ripened jalapeno dried over smoky mesquite, the chipotle adds sweet spicy heat, and is a very well loved chili. The chipotle is sold both dried and canned dehydrated in an adobe sauce.
Lingering complexity and an acidic heat that lasts in the mouth, the pasilla is very spicy, and is often used for great table salsas and sauces. You will often use the pasilla in a mole sauce.
The del arbol pepper
Straight forward dried chili heat. The del arbol is one of the spiciest of the Mexican dried chili's and offers little more than one dimensional chili taste and spice – great for a very spicy and basic table sauce or salsa!
To truly cook Mexican, you need to understand and appreciate the diversity chili's of Mexico. Complex, rich and savory, cooking with dried chili's allows for an incredible richness of tastes, and of course great spicy heat in every bite!