Chile peppers are a staple of Southwestern cooking. Their tangy, zesty flavor adds personality and a spicy kick to dishes. You can cook and eat chiles, use them as a spice, or consume them for their medicinal properties — capsaicin, the main bioactive ingredient that gives peppers their heat, may relieve pain and help promote weight loss. They are also rich in nutrients such as vitamins A, C, potassium, and antioxidants.
If you’ve ever been curious to know more about these fiery fruits (and yes, they are technically fruits!), read on to learn about where chile peppers come from, where and when to find them, and how to prepare fresh chiles for cooking.
A Bit of History
The chile pepper plant (capsicum annuum) is not native to the US; according to Amy Behm of the Pueblo Bonito Inn in Santa Fe, chiles originally come from the Caribbean islands but were brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus, who called the spicy fruits “peppers” because the zippy flavor reminded him of peppercorns.
Although doctors on board Columbus’ ships were initially interested in peppers’ medicinal properties, Spanish monks began using ground, dried chile peppers in cooking as a substitute for peppercorns, and peppers gained popularity around Europe, eventually spreading to Asia via trade. In the late 16th century, Spaniards colonized what is now New Mexico, bringing their chile peppers with them and establishing the plants as part of the region’s agriculture.
A few hundred years later, Dr. Fabián Garcia developed the Hatch strain of chile pepper that went on to become a sensation — it’s the main ingredient in pork green chile stew. You can now find green chile (and chile peppers) throughout the Southwestern US, but the peppers have the strongest ties with New Mexico and Colorado.
Where and When to Find Chiles
The best time to buy chile peppers is in the late summer and early fall, when they are ripe and in season. August and September tend to be the peak months for harvesting, and the time of year when chile stands start to open up. Although these stands aren’t open year-round, they typically have the best, freshest peppers to choose from, plus a variety of spiciness options. Chile stands also tend to be small, family-owned businesses that I enjoy supporting.
I’m not sure how common chile stands are outside of Colorado and New Mexico; you could try doing a Google search to see if there are any near you. If you happen to live in the Denver area, here’s a list of some local stands that should be open through October or November.
My favorite thing to do — which I learned from my dad — is to visit a chile stand in September or October, buy an entire bushel (basically a large basket) of peppers, and prep and freeze them for the winter. All you have to do is fill your basket with whatever mix of peppers you like — mild, medium, hot or Dynamite! — and the folks at the chile stand will roast them for you over an open flame.
If you don’t happen to live near any chile stands, you can also find the fresh peppers at some grocery stores. They’re also known as Hatch, Pueblo, or Anaheim peppers, and they may be red or green in color (depending on when they’re picked). Choose ones with smooth, shiny skin that are firm to the touch and free of dents or spots.
A Quick Guide to Roasting and Prepping Chile Peppers
As I mention in my green chile recipe, prepping chile peppers is a bit of a process. First, make sure that the peppers are roasted — it deepens the flavor of the peppers and makes the skins easier to peel off. Again, if you pick yours up at a chile stand, this step will likely be done for you. If you bought peppers from your local grocery store, you can oven-roast them to get the same effect (I’ll explain how to do this).
After roasting, you want to “sweat” the peppers in an airtight bag to loosen the skins. Next, you pull the skins off of the peppers, remove the seeds, and dice the flesh. The chiles are then ready to use in green chile or any other recipe that calls for them.
That’s the process in a nutshell. Although it’s fairly easy, the work can be a little time-consuming. Depending on how many peppers you need to prep, it can take 1-2 hours. Here are the steps you’ll need to follow.
1. Roast and sweat the peppers.
If your peppers are not already roasted, preheat your oven to 400°F. Place whole peppers on a lightly-oiled baking sheet and roast for 20-30 minutes, turning the peppers occasionally until the skins have turned black. You can also toss the peppers on your grill or over the flame of your gas stovetop; they’ll blacken a lot quicker this way (usually about 2-3 minutes per side).
Regardless of how you cook them, what you’re looking for is a good char on the skins. You’re going to be peeling off these burnt parts, anyway, and the charring tells you that the flesh underneath is thoroughly cooked.
Once the peppers are roasted, seal them in an airtight plastic bag and set aside. Allow them to sweat at room temperature for 15-20 minutes.
2. Remove the skins and seeds.
Before you begin this step, a word of advice: if you’re using peppers that have a little bit of spice, you may want to put on some gloves before handling them. The last time I tried peeling and seeding spicy peppers without gloves, my hands burned for the rest of the day afterwards. Go bare-skinned at your own risk.
As soon as the peppers are cool enough to handle, pull the peppers from the bag and lay them on a cutting board. Peel or gently massage the skins off of the chiles with your fingers and remove the stems.
Then, using a small knife, cut open the pepper so that you have a flat layer of flesh. Rinse the flesh under warm running water to remove any seeds, stringy material, or skin debris.
3. Dice the flesh.
Finally, chop your peppers into approximately ½-inch squares and place in a bowl.
And voilà — your peppers are now ready to use! If you prepped an entire batch of chiles in one go, you can save whatever’s left over after you use what you need. Simply portion the peppers out into Ziploc bags and pop them in the freezer. I like to do 4 cups of chiles per bag because that will yield one batch of green chile — so anytime I feel like making some, I can just thaw out one portion.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let me know in the comments below!