A New Day Dawns

dried chilis

By Eezra klein

My friends, it is time for a revolution. The old ways are no good. The false idols must fall. The future must step forward. I’m talking, of course, about red chili flakes. Those little bits of crushed dried chili that provide something approximating heat, but nothing even approximating flavor, for millions of Americans.

Stop. Throw them out. Or at least shove them to the back of the cupboard. Just as you moved on from black pepper to black pepper corns, and pre-made tomato sauce to canned tomatoes, it is time to recognize that crushed stuff doesn’t retain flavor. It is time to move to whole, dried red chilis.

You can get them in almost any grocery store. Sometimes they’re offered cheaply in the Mexican or Asian foods aisle. Sometimes they’re elsewhere. They’re worth it. Put them in when you begin warming the fat for your sauce or your braise.  Five or six will do it if you like heat. Two or three will do it if you just want a slight smokey note beneath the dish. Either way, you’ll get real flavor out of them, not just spice, and some dishes will be utterly transformed.

10 responses to “A New Day Dawns

  1. An admirable sentiment, but it does not go nearly far enough. You can get a wide variety of dried chiles from even the lamest grocery store. I don’t think there is anything wrong with chili flakes or powder… but you can really do a lot better than McCormick by toasting and grinding your own combinations of ancho, chipotle, and guajillo’s (or whatever).

  2. I’m always confused by the chile selection. The ones that the flakes are made from, are those chiles de arbol? I never know which to get.

  3. I grow and dry my own cayennes, but they don’t add all that much flavor (just a lot of heat). I should try some other variety.

  4. “Crushed Red Pepper” is usually cayenne I think… but Teh Google tells me you can substitute arbol (which I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly had).

  5. Pussy. You can only appreciate the true flavor of chilies by crawling through the trackless New Mexican desert to find the wise man of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with whom you must share peyote while he judges the purity of your soul and if you are found to be worthy to receive the seeds of the one true pepper which you must nurture with your own hands while the sun bakes your skin to the texture of fine Corinthian leather and then dry and smoke them in the fire of the incredibly rare wongo bongo wood.
    Only then, will you taste true pepper flavor.

    I find food absolutism so tiresome.

  6. You can get perfectly good dried chili flakes at a Thai grocery — it’s what Thai cooks use to add heat (and flavor) to their food. Just because the generic store-brand chili flakes aren’t good is no reason to throw the entire concept out the window.

  7. Put them in whole? Remove stems and seeds? Chop them? I’ve been looking to try and found out how to use them, but everyone seems to want me to crush them with a mortar and pestle.

  8. Still, nothing beats fresh undried chilis to add both heat and flavor to a dish. I grow serranos and wait til they’ve ripened to a deep red before slicing or chopping them into my favorite soups, stews, and stir fry dishes. One additional note on dried chili flakes: these are still much more flavorful than chili oil, which I tasted in a recent takeout order from a nearby Thai place and which all but ruined a good red curry.

  9. I dunno about throwing out chili flakes whole hog. The big advantage is the uniformity. With chiles, you don’t really know how hot they are, and, if you’re infusing or seasoning with them, it can be too late. Chili flakes tend to have a uniform level of heat– at least for each batch– so you can cook with them more easily.

    I’ve got a series of peppers, Italian, Chinese, and New Mexican, that I rely on for certian recipes, and I’m sure they’d add some great flavors to a dish, but sometimes you want generic heat, not the distinct flavor profiles that come from a dried peperoncini or ancho.

    If you’re anti chile flakes, try David Tanis’ chili oil recipe from “A Platter of Figs”. Really simple, and exceptionally good on pizza or vegetables. I’ve never really looked at those little specks the same way since.

  10. more defenses of chile flakes:

    1) spreading flavor. this is about physics and surface area. (yes, you can do this yourself at home with whole dried chiles)

    2) it’s true that sometimes the flakes are very good, as fresh as the dried whole. it’s just when you keep it in your cupboard for over a year that it goes from shiny hot red to tasteless brown.

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