Traditional Texas cooking requires a broad range of seasonings, sauces, and spices. Many of these flavoring agents have drifted away from their early roots and have begun to spice liven up other cooking styles. You will find a large variation in blends of seasonings within Texas food today. This is producing dishes with bold, assertive flavors that are finding their way into other parts of the country.
Chile, with an “e”, is meant here when talking about peppers and pepper spices, not as the famous Texas bowl of red called chili (with an “i”). Chili cooking and recipes will be well-represented throughout the Food In Texas website, but here we will be talking about spices and seasonings.
The chile pepper was introduced to Texans by Spanish and Mexican settlers over 150 years ago. This sometimes hot, sometimes not fruit finds its way into almost every Texas recipe there is. Today, there is about 120 varieties of chiles grown in the state. They can be found fresh, pickled, smoked, frozen, dried, and canned.
Most of the dried chiles used in are found in the form of chile powder. This is a mixture of one or more kinds of dried chiles, combined with cumin and other dried spices. When using the store-bought powder at home, find brands that contain less or no salt, as well as a sweet taste. A quality chile powder should be warm to the taste but not burn your mouth. Chile powder should not be confused with chili mixes, which contain onions, garlic, thickeners,and other ingredients.
Many Texas recipes call for a ground dried red chile. This chile powder comes mostly from two chile peppers, the New Mexico chile, and the Ancho pepper, which has a chocolate, sweet taste. The New Mexico chile, called the “long red” by some, is hotter and a deeper red color than you will find in most packaged chile powders. This deep red color produces a chile powder that is the purest there is.
When at all possible, grind your own chile powder. It has deeper, more intense flavors than you will find in any packaged chile powder. To grind your own chile powder takes hardly any effort or time, but it is well-worth it. Remove all stems and seeds from the peppers, toast in the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit until slightly crisp, break into pieces, then grind in a blender or spice grinder.
A couple of other chiles include passillas and mulatos, which are similar in heat, but with slightly different flavors. These can be grinded and blended to make your own special chile powder mixes, if you choose.
There are also quite a few other hotter chiles that can be used to make great chile powders in the same dried red form. These include the the tiny chiltepins or chile pequins, which grow wild in the southern part of Texas. Chile de arbol and cayenne, two other red chile cousins, also provide an intense heat. Chile de arbol ads more of a Mexican flavor, and the cayenne is normally associated with cajun food.
A milder variety of red chile available to make chile powder is the paprika. It usually comes already powdered, and provides a sweeter, less intense flavor. Some varieties of ground paprika provide almost no heat, and these should be avoided if wanting to add significant flavor to your dishes.
If purchasing packaged chile powders, only buy what you think you will use in the near future. The flavors of these powders lose their intensity in a very short time, so be prepared to change out your chile powder when it gets old.
Billy Bristol is the writer and editor for Food in Texas, a website devoted to the celebration of tradition homemade Texas Food. With simple recipes and cooking ideas that bring out the best in classic Texas cuisine, Food in Texas is creating its own culinary legacy.