"You know how to make Mexican chili?" Stosh inquired. "Stick an ice cube up his keister." From the novel I sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek
American chili powder (with an "i") is to Southwestern American cuisine as curry powder is to Indian cuisine. Chili powder is an American spice blend made with ground chile peppers and other herbs and spices, and curry powder is also a blend of spices. Like curry powder, the actual blend can vary significantly from producer to producer. Both carry some heat, but there the resemblance ends. The flavors are very different.
The best American chili powders have multiple layers of heat and complexity that come from different kinds of chiles. It can be used in many recipes, from tacos to barbecue sauces, but it is the core of Chili Con Carne (chili with meat), the classic cowboy chuck wagon trail stew.
This is important, especially to readers in other countries: American chili powder is very differerent than chile powder (with an "e") in Mexico and most other countries.
In most other countries, chile powder is simply ground hot red chiles, usually just one cultivar, but occasionally more, and it is much hotter than American chili powder. In Mexico, if you mix chile powder with other herbs and spices it is called salsa en polvo.
Here's a simple recipe that beats the snot out of most anything you can buy in a jar. It is a great opportunity for you to make your own signature spice blend. Want to add more garlic powder, I won't stop you. Dried chipotle? Scotch bonnets? Why not?
Salt is almost always a large component of commercial American chili powder, but I have left it out. This way you can use it on brined meats without oversalting it. Remember, you can always add salt, but you can't take it away. Click here to learn more about why you should not add salt to spice blends.
As background for this recipe, read my article, The Science of Chiles. Ancho is a dried poblano and is the backbone of most American chili powders because they are mild and have a unique raisiny/pruney/chocolatey flavor. Pasillas are dried chilaca and they area bit hotter that poblano, and chocolatey, but they are harder to find so if you can't locate any, just add more ancho. Sweet paprika is made from very mild red peppers, similar to the bell peppers we use in salads. Alas, most of the paprika in the grocery has little flavor. Look for a high quality fresh Hungarian or Spanish paprika. Feel free to swap out the other chiles for your favorites. Just be careful not to go too hot. If you want more heat, you can always add it by mixing in 1/2 a teaspoon of chipotle powder. Chipotle is a dried smoked jalape–o and it is hotter than pasilla. The secret to award winning Chili Con Carne is a American chili powder that is complex and balanced.
You can buy powdered chiles, but the results are better if you grind them fresh. The size and weight of the average pod can vary significantly from store to store and from season to season. To help you plan, here are some conversions that are sorta average.
- 1 ancho weighs about 1/4 ounce before stemming and seeding, and makes about 1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons
- 1 pasilla weighs about 1/4 ounce before stemming and seeding, and makes about 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon
- 1 guajillo weighs about 1/8 ounce before stemming and seeding, and makes about 2 teaspoons
- 1 chipotle weighs about 1/8 ounce before stemming and seeding, and makes about 2 teaspoons
Signature American Chili Powder Recipe
Preparation time. 40 minutes
Makes. About 1/3 cup
2 1/2 tablespoons ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon pasilla chile powder
1 teaspoon guajillo chile powder
1 teaspoon sweet American, Hungarian, or Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teapoon cumin powder
1) Cut off the tops of the chiles with scissors and shake out the seeds. Poke around in the chile with a knife to get the rest. With the scissors cut the chilis lengthwise into two halves, and then into chunks about 1" square. Put them into a medium hot frying pan for about 2 minutes, then shake the pan to flip as many as possible and toast them for another 2 minutes. This brings out the flavorful oils, a process called blooming.
2) Grind the chunks in a spice grinder, coffee grinder, blender, or food processor. I usually use my coffee grinder, but if you do, remember to clean it thoroughly when you are done or you'll spend the night on the couch (don't ask me how I learned this). Let the cloud of dust settle in the grinder for several minutes before you remove the top or your cries of pain will be heard blocks away (don't ask me how I learned this).
3) Pour all the powdered ingredients in a bowl or jar and stir them all together. The blend will still be useable for about a year, but the freshness and potency slowly declines.