How to pick good fresh chili peppers in the store

Cuisines from all over the world rely on chiles for their unique flavor, nutritional value, and, of course, their heat. Whether the food is from the American Southwest or Southeast Asia, using fresh chiles in your cooking brings the world to your kitchen. Like any other product, there are a few pointers for picking out the best chiles for your cooking.

Also, like any other fresh produce, chiles have a short shelf life, whether at the store or in your kitchen. Get the freshest chiles at the store and use them. Unlike red wine, they won’t get better with age.

Most people do not have access to freshly harvested chiles. If, however, you have a farmer’s market nearby or live in an area where chiles are grown, see what is available. For the rest of us, our chiles are coming from the produce section of the local grocery store. Like tomatoes, chiles should be firm to the touch. While a softer ripe tomato may be preferred for sauces, the same cannot be said for chiles.

If you are planning a sauce with fresh chiles, look for the same brightly colored, very firm chile. When making a sauce, the chile is softened by roasting, peeling the blistered skin, and processing the softened chile. Some recipes recommend removing the seeds as well, but that will reduce the heat level of the chile.

For salsas or inclusion in your favorite spicy food, once again the fresher the chile the better. Otherwise, you will not only lose the flavor of the chile but the texture as well, as an overripe chile will not stand up to the heat of cooking. When looking at a chile at the store, not only check the firmness but also look around the stem.

While leafy produce needs the occasional misting to keep it fresher longer, moisture is not a friend to chiles. If you see black around the stem, it’s a sign that the chile is beginning to mold. Moisture has already started to form within the chile and it has already passed its useful life.

As part of your visual inspection, check to see of there are any bruises or blemishes on the skin. If there are, don’t buy it. While not absolutely a sign of a potential problem, you should also think twice before buying a chile where the stem is missing.

The best chiles will be found at the top of the display. Those at the bottom of the display, unless recently restocked, have been picked over and the ones remaining have been underneath other chiles, adding to the accumulation of moisture and the possibility of mold or spoilage. The same rules apply to whether looking for jalapenos or habaneros. There will be occasions where there simply aren’t going to be chiles worth buying. To guard against this, ask the produce manager when chiles are restocked.

There is no magic to the size or shape of chiles, although there is a debate as to whether smaller chiles of any variety are hotter than the larger ones. Soil and moisture conditions will have a greater effect on the quality of the chile than trying to infer something from its size or, to an extent, even it’s color. As jalapeno and serrano chiles ripen, they begin to turn red. You may periodically see green jalapeños or serranos with streaks of red in them. As long as these chiles are firm they are fine to use but will be less hot than the bright green ones that you are accustomed to using.

If left on the vine long enough, jalapeno will turn entirely red. These colorful chiles are good for any of the same uses that you would put a green jalapeno, including using in salsas and a variety of foods from throughout the world. They are slightly sweeter and less hot than the greens ones. The same rules apply when gauging freshness.

The larger chiles, such as Pasillas and Anaheims, are used for different purposes than salsas or additions to entrees but the same rules of freshness apply. This is especially the case for Pasilla chiles that are the chile of choice for stuffed chile relleños. If you buy a Pasilla that is overripe, your really will fall apart. Similarly, Anaheim chiles are often roasted for sauces such as those used in enchiladas suizas or for chile Verde, the soup-like dish using chunks of pork. If Anaheim is too ripe, the roasting process causes the chile to basically fall apart with less than advantageous results for your meal.

Quick review: hard, firm, bright color, no visible bruises or blemishes, and no mold around the stem area. Regardless of what you use this exquisitely flavored produce for, chiles will make your meal just that much better. So get to your nearest produce market and turn your imagination loose!

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