Whilst it’s not a traditional British ingredient, chilli is a staple in our diets today, even if we often eat it in ready made foods or pre-prepared mixes and sauces. There are so may ways to buy chilli – I’ll look at a few of them here, and some ideas for how to use them.
Chilli powder is widespread, but it isn’t as simple as it looks. Some hot chilli powders are simply ground chillies, however many are in fact chilli powder mixed with other ingredients. The chilli I cook with most commonly is extra hot chilli powder, usually from our local asian supermarket where you can get large bags of spices at good prices.
Don’t be scared of extra hot chilli powder – it’s a cheap way of spicing your food, as a little goes a long way. I use about 1/3 of a teaspoon for mild to medium heat for the three of us – or even just a couple of pinches.
Chilli powder keeps its heat for a long time if it’s stored in an airtight container, though it may lose potency as it ages. You’ll need to adjust your quantities accordingly – be wary if you’ve just replaced an old packet! You can buy it in a jar in most supermarkets, or in a cheaper refill packet.
You may have seen crushed chillies in the dried spice section. These are often fairly mild, and because they are made up of fairly large pieces are good for adding fairly gentle heat to dishes like fried potatoes or eggs, rather than making something full on spicy.
Many supermarkets stock fresh chilies with the fruit and vegetables. There’s a huge variety available, though some supermarkets will just sell them as ‘chillies’ or ‘green chillies’ with very little clue as to the flavour. If you only want a few fresh jalapenos can be a great alternative to jarred ones. The complication with fresh chillies is it does take a bit of experimenting with to get the quantity right – every batch is different. They’re a great addition to salads and salsas though, and for convenience they can be frozen, with a few slices in each compartment of an ice cube tray.
It is becoming increasingly common to buy jarred spices made into a paste with other ingredients such as oil or vinegar. It’s a great way to get the flavour depth of fresh chillies, but with more convenience. beware, though, they only keep for a week or two in the fridge. If you like great taste, don’t fancy too much experimentation and use a lot of chilli they’re a great option.
Cooking with Chilli
It seems really silly to me that recipes are really specific about how much chilli to use, but aren’t exact about what sort. I’d suggest getting to know the particular chilli you use and your own tastes and adjusting recipes. If a recipe calls for fresh chillis it is perfectly fine to use powder (unless it’s a recipe for jalapeno poppers…). I’ve included a number of recipes here that use just chilli, no other spices, so you can build your confidence.
I find that traditional, heavy dishes like stew and dumplings benefit from a pinch of chilli – not enough to make it hot, just to add a boost to offset the umami. The great thing about getting friendly with chilli and making your own food from scratch is that you are freed from the constraints of convention – you can make an extra hot korma, or a barely spicy chilli con carne.