How do you use dried chiles and which kind should I buy? Are they all really hot?
–Tom in Chicago
Chiles are not the easiest seasoning to understand. Setting aside the how-hot-can-you-go game, the point of these things is flavor, not heat.
A good all-around choice, especially if you aren’t used to chiles, is the dried ancho. It tastes of smoky plum jam with prickles of modest heat.
The standard prep for dried chiles is to toast whole pods over a gas flame or under a broiler a few seconds per side until you get a toasty fragrance. Immerse them in hot water until soft (30 minutes), drain, stem and seed. Pureé with a little water and they are ready.
You can do big batches every several months. Spread the pureé in thin layers in big plastic freezer bags and freeze. Break off whatever you need without defrosting.
You can use anchos in the usual marinades and rubs, but also try spoonfuls in salad dressing, hummus and potato salad. Rub over sweet potato chunks and roast with olive oil, and do not underestimate how good dried ancho chile is on fresh sweet corn with a little butter.