We modern foodie types are used to doing a lot of Continental cooking: French and Italian especially. So when we see a red or red-brown sauce we automatically assume there’s tomato in it. But in fact a lot of deep red and rust-colored Mexican sauces don’t have any tomato in them at all, just puréed chile pepper. Reconstituted dried chile pepper to be more exact.
You see them in Mexican grocery stores or international aisles in supermarkets, packaged in crackling cellophane bags. If you’ve ever looked those over and wondered what the heck you do with them, I’m here today to show you. But first you need to know that not all dried chiles are not equal. Some are much, much drier than others, and that can be a bad thing when it comes to say, making a tamal or enchilada sauce.
If you buy them where there’s a decent turnover, they’ll be dry but not brittle, and that’s what you want. You want chiles that are nice and flexible, that you can bend like this without them breaking. Like so:
If they don’t do that, then your odds of creating a great sauce are vastly diminished. Find another grocer with fresher products.
To begin processing them, tear them open. Just use your bare hands, they chiles won’t do anything to you. Tear off the stem and open the sucker up. You’ll find seeds inside. Shake them out.
Next, tear the chile into pieces about yay big:
When they’re all seeded and torn up, heat up a skillet — cast iron is perfect for this — over medium-high heat. Lay a chile strip in. No oil or fat of any type is needed here.
Using a heavy spatula, press the chile down onto the hot surface. After a few seconds, you’ll feel the spatula rise a little as the small amounts of moisture in the chile turn to steam and cause the flesh to bubble (these bubbles are what will allow moisture in so the flesh can reconstitute). This should take about 30 seconds.
When you start to see the odd puff of smoke, flip the chile piece over. It should be orange-colored and blistered.
Repeat the pressing for about 30 more seconds until the second side looks like the first.
Place the chiles in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. If they float too much, weigh them down with a spoon, cup or saucer.
After half an hour of steeping they’ll look like this:
At this point they’re ready to purée with onion, spices and some of that steeping liquid (and/or chicken stock) to make a chile sauce base. If you’re wondering whether a sauce made from nothing but puréed chile and onion will be spicy or hot, the answer is it all depends on what sort of chiles they are. The chiles pictured — ancho — aren’t particularly hot. Others are extremely so. It all depends on what the recipe calls for.
Oh but let me add: that liquid may or may not irritate the tissues under your fingernails, but it will stain like mad. Don’t get it on your clothes.