I talk a lot to students about the importance of using fresh spices. So many people have little plastic jars of ground spices in their pantries that could be half a decade old or older. At that age, whatever spice is inside the container has long degraded into insipid colored dust. If you buy ground spices, you’re looking at an optimum shelf life of at most six months. Certain very strong spices like cinnamon or clove will still seem like they’re plenty flavorful, but compare it side by side with a freshly ground version and you will experience a world of difference.
Even with this knowledge though, I have been guilty of pushing the limits on the lifespan of spice blends. For whatever reason, I felt like blends of spices were exempt from losing flavor. This is, of course, wrong. Recently I have been working on making some freshly ground spice blends and the difference is incredible.
I think a lot of people—myself included—always bought our spice blends, whatever the blend may be, pre-ground from the store. The only problem with this is that we don’t know how long any particular jar of spice blend has been sitting on the shelf in the store. It’s not unlikely that most of us have never tasted a freshly made version of some of our staple spice blends. To remedy this I decided too make a fresh chili powder to use in a batch of carne guisada I’m making (we’ll talk about carne guisada in another post).
As a brief aside, there are a lot of spellings you might see for the word “chili.” If memory serves, in an old episode of Good Eats, Alton Brown makes a distinction between chilli (the hot pepper), chili (the spicy beef stew), and Chile (the country). However things don’t seem to be quite this cut and dry. In the U.S. the most common spelling is ‘chili’ whether you’re referring to the fruit or the dish. The U.K. favors ‘chilli’, and Spanish speaking countries and areas of the U.S. use ‘chile’. Harold McGee of On Food and Cooking fame says ‘chilli’ is closest to the original Nahuatl spelling (of course, nahuatl didn’t use a Latin alphabet, so what that really means is anyone’s guess). It seems like any of these spellings should be acceptable since there’s probably not much danger of ambiguity in context, but for ease of understanding, and so I don’t see so many red spell-check underlines as I write this, I’ll be sticking with the common U.S. spelling of chili.
With that out of the way, let's take a look at the recipe.
Freshly Ground Chili Powder
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Yield: about 1/2 cup
70 grams/about 2 cups good quality dried chilies
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon whole allspice
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lay the chilies out on a sheet tray. Toast in the oven 5-10 minutes until starting to puff. Err on the side of too little time; our goal is to make the chilies dry and brittle, not to toast or burn them.
I'm using ancho, chipotle meca, pulla, arbol, and mulato, but you can use whatever blend you like. If you don’t know what kind of dried chilies you like, I recommend starting with ancho, and guajillo.
2. Gather all the spices except the nutmeg and garlic powder and toast them until fragrant in a pan.
3. Once the spices are toasted, grind them to a fine powder. I really like a small mortar and pestle for this, but whatever you use to grind spices will work.
4. Then mix in the garlic powder and nutmeg.
5. When the chilies are done, remove from the oven and rest until they’re cool enough to handle. Once cool remove the tops, seeds, and insides, then break them into small pieces before grinding into a fine powder (I use an electric spice grinder for this).
6. Combine it with the rest of the spices and viola! You have the freshest, most intensely flavored chili powder you’ve probably ever used.
If you need some inspiration on how to use your new next-level chili powder, check out our upcoming Hands-On Regional Street Tacos class on the patio at our Lincoln square location. It's being offered on: