When you’re out dining in New Mexico the server might ask whether you want red or green sauce. Depending on whether you’re visiting the Land of Enchantment, or you’ve lived here a long time, this could be an easy question to answer or a hard one. You’ll need to decide between a sauce made with red Chimayó peppers or green Hatch peppers. Let us help you with that decision.
Red or Green Chiles — What’s the difference?
Besides one being red and one being green, the biggest differences are time and heat. If green peppers are allowed to remain on the vine, they continue to ripen and will eventually turn red. Red peppers are sweeter, and hotter — a great culinary combination — because they’ve had time to ripen and produce more capsaicin, the chemical that makes them hot.
But just because you can let a green chile ripen into a red chile, it doesn’t mean that all chile peppers are alike or that they’ll all turn into the same type of red chile. Here in New Mexico the term green chile pepper usually refers to those grown in Hatch, which is in the southern part of New Mexico, while red chile peppers are typically Chimayó peppers grown in and around the town of Chimayó in northern New Mexico. They are actually different cultivars (short for cultivated variety) of the same species, Capsicum annuum.
What’s the difference between red or green — a Hatch chile pepper or a Chimayó chile pepper? Just like real estate, it comes down to location, location, location.
Hatch Chile Peppers
Hatch, New Mexico, is the perfect location to grow chile peppers — the high elevation, the hot days and cool nights, and the fertile volcanic soil that was once a floodplain for the Rio Grande River all come together to create an environment that produces unique-tasting chile peppers that have made Hatch — and their namesake chiles — famous.
Hatch chiles are typically harvested while still green. Across New Mexico in the fall when these chiles are harvested, the aroma of roasting chiles is carried through the air. Hatch chiles are sometimes allowed to ripen into beautiful red chiles which are hung to dry on ristras which are sundried on the eves of adobe homes. However, the champagne of red chiles in New Mexico are Chimayó chile peppers.
Chimayó Chile Peppers
If you drive about 275 miles north of Hatch, you’ll find the village of Chimayó, home to a little more than 3,000 people and one of the most unique chile peppers in the world. It’s the combination of weather, soil, and crystal-clear water from Sangre de Cristo Mountain snowmelt that makes this area perfect for the Chimayó chiles. If you take seeds from a chile grown there and plant them somewhere else, the resulting pepper wouldn’t taste the same as if it had been grown in Chimayó.
You can order Chimayó chile powder or crushed peppers anytime from Performance Maintenance Incorporated (PMI).
This arid land in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains produces chiles that are naturally sun-dried and wrinkly. Unlike the Hatch chiles that are usually harvested green, Chimayó chiles are allowed to ripen and are frequently hung to dry in ristras. Their complex flavor is described as having an earthy undertone, a smoky flavor, and some sweetness, which is unusual for a chile.
Families have passed down the seeds of Chimayó chiles from one generation to the next for more than 400 years! The result is what are called landrace chiles — chiles that are unique to their heritage region. Because only about 500 acres of land are used to grow the Chimayó chiles, this product can be difficult to find, especially outside of New Mexico.
To be considered authentic Chimayó chiles, the seeds must be from Chimayó and must have been grown there. And because there aren’t a lot of these chiles produced annually, they can be pricey. The good news is that a pound of chile powder goes a long way, and smaller quantities are readily available.
A great place to get Chimayó chile powder or crushed Chimayó peppers is from Performance Maintenance Incorporated (PMI).
Red or Green — Which is Hotter?
The “heat” of a chile is measured with the Scoville scale. Chimayó chile comes in at around 4,000 to 6,000 units, making it a medium hot pepper, while Hatch chiles score between 1,500 and 2,500 units on the same scale. To put this in perspective, a bell pepper ranks at almost zero on the scale and a habanero comes in at 200,000 to 350,000 units. So, neither the Hatch nor the Chimayó chiles will set your mouth on fire, but both of them will add some nice spice to an enchilada sauce.
Also keep in mind that Hatch chile peppers aren’t the only green chile. Jalapeño and Serrano peppers are also typically harvested while green and they can be quite a bit hotter than the most common Hatch green pepper varieties — and some chiles that are categorized as Hatch peppers can be as hot as a habanero pepper. So, the red or green question isn’t always straightforward.
But restaurants aren’t out to burn your mouth. If you’re unsure about which is hotter, the server can usually answer that question and most restaurants will bring you a small sample of each type of sauce.
How to Answer the Red or Green Question
The red or green choices seen on a menu might depend on which part of New Mexico you’re in. Hatch chiles are more common in the southern part of the state, while the red Chimayó chiles are found more frequently on menus in the northern part of New Mexico. If you’re unsure how to answer the red or green question, you can always opt for Christmas enchiladas and have both red and green sauce.
Wherever you live, you can order Chimayó peppers or ground powder from Performance Maintenance Incorporated (PMI) anytime.
Story by Julia Osgood