Ancho peppers are a must for many traditional Mexican recipes, but finding these dried chilies to complete a classic recipe may not be as easy as you’d like. What can you do if you don’t have the option? What’s the best ancho pepper substitute to reach to when you are in immediate need? What are the alternatives if you’re simply looking for something different? Let’s cover your options.
Your quickest option with the right heat: Ancho chili powder or mild paprika
While few major grocers carry dried chilies, many now carry a wide variety of chili powders. And really chili powder is simply dried chilies crushed into powder form. You may be lucky and your grocer carries actual ancho chili powder (or you can buy it online to keep some in stock). But if they don’t, reach for a mild paprika. It’ll have a comparable mildness to ancho pepper (it typically has a pimento pepper base), but it will have a sweeter flavor than the more earthy-sweet (and sometimes smoky) ancho chili powder.
A step up, but readily available: Chipotle powder
Chipotle powder is made from smoked, dried jalapeños, so the powder contains a big bump in heat – 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units compared to the 1,000 to 1,500 SHU typical for ancho peppers. Chipotle is also likely smokier than your typical bottle of ancho pepper powder. But if you think your receipt can benefit from this set of flavor and heat, it’s an excellent option that’s widely offered at major grocery chains.
The best dried chili alternatives: Guajillo and mulato peppers
Mulato and guajillo peppers join the ancho as members of Mexico’s holy trinity of dried chilies. They are musts in traditional Mexican cooking. But the ancho is typically the easiest to source, so these alternatives don’t make good “I need it now” options.
You can find both guajillo and mulato chilies for sale online, so if you’re simply looking to get creative with an ancho pepper substitute and you have the time, pick some up. Both are slightly hotter than the ancho, with the mulato ranging from 2,500 to 3,000 SHU and the guajillo a much hotter 2,500 to 5,000 SHU. The mulato has a sweeter, even earthier taste that’s close to a licorice flavor. The guajillo is slightly sweeter too, but more akin to that sweet tang of dried cranberries.
Not recommended: Fresh chilies of any kind
Sure, you could pick up fresh poblano peppers. Or your grocer may carry fresh Anaheim chilies or one of many New Mexican varieties. But there’s a big flavor difference between dried chilies and fresh. The flavors are more condensed and rustic; a fresh chili won’t really deliver the same experience. They’ll really change the heart of a recipe that calls for ancho. Opt, instead, for the powders.