Smoky, earthy, and hard to get…
Chimayo pepper fast facts:
- Scoville heat units (SHU): 4,000 – 6,000 SHU
- Median heat: 5,000 SHU
- Origin: United States (New Mexico)
- Capsicum species: Annuum
- Jalapeño reference scale: Equal heat
- Use: Culinary
- Size: Approximately 4 to 6 inches long, curved
- Flavor: Smoky, Earthy
The tiny New Mexican village of Chimayo, 28 miles north of Santa Fe, holds a chili treasure dear to heart. There, the Chimayo pepper – in its twisted, knotted beauty – is king. Its sun-dried skin and smoky, simmering taste are so dependent on this unique mountainous region that the Chimayo is not a chili that you’ll find that often commercially unless you’re in that region come harvest season.
This is a chili experience you travel for, as, like the Hatch pepper, the Chimayo has a deep impact on the local culture. It’s a town that lives and breathes its exceptional chili.
How hot are Chimayo peppers?
At 4,000 to 6,000 Scoville heat units, these chilies fall right in the meaty middle of the jalapeño pepper range; they land on the milder side of medium heat. A Chimayo will always be hotter than the mildest jalapeño, but it also won’t spike in heat as some jalapeño plants can.
They have a similar spiciness, too, to their New Mexican chili cousin, the Hatch pepper (again, without the potentially wide heat swing). Compared to the Anaheim pepper (another close relative), these chilies are at least double the heat, with the potential for more.
What do Chimayo peppers taste like? Look like?
The taste and appearance of these chilies have much to do with the land in which they grow. Chimayo, New Mexico is in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. This is arid land: on average only 29 total days with some sort of rain each year and 152 days of 80°F heat. This climate produces a pepper that looks extremely sun-dried – sometimes twisted, sometimes even knotted. Authentic Chimayo chilies don’t have the smooth skin of many of the other peppers with similar heat profiles. In terms of color they mature from green to red, similar to the jalapeño, and the range in length from four to six inches long.
But it’s the taste that makes this hot pepper so coveted. They are earthier and smokier than other New Mexican chilies. This is likely to do with the mountainous land in which they are grown, along with the amount of strong sunlight they receive. They are smokier than Hatch chilies, even, but not nearly as buttery in flavor.
How rare are these chilies to find?
In its authentic form, this is one hard-to-get pepper, outside of some culinary travel. Only about 500 acres of Chimayo are harvested annually, in October and November. Supplies dwindle quickly, with many locals grabbing the lion’s share.
Among the village, high-quality Chimayo pepper seeds are often reverentially passed down through the generations. For decades, it was small crop farming among local farmers. It wasn’t until the early 2000s – when the Chimayo Chile Project was founded to replenish the local seed stock – that the Chimayo industry started to grow to where it is today. It’s still very small, but very vibrant. This is one product coveted by serious chili pepper fans.
There are Chimayo chili products out on the market, but typically these are Chimayo only by seed, not by land or temperature. Like champagne vs. sparkling wine, the authentic is often vastly superior in flavor. Chimayo peppers not grown in their native region typically aren’t quite as smoky, not quite as earthy. They are still very tasty, but not quite the same. When looking for products, check on the label to see if the product mentions where the chilies were grown. You’ll enjoy this pepper no matter what, but once you’ve tasted the real thing, it’s hard to go back.
How are they typically used?
This is a terrific roasting pepper. The earthy, smoky scents take to the air in a way that draws you in. The roasting brings out the smokiness even more in the taste.
They are also terrific when dried. In fact, these chilies are a favorite for open-air drying using ristras. Made into a powder or chili flakes, you can have the earthy flavor of this chili all year round.
Where can you buy Chimayo pepper?
Again, expect to travel for the real deal, but it’s worth the experience to hit New Mexico during harvest season to take in the chili pepper culture. You can purchase Chimayo seeds and powders online. Check the container for the growing region; it can make a difference to the complexity of the taste. The seeds will grow very tasty peppers and the chili powders you’ll typically find online are very tasty. But remember: Nothing is truly a Chimayo chili unless it’s been grown in its native land.