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Chile de árbol is a top choice when it comes to turning up the heat on Mexican salsas, soups, adobos, and more. Find out exactly what it is, how to rehydrate it, cook with it, and much more in this detailed guide.
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🌶️ What is chile de árbol?
Chile de árbol (Spanish for “tree chili”) is the name given to this slender pepper, referring to the long wood-like stem. It is also known by other names like rat’s tail chile.
Originally from the Mexican states of Jalisco and Oaxaca, you can now find this spicy pepper grown all over the world.
Chiles de árbol are typically about 2-3 inches long and change from green to bright red in color as they ripen.
Unlike most chiles that take on other names once dried, chile de árbol is the name given to the fresh, dried, and powdered form of this pepper. Once dried, arbol peppers can be toasted to impart unique flavors in a wide variety of recipes.
🍴 Flavor profile
The flavor of a dried chile de árbol is smoky, nutty, and slightly grassy. Again, all of these base tasting notes are accentuated by toasting the peppers.
Chiles de árbol are typically utilized in recipes like salsa to impart more spice. They also make a great addition to sweet recipes, such as chile-infused brownies or cakes.
🔥 Spice level
Chile de árbol packs some serious heat, coming in at 15,000 to 30,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) on the Scoville Scale. However, peppers vary greatly in their spiciness. There have even been reports of arbol chiles reaching 65,000 SHU!
🧑⚕️ Health benefits
In such a small package, arbol chiles hold a plethora of health benefits. They contain large amounts of vitamin A and vitamin C, both of which are important for eye and skin health.
Chiles de árbol also contain minerals like calcium and iron, making them a spicy way to strengthen your bones.
In addition to all these health benefits, arbol chiles contain a special compound, capsaicin, which is helpful in lowering blood pressure and treating inflammation!
🧑🍳 Cooking with arbol chiles
Chile de arbol peppers are a great way to impart spice to both sweet and savory dishes. Since fresh arbol chiles are hard to come by, you generally need to rehydrate the dried variety for your recipes.
Bonus: See how to properly rehydrate arbol chiles in the video section of our recipe card!
Arbol chiles work well in soups, stews, chilis, salsas, and hot sauces. You can even try adding them to chamoy sauce for a kick of heat. If preferred, they can be ground up into chile flakes, then added to recipes the same way as cayenne powder.
🍽 Arbol chile recipes
With so many delicious recipes utilizing the chile de árbol, we’ve narrowed down a few of our favorites. Try adding this spicy pepper to one of the following recipes:
- Enchiladas rojas: A vibrant Mexican dish made with salsa-dipped corn tortillas wrapped around your favorite fillings.
- Salsa taquera: Reserve this recipe for spice lovers only! It’s a fiery one.
- Sopa de tortilla: Crispy strips of corn tortillas covered in a tomato and chile-infused broth.
- Morisqueta: Hearty beans, rice, and red salsa served together with cashew crema and vegan queso fresco.
- Pozole rojo: Tender hominy and savory mushrooms served in a red chile broth.
- Chilaquiles rojos: One of the most famous breakfasts in Mexico, chilaquiles are quick, easy, and flavor-packed!
Store your dried arbol chiles in a cool, dark space (like a cupboard or pantry) to ensure the flavors last longer. We prefer glass containers to keep the moisture levels better controlled, but just make sure whatever you use has a seal.
If you don’t have space in your cupboards, it’s best to use an opaque container for storage since light degrades chiles rather quickly.
💰 Buying guide
The chile de árbol is essential in a well-rounded Mexican kitchen arsenal. It’s easy to store, so make sure you always keep it on hand.
What to look for
Arbol chiles should be dry yet still pliable. If they are cracked and brittle, it typically means the flavors will be subdued.
If your arbol peppers are overly soft or damp, they’ve likely come in contact with too much moisture. It’s best to avoid these ones too.
Where to buy
Chiles de árbol should be available in most Mexican markets or Latin American food stores. There’s a good chance you’ll be able to find them at larger grocery chains as well — check in the spice or international aisles.
If you don’t have any of those options available to you, you can always order arbol chiles online.
♻️ Arbol chile substitutions
Arbol chiles don’t have an extremely complex flavor profile like some of the milder chiles, making them easier to substitute. The best choices include:
- Chile piquin: With the exact same heat level, piquin chiles (or chiles Japones) are a great alternative to arbol peppers — although they don’t have quite as much depth of flavor.
- Cayenne pepper: Similar in appearance, but almost double the heat level, cayenne peppers are a good choice if you want a spicier alternative to arbol chiles.
- Red pepper flakes: Crushed red pepper ranges from 15,000-30,000 SHU, so they are another good substitute for chile de árbol.
🫑 More Mexican chiles
If you’re interested in learning more about other popular chiles used in Mexican cooking, check out our other detailed guides:
- Chile pasilla
- Chile ancho
- Chile guajillo
- Chile piquin
- Chile cascabel
- Chile morita
- Chile chipotle meco
An easy mistake to make when dry-toasting arbol peppers is to burn them. When chiles burn, they impart bitter flavors to the dish they’re in. If you catch this before adding them to the rest of the recipe, it’s best to start over again.
Since arbol chiles are grown commercially for drying purposes, it may be a challenge to find fresh ones. But if you do, you can absolutely make your own dried peppers in a dehydrator, oven, or under the sun.
Although chiles de árbol have hints of smokiness, they do not undergo an actual smoking process. If that’s what you’re looking for, morita chiles might be better suited for your needs.
How to Rehydrate Arbol Chiles
- Kitchen shears
- Cast-iron skillet or comal
- 1 package arbol chiles
- Water for soaking
- Using kitchen shears, cut off the stems of the chiles. Remove the seeds by rubbing the chiles together between your fingers and discard.
- Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium, then dry toast them for ~60 seconds, stirring frequently, or until fragrant.
- Bring a saucepan of water to boil, then turn the heat off, add the arbol chiles in, cover the pot, and let the chiles rehydrate for 10-15 minutes, or until they feel soft and pliable.
- Your arbol chiles are now ready to be used in a wide variety of Mexican salsas or enchilada recipes.
- The weight used in this recipe is an example only. The amount needed will depend on the size of the recipe.
- You can reserve the soaking water to use in recipes, but some people find it bitter so always taste it first.
- Nutritional information is a rough estimate and should not be taken as health advice.
Note: We’ve updated this post to include new information and helpful tips.