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If salt and pepper are the two busiest members of the spice cabinet, crushed red pepper flakes are surely third. And like salt and pepper, it’s easy to take them for granted—to presume they are an unchanging, perpetually stable seasoning that makes whatever you’re eating a bit more spicy.
Red pepper flakes, a.k.a. crushed red pepper, and in some circles, chile flakes (the ones with the trademark seeds left in the mix) are all, ostensibly, the same thing. It’s easy enough to take them at face value, as an ingredient that generically spices up pizza, pasta, or sautéed greens.
But these ubiquitous flecks present an opportunity for so much more. Aside from adding a kick to your favorite dishes, both in the pan and on the plate, chiles can bring deeply nuanced fruity notes and a range of different characters of heat, based on which type you’re using. There are milder, sweeter chiles that you can sprinkle liberally over hummus and into salad dressing or a pot of stewing lentils. And there are fiery chiles that can add a hard edge to laabs, curries, and anything alla diavola.
Most brands of crushed red pepper flakes you can buy at the store are made up of a blend of different chiles. Dried jalapeño, bell, Fresno, Anaheim, cayenne, serrano, and more pepper varieties can be found in a standard blend. McCormick says that its red pepper flakes start with cayenne, which is blended with other cultivars to adjust the heat.
Like the puck of caked-together garlic powder in the back of your pantry, eating old red pepper flakes probably won’t make you sick. But they can pick up aromas from your kitchen cabinets, and dry out past their desired state, losing flavor and heat. When mixed into a dish, tracing an off flavor back to the red pepper flakes can be difficult, but a bright red color and strong aroma are good indicators that your flakes still pack a punch. If you can’t remember when you bought them, chances are, it’s time to replace your red pepper flakes.
The term chile flakes is often swapped conversationally with the standard pizza joint red pepper flakes. However, chile flakes are usually made of a single pepper varietal, like Burlap & Barrel’s Silk Chili flakes (tomatoey Aleppo pepper substitute) or Spicewalla’s smoky, raisin-like Urfa Chilli flakes. (Diaspora Co. offers four different varieties too.) Chile flakes are also usually made with just the dehydrated pepper flesh, leaving behind the often bitter and extra-spicy pith and seeds.
Jacob Harth, who recently left a job as chef de cuisine of Brooklyn’s Place Des Fêtes to start a new project in Mexico City, has never been big on cooking with crushed red pepper. Instead, his go-to is the Basque-style chile espelette. His favorite is Boonville Barn Collective’s California-grown Piment d’Ville. Espelette is the go-to chile for dusting over papas bravas, and its gentle, smoky-sweet kick is a perfect complement to fried eggs.
Gochugaru, the sun-dried Korean chile flakes most commonly used in kimchi, are another great option: They’re warm, but not too spicy, and beyond giving sundubu-jjigae its trademark fire truck hue, they make an irresistible popcorn topping when paired with fresh-grated Parmesan.
Aleppo-style pepper is another favorite of mine. It has a slight earthiness that’s often compared to cumin with bright citrus notes and a medium spice level—perfect for adding some heat to baba ghanoush or marinating meats and fish destined for the grill.
Homemade chile flakes make great homemade chili crisp.
You might already have some whole dried peppers laying around from, say, a gift basket, a pot of chili, or a novelty farmers market pickup…or maybe an ambitious gardener-friend gifted you some and you’re at a loss for what to do with them.
Grinding your own chiles also means that you can customize your seasoning based on the dish you’re cooking, like an amatriciana with your own bespoke kick, pickles spiked with your own warm and fruity blend, or chili crisp made from, if you’re lucky, the fruits of that ambitious friend’s garden. And, when you make your own, no one has the exact flakes you’ve got!
Choosing your chiles is a personal preference that will depend on how much spice you're looking for and what you're planning to cook. Here are a few options to get you started, with ideas for how to use them.
California: These fruity, crimson peppers are virtually spiceless, which makes them an awesome option for garnishing or swapping for paprika in recipes. They’re about one and a half times the size of a jalapeño and have very minimal seeds, which makes them a breeze to work with.
Chipotle: When ground into flakes, dried and smoked jalapeños, with their classic mahogany color, are great stirred into sour cream or aioli, sprinkled over veggies, or added to a marinade.
Pequin: These are very spicy with a citrus note (and they look shockingly similar to miniature string lights before grinding). I like to use these jelly bean–size chiles to make a dressed-up version of classic red pepper flakes, leaving the seeds in and simply crushing them into big flakes.
Thai bird’s-eye chiles: These tiny cardinal-red peppers pack a big punch. I like to lightly roast them before grinding, which rounds out their flavor and makes a hot and toasty chile flake that will make you sweat.
Toasting whole chiles before grinding is a great way to add complexity when making your own flakes. It’s best done in a 300-degree oven. The timing depends greatly on the chiles, but once they become fragrant (after 10 to 15 minutes), they’re usually good to go. Err on the side of less toasting—going too far can quickly turn them bitter. Note that the chiles will crisp as they cool, so checking the texture while they’re still hot can be misleading.
If you’re after a classic crushed red pepper, leaving the seeds in is traditional; however, some chiles have a huge amount of seeds, and in some cases, leaving them in can make your flakes bitter, overly spicy, or simply distract from where the real flavor is at: in the flesh. Generally, I prefer to take the seeds out. The exceptions, for me, are very small chiles, like Thai, cayenne, árbol, and pequin, in which deseeding would be incredibly tedious.
You’ll need dried chiles to make homemade flakes, but if you’ve happened upon some fresh chiles, with a little work, you can turn them to flakes too. Hanging them from a string is arguably the most romantic way to dry out your peppers, but it does take awhile.
Dehydrating, either in an oven set as low as it’ll go (around 200 degrees) or a commercial dehydrator, will dry most types of chiles in about a day. When drying your own peppers, make sure they dry fully (they should be brittle and easily crunched in your hands), so they grind easily and are fully preserved.
Then blend the dried peppers (with seeds, if you so choose—see above) in a blender, food processor, spice grinder, or cleaned-out coffee grinder for about 15 to 30 seconds, until they’re evenly blended into tiny flakes.
Harth often opts to grind his own chile flakes for the sake of freshness. After grinding, he says, peppers quickly go stale, losing their aroma and oils. He compares ground chile flakes to ground coffee. While grinding peppers for every recipe isn’t always feasible, it is helpful to keep the concept of perishability in mind. Harth recommends storing dried chiles in an air-tight container and grinding small amounts at a time, as you might black pepper.
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