Versatile and beautiful with its incendiary red color, the de arbol (from the tree) chile is both a workhorse and a jewel within the vast realm of Mexican food. Measuring 15,000 to 30,000 Scoville units, this chile is capable of heating up everything from salsa for your favorite tacos to more complex and elaborate moles and adobos.
Known for its nutty overtones when dried and toasted, the de arbol chile is small and thin and has an appearance similar to that of the cayenne pepper. Considered a staple along with its fleshier counterparts, the guajillo and ancho chiles, the de arbol chile is an essential building block when constructing any dried chile salsa. While certainly appreciated for its unique flavor, it would be fair to characterize the role of the de arbol chile as that of increasing heat as opposed to adding bulk to a sauce or dish.
Although chile de arbol is also sold in fresh and powdered forms, it is most commonly found in the Chicago area dried whole in pre-packaged cellophone packets in both small and large quantities. When shopping for de arbol chiles, one should use care to pick chiles that are pliable and somewhat leathery with a pleasing aroma and avoid ones that are brittle or crumbling as this is a sign that they are older and may have lost some of their robust flavor.
When cooking with de arbol chiles it is best to follow the recipe closely, including any instructions concerning whether or not to devein them as this will effect the amount of heat in the finished dish. Chiles cooked with veins intact will be hotter than those with the veins removed.
As always, it is wise to use caution when handling chiles of any kind, and working with de arbol chiles is no exception. Using gloves is recommended for Mexican foodies of all skill levels and will aid in the prevention of any possible chemical burns that could be caused by coming in direct contact with the oils of the chiles.