Urfa Biber: The Complex Spice You Should Have In Your Pantry

Chilies are a cornerstone in so many cuisines — what's a salsa without peppers or curry without a kick? The ingredient exhibits flavors, shapes, and colors so varied it's hard to imagine it all traces to a singular plant. Yet the Capsicum spp, first native to Central and South America, is where it all started. Through global trade networks, this valued plant proliferated and adapted to local culinary traditions (via The New York Times). 

For easy access to an international rendition of chili, reach for the berry in dried form. Not only does this processing technique intensify flavor, but it also simplifies uses and storage. Especially in the U.S., Mexican varieties like arbol, guajillo, and ancho are the most popular dried peppers (per Olé Rico). But now, there's a new Turkish ingredient taking off stateside — Urfa biber. With a roasted, sweet, and complex kick, the flavor is delectable and easy to incorporate, per Herbie's. It'll quickly become a pantry staple — let's dive into what it's all about.

What is Urfa biber?

This complex dried pepper hails from Turkey's Southeast Urfa province — hence its name. Also called Isot in Kurdish, the spice is a cousin of the popular Aleppo, grown just across the border. Resembling a bell pepper when raw, the condiment undergoes a drying process that seals in oils. Such treatment significantly darkens the pepper's skin, making it nearly black. Its flavor is chocolatey and raisin-like, with a strong smokey backbone, notes The Spice House. However, don't be misguided by its savory flavors. Urfa biber is relatively spicy, clocking in at 50,000 to 80,000 Scoville units, just a bit more than cayenne pepper, explains MasterClass.

In contrast to its pungent taste, Urfa biber is esteemed for its smooth texture. Processed with olive oil and salt, the pepper is sold in a consistency that easily integrates into food, per World Spice. Such a quality makes the spice incredibly versatile. It's often served as a condiment but can be the main flavor of a dish, as noted by Spice Jungle.

How Urfa biber is made

Urfa biber starts from a nearly eight-inch long pepper that resembles a poblano or bell. While most famously dried and processed, the peppers can also be roasted or stuffed whole, per Refining Fire Chiles. 

To make the dried spice, the capsicums are picked when they're an orange-red hue. They're then dried under direct sunlight, darkening their color. Unlike Mexican-style dried peppers, the Urfa bibers are placed under a tarp or bagged overnight. This method intentionally traps moisture, conserving the natural oils. Next, the manufacturer roughly grinds the chilies with salt. Such processing eases use since there are no stems or seeds in the final product. 

The Urfa region of Turkey has a long tradition of producing such peppers — and is gaining more limelight due to the war in Syria. Since the production of its close relative, the Aleppo, has halted, the Urfa biber has been offered as a substitute, explains Food & Wine.

How to cook with Urfa biber

Incredibly adaptable, Urfa biber can be used as readily as black pepper. In Turkish and Kurdish cuisines, it's sprinkled on top of beef, lamb, and chicken kebabs. The pepper also functions as a fundamental layer in slow-cooked dishes, whether as a touch of complex heat in roasted vegetables or a satisfying seasoning in rice or chickpeas. It's even used in desserts, adding a fiery kick to a chocolate cake or ice cream, notes Allrecipes.

The pepper's sweet, dark, and spicy flavor combines especially well with dairy. It makes the perfect component in a yogurt spread and works wonders in a feta salad. According to Serious Eats, it's one of the best peppers for a cheese plate since its high oil content makes it palatable when consumed raw. Juxtaposed with a sweet jam or fresh fruit, Urfa biber can add an entirely new dimension to familiar flavors. Take note that the spice builds in intensity — so even if a taste isn't immediately hot, that doesn't mean it won't pack a punch later.

How to buy and store Urfa biber

Urfa biber can be purchased in Middle Eastern grocery stores, spice specialty shops, and online, notes Pepper Scale. Look in a gourmet-minded grocery, too — the spice is gaining popularity outside of Turkish cuisine. However, the dependably widest selection is on the internet. Verify the pepper mix only contains a handful of simple ingredients before purchasing.

Once obtained, house in a non-transparent container in a dark, cool setting. Make sure to keep it sealed — frequent exposure to oxygen shortens the shelf life. With proper handling, Urfa biber will keep for up to eight months, per Serious Eats. However, don't be surprised if the supply lasts even less time. Easy to integrate yet endlessly complex, the spice is a dependable hit.