Chile Peppers 101

Chile Pepper History

It’s no surprise to chileheads that chile peppers have been cultivated since 3300 B.C and harvested from the wild as early as 7500 B.C.  Chiles originated in the Americas but were introduced to the rest of the world through trade routes and are found in every country on earth - the original global fusion ingredient.  

Spelling Lesson

Chile with an “e” refers to a chile pepper, a plant from the genus Capsicum.  All domesticated and cultivated chile peppers are contained in five species of Capsicum and range from the mildest sweet bell peppers to the hottest recorded cultivar, the Bhut Jolokia.  Chile powder is made from individual varieties of dried, ground chiles.  In British-English a hot chile pepper is called a chilli and a mild bell pepper is called a capsicum.  

Chili with an “i” refers to the stew-like dish we often call chili con carne.  The seasoning blend commonly used to flavour chili is called chili powder and usually contains one or more chile powders, cumin, garlic, and oregano.

Hot Stuff!

The heat component of a chile pepper is capsaicin (“cap-say-sin”) which is contained in the white placental membrane that lines the interior and ribs of the pepper.  This is particularly concentrated underneath the base of the stem.  The seeds do not contain heat as is commonly believed, but can pick up heat from contact with the placental membrane.  The seeds are also fibrous and can sometimes lend a bitter note to a dish, so seeding a chile pepper is often a good idea.  

Cooking, drying and roasting peppers will not reduce their heat level, but can concentrate the spiciness as well as sweeten the meat of the pepper.  For example, a jalapeño will have the same heat intensity whether added to a dish fresh, like a salsa fresco, or cooked into the dish as with chili.  When smoked and dried, the jalapeño becomes a chipotle which still has the same heat intensity, but because the volume is reduced, is more concentrated. 

The Burning Question

Capsaicin is not water soluble so trying to douse the flames with water won’t work.  Water simply washes the heat all around your taste buds.  High alcohol beverages will rinse it away but contrary to wishful thinking, beer has too much water content to quench the heat.  Capsaicin binds well to dairy fat molecules so the best relief is milk, yogurt or sour cream… and not the low fat varieties!  If your mouth is on fire, it’s no time to count calories.  Your increased metabolism (not to mention rocking back and forth in a full sweat) will help burn away the extra calories anyway.

Practice Tolerance

It’s possible to build up a heat tolerance by repeated consumption of spicy foods.  Although they can temporarily desensitize your taste buds, many folks anecdotally report a increased sense of taste and temperature after the initial burn.  Around 25% of the population are “supertasters” who have a higher number of taste buds, making them more sensitive to spicy foods.  For these folks it’s a burning reality.  Be kind and understanding - it’s not their fault.

SHU

Scoville Heat Units are the standard by which chile peppers and their extracts are measured.  American chemist, Wilbur Scoville, developed the Scoville scale in 1912 while working at a pharmaceutical company to measure the heat level of various chile peppers.  Originally, the scale measured how much a spicy substance had to be diluted with sugar water before a person could no longer detect the heat.  It’s now measured through HPLC - high performance liquid chromotography.  The claims of the SHU level of a particular chile are highly disputable because the HPLC results can vary widely depending on the lab handling the testing.  There is also tremendous variation in the heat level of a single variety of pepper depending on in which region and under what conditions it was grown.  Capsaicin is chemically extracted from some varieties of intensely hot peppers, like African Birdseye, and concentrated for use in everything from crazy hot sauces to arthritis ointments.

  • Bell Peppers - 0 SHU
  • Jalapeño - 2,500 - 5,000 SHU (the milder ones are grown for North American palates)
  • Habanero - 350,000 SHU
  • Jolokia - 855,000 - over 1 million SHU (aka Bhut Jolokia, Naga Jolokia, Ghost Pepper, King Cobra)
  • Police Grade Pepper Spray - 5.3 million SHU
  • Pure Capsaicin - 16 million SHU

Good Stuff!

  • Chile peppers contain significant levels of vitamins A, B, C, and E
  • Peppers speed up the metabolism, helping to burn fat
  • They are low in calories and capsaicin acts as an appetite suppressant
  • Chiles lower cholesterol and blood pressure and enhance circulation
  • Capsaicin has anti-bacterial qualities and has been used medicinally for centuries
  • Capsaicin aids in digestion by increasing stomach acid production and the anti-bacterial properties may help guard against ulcers
  • Capsaicin numbs certain active neurons and is used in modern topical pain relievers
  • Eating hot chiles causes your body to release endorphins which creates a sense of euphoria

Handle with Care

  • Take care when handling and preparing chile peppers.  Most of us have heard a story or two, or perhaps made the mistake of rubbing our nose or eyes after cutting up a chile.  You won’t repeat that mistake too many times!  Remember, less is more.  You can always add more chiles to a dish but it’s pretty hard to take that heat away once it’s there.
  • Use a clean cutting surface and sharp paring knife to slice open a pepper.  Seed the chile to remove the seeds and slice away the white membrane and ribs to reduce the heat intensity of the pepper, if desired.  
  • If you are working with a very hot chile or have sensitive skin, wear plastic gloves to keep from making contact with the chile.  
  • DO NOT rub any part of your skin, nose, lips or eyes during or after working with a chile pepper.  Capsaicin has a remarkable ability to remain on a surface long after coming in contact with it.  
  • ALWAYS wash cutting surfaces and utensils thoroughly with soap and water.  If you do not thoroughly clean the surfaces, anything you prepare afterwards will pick up residual capsaicin and transfer it.  Otherwise, that fruit salad you make after the batch of salsa might have an unintended kick.
  • If you have difficulty removing the spicy residue from work surfaces or your skin, try using a dish soap formulated for degreasing like Sunlight Dish Soap.  Capsaicin also dissolves in alcohol, as a last resort.
  • Be aware that capsaicin is a volatile organic compound and can vaporize in liquid, particularly over heat, so you can easily be overwhelmed by a cloud of intense vapor causing coughing, watering eyes and a runny nose.  The same is true when working with dried or ground chiles.  It’s quite remarkable… and not very pleasant.

Fresco-Seco : Fresh and Dried Chile Peppers 

Most grocery stores carry several kinds of fresh chile peppers from around the world and in the summer months, farmers’ markets often carry an even larger variety of locally grown peppers.  Pull out a recipe for a Latin, Asian, or Southwestern dish and it will likely call for some kind of fresh or dried chiles.  This is all great news until you try to sort out the confusing array of names for all these spicy specialties.

Here’s a quick guide to to help you with some of the most commonly called-for chiles:

Fresco (Fresh)

  • Poblano A poblano is a large, long mild pepper that is most often purchased green.  It’s used in soups or stuffed for chiles rellenos in place of Anaheim chiles.
  • Jalapeño Jalapeños are commonly found green but also sometimes available red ripened.  They are the backbone of salsa and chili and often minced into meat or seafood dishes to pique the flavor.  They can be stuffed with cheese and grilled or breaded and fried for a classic snack.  Canned jalapeños are often pickled and sliced for nachos.
  • Hungarian Yellow Wax These fresh peppers arealso known as a banana peppers.  They can be sweet or hot so check the signage.  They’re best used in salads and salsas when the skin is yellow and the flesh is crisp.
  • De Arbol This thin skinned chile is often used to infuse pickles, vinegar, or spirits.  It can minced into spicy dishes as well.
  • Serrano These peppers look a little like a smaller version of a jalapeño.  They are sold green or red, fresh or canned.  Use anywhere you want a bit more kick than a jalapeño.
  • Cayenne While not as common fresh, cayenne is often used in Asian and Indian dishes.  It’s the basis for many Louisiana style hot sauces as well.
  • Bird’s Eye or Thai Chile These small, slightly rounded chiles are found at Asian markets and pack a lot of punch.  Sometimes slightly larger and longer shaped chiles labelled as “Thai Chiles” are actually Thai Dragon chiles with a similar heat level.
  • Habañero Habanero chiles lend that blistering kick to salsas, chiles, and hot sauces.  Red Savina is the hottest form of habañero and packs quite a punch.  The slightly milder and sweeter cousin, the Scotch bonnet, is a mainstay in Caribbean cooking.

Seco (Dried)

  • Ancho An ancho is the dried form of the smallest & lightest poblanos.  They’re available whole or ground and lend a mild but rich flavor to rubs, soups, stews and the classic Mexican sauce, molé.
  • Mulato A mulato is a larger, darker dried poblano.  Available whole or ground, it is one of the trinity of chiles found in Mexican molé along with ancho and pasilla. 
  • Chipotle (“chee-POHT-lay”) A chipotle is a smoked, dried red jalapeño.  Its familiar smokiness heats up barbecue and hot sauces, rubs, chili, beans, and many Southewestern & Latin dishes.
  • Jalapeño Red or green jalapeños that have been dried, but not smoked, can be found whole or ground.
  • Pasilla Pasilla or chile negro is the dried form of a chilaca pepper and is almost always found dried or ground.  It’s classically used in Mexican molé along with ancho and mulato chiles.
  • Guajillo This is a dried mirasol pepper.  It has a tough skin that requires soaking before use.  They are often used in similar recipes to ones calling for ancho.
  • De Arbol De arbol chiles have a thin skin for ease of drying and are used to infuse oil, vinegar or spirits.
  • Cayenne Dried, ground cayenne powder has been a staple on household pantry shelves for generations and a pinch piques the flavor of many a dish from mild to spicy.
  • Habañero Dried habañeros are purchased whole or ground and are sometimes blended with other ground chiles for a balanced flavor.  They add a substantial kick to dishes.

Online Resources

The Fiery Foods and Barbecue SuperSite : www.fiery-foods.com                                                                                                                                     The Chile Pepper Institute, New Mexico State University : aces.nmsu.edu/chilepepperinstitute                                                                             Cook’s Thesaurus, dried chiles : www.foodsubs.com/Chiledry.html


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