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Cooking with Fresh Chilies (Hot Peppers)

Chilies (Hot Peppers)


In the past few years, hot chilies have burst on the culinary scene in a big way. They have created a whole new range of flavors and sensations in American cooking. Other countries, however, have long known the delicious qualities of these fiery morsels. Like many other American “discoveries”. Hot peppers have now developed almost a cult following. There are magazines and books devoted to them and cook-offs centering around the most volcanic production possible. There are also commercial condiments, sources of dried and fresh peppers, even sweet confections with the bite of the chili. Some chili lovers even sport jewelry and clothing giving homage to the fiery qualities of these vegetables.

But chilies are nothing new. It is believed they existed in South and Central America as long as 2500 B.C, where their qualities were extolled, almost worshiped, by the local inhabitants. Well before the arrival of Columbus to the shores of the New World, the Aztecs and Incas knew the benefits of hot chilies. The Spanish fell under the fiery spell of the chilies and brought them back to Europe (calling them peppers, mistakenly believing they were related to peppercorn plant). Once in Europe, it wasn’t long before the hot little numbers began their worldwide migration. Today, they are enjoyed nearly everywhere the climate leans toward the hot and sultry.

While all hot peppers are not the same, and each one adds its own special character and taste to various dishes, there are some general rules to follow.

Fresh chilies are generally hotter than canned ones, and I would only recommend the canned varieties if you cannot find fresh. Hot peppers are very individual. The heat can differ from one pepper of the same variety to another – even on the same bush – and though each variety has a certain range of heat, it should be used only as a rule of thumb. The fire may be all that the uninitiated can detect when they first encounter hot chilies, but each species has its own distinct flavor, some very pronounced, some overshadowed by the raw heat.

The heat in these peppers is caused by a compound called capsaicin, located in the stem and inner ribs. The seeds are hot because they are in close contact with the ribs. Capsaicin can be extremely irritating and must be treated with respect. If mishandled it can cause blisters on hands and skin – it is so concentrated in some varieties that it can even cause severe burns. Capsaicin is especially painful if it gets into your eyes. When preparing hot peppers it is important to use plastic or latex gloves while removing the ribs, membranes, and seeds and cutting up the cleaned chilies. Capsaicin is not water soluble – which is why no amount of water quench the fire that erupts in your mouth and throat after biting into one.

Remember that anything used to prepare the peppers may absorb some of the capsaicin and thus will transfer the heat to anything else that the utensil or surface touches. A mild solution of chlorine bleach will remove capsaicin from hands, knives and cutting surfaces, and anything fatty and/or sweet, such as milk, yogurt, sour cream, and ice cream will help calm the heat in your mouth. Sugar, salt, potatoes, bread, and tortillas might aid the distress as well – but not water or beer, which sometimes makes it worse.

Chilies vary widely as far as heat is concerned. In 1912, Wilbur Scoville, an early chilihead, devised a standard for measuring the amount of capsaicin in various species. While the number of Scoville units can vary from zero for bell peppers to more than two hundred thousand for the habanero – reputed to be the hottest of the chilies – most rankings are given as one to ten, with the habanero being about ten.
Some of the more readily available chilies, with their approximate heat ranking listed in parenthesis, are discussed below.

Ancho chilies (5) are dried poblanos. They are deep reddish brown in color. They should be heated in a hot skillet or on a grill for a few minutes before using to bring out the smoky flavor. They can be soaked to rehydrate them and then stuffed or added to sauces such as the classic mole, often served with poultry.

Cayenne (10) peppers are small bright red peppers with almost no taste of their own, but they do pack a wallop as far as heat is concerned. Most often cayenne peppers are dried and sometimes mixed with other dried peppers to be sold as crushed red pepper or ground red (cayenne) pepper. Ground red (cayenne) pepper is usually added to a dish when only heat is wanted.

Chipotle (10) chiles are smoked and dried jalapenos. The flavor is unusual and delicious. For the most part, these are used in salsas and egg dishes and are generally not seeded.

Habaneros (10+), also known in Jamaica as Scotch Bonnets, are generally thought to be the hottest chiles. They are beautiful lantern-shaped little peppers that range in color from green to orange to deep red. Approach with caution. While they have a lovely aroma and a definite pepper flavor, even a little can blow your head off, if you are not accustomed to their heart.

Jalapenos (8) are pretty little blunt chiles 2 to 21/2 inches long. They can range in color from a deep hunter green to bright red and are one of the most readily available hot chiles. Jalapeno are generally quite hot, though you will sometimes come across one that is barely warm, and they can be used in salsas, casseroles, egg dishes, and salads. They are often cut into stripes or rounds and fried or pickled.

New Mexican chiles (3 to 4) – formerly known as Anaheim chiles – are 5 to 8 inches long and are bright green or red. They can be used raw and are also good roasted and peeled. They are mild enough to be stuffed.
Pasilla chiles (5) are often mistaken for anchos. They are long dark green chiles when fresh but are usually sold dried. Their wonderful flavor is delicious in rustic sauces.

Piquin chiles (9) are tiny, fiery hot red chiles that are sold both fresh and dried. They are also called chiletecpin or, in North Africa, India and Mauritius, bird peppers.

Poblano (3 to 6) are long, almost black green chiles that range from almost mild to fairly hot. They can be stuffed, used in Chiles con Queso, incorporated into casseroles, or cut into strips and fried with onions.

Serrano (8) are small thin chiles, littler than jalapenos. The color can range from bright green to orange red. Generally, they become slightly milder as they redden. They have a lovely flavor and are probably the most popular chile in Mexican cooking, where they are used in everything from salsas to fiery main courses.

Various cultures have attributed many benefits to hot chiles. While they do contain massive amounts of vitamins C and A, and they do not harm to healthy digestive tracts, the capsaicin in them may tend to irritate existing ulcers, and thus they should be avoided or at least indulged in sparingly by ulcer sufferers.


One recent study indicates that using hot pepper sauce on raw oysters may help destroy harmful bacteria the oyster may have ingested. The jury is still our on how much pepper sauce you might have to add to accomplish the task, though.

More about Hot Peppers

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