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
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
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.