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Five Ways to Cook and Serve Chili Peppers

Pepper stuffed with feta cheese

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Chilies or hot peppers can be eaten raw or they can be roasted, grilled, pan-seared, toasted, or stuffed.

Chilies can also be added to other cooked dishes; they contain natural chemicals that enhance the flavor of other foods during cooking.

Often small, hot chilies—such as the jalapeño, Serrano, poblano, Anaheim, and banana–are used fresh. But they can also be chopped and then simmered or stir-fried with other foods.

Roasted chili peppers
Roasted chili peppers

Large chili peppers can be roasted or grilled whole or halved or stuffed.  The longer a chili is cooked, the hotter the flavor.

Large hot peppers also can be dried and then used whole, ground, or crushed for blending with other foods. Dry-roasted chilies are the most intensely flavored. Several varieties of dried and ground chilies combined will add a complexity of flavors to prepared foods.

Jalapeno, Thai, Serrano, Habanero, and Scotch Bonnet peppers

How to choose hot chili peppers

  • There are more than 200 varieties of chilies. They range in size from just a quarter-inch (.6 mm) to more than 12 inches (30 cm) long. Chiles can be thin and long or plump and round. They can be green (like the jalapeño, Serrano, and poblano), yellow-brown, purple, or red (like the ancho, cascabel, cayenne, japone, hontak, and pasilla), or yellow (like the carribe and guero). Select hot peppers with deep vivid colors and smooth skins. A fresh pepper will be firm and shiny. Avoid peppers that are cracked, shriveled, or have soft spots.
  • With so many fresh and dried chilies to choose from, here are some of the favorites: Anaheim, cascabel, guindilla, haranero, Hungarian wax, jalapeno, Jamaican hot, Korean, New Mexico, pepperoncini, rocoto, scotch bonnet, Serrano, and Thai.
  • As a general rule, the larger the chile, the milder it is; small chilies are hot because proportionally they contain more seeds and veins than larger peppers. Chile seeds and veins contain about 80 percent of the chile’s capsaicin. Neither cooking nor freezing will diminish the intensity of a chile.
  • Hot peppers should be allowed to ripen on the vine to reach full pungency. The ripening process of chili is similar to the tomato. The heat of chiles increases with the maturity of the fruit. Hot peppers usually come to harvest beginning in midsummer.

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How to store hot chili peppers

  • Store chilies unwashed and wrapped in a paper towel or in a perforated plastic bag in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator for about 1 week. Peppers will sweat and deteriorate in whole plastic bags.
  • Blanched or roasted and peeled chilies will store in the freezer for up to 6 months.
  • Dried chilies (whether dried in a vegetable dehydrator, hung in garlands, or laid out loose in flats in the sun) whole or ground into powder will keep for up to 1 year. Store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place for up to 3 or 4 months.
  • Pickled whole, cooked, and canned, hot peppers will keep for up to 2 years.
Remove pepper seeds
Removing seeds from Bhut Jolokia pepper

How to prep hot chili peppers

  • Prepare chile peppers by rubbing them gently under cold running water; pull out the stems; break or cut the pods in half lengthwise and brush out seeds. If the ribs are soft cut them out. The seeds and ribs contain capsaicin, an irritant. Soaking chile peppers in salted water for an hour or so before using may mellow their flavor.
  • Most chilies have thick skins that should be removed before cooking. The skin of chili can be removed by charring, roasting, frying, or sweating. Be careful not to burn chilies when cooking; the fumes can irritate the eyes and nose.
  • Always use caution in handling hot peppers. Capsaicin in the skin and seeds of hot peppers will irritate the skin, mouth, and eyes. Wear latex or rubber gloves when handling hot peppers and always wash your hands well after handling peppers.
  • Be careful when removing the lid of a container containing hot peppers; escaping fumes can irritate eyes, skin, and respiratory passages.

Hot chili pepper serving suggestions

  • Fresh chili peppers can be baked, roasted, grilled, stuffed, or eaten raw. Dried and ground chile can be added to salsas and chutneys. Pickle chilies for use in salsas.
  • Chilies are used in chili con carne, curries, and hotpots. Chop and add chili to spaghetti.
  • Cayenne pepper is a dried and ground powder made from chilies. It is the ingredient in Tabasco sauce. Dried red chilies can be ground in a pepper mill or with a mortar and pestle.
  • Hot peppers are often charred and peeled before use.

Hot chili pepper cooking suggestions

  • Peppers boost the taste of other ingredients. Fresh chilies combine well with fresh tomato-based sauces, onions, avocadoes, beans and lentils, mild cheeses, sausages, meat stews and sautés, corn, poultry, fish, and shellfish. Dried chiles are added to curry powder, chili powder, cayenne, and pizza pepper.
  • When it comes to cooking, it is best to use caution when adding chili peppers to a dish. Cooking intensifies the hotness of chili. It’s best to start with a little chili and taste your way forward.
  • A good way to add chile flavor to a dish is to sauté the hot pepper in oil and then use the oil for cooking. (Peppers slow the oxidation of cooking oils, so hot pepper oil will not go bad as quickly as plain oil.)
  • When peppers are cooked in vegetable oils, the capsaicin breaks down into vanillin, a synthetic flavoring very close to the natural flavoring of vanilla beans. Vanillin—like natural vanilla–adds its own special flavor to other foods.
Roasted jalapeno peppers
Roasted jalapeno peppers

How to roast chili peppers

  1. Brush the peppers with a light coat of vegetable oil.
  2. Place the peppers on a broiler in the oven.
  3. Turn the peppers as they broil to brown them evenly, about 5 to 8 minutes.
  4. When they are charred, place the peppers inside either a plastic resealable or brown paper bag for 15 minutes before peeling off the outer charred layer.
  5. Cut up the peppers as desired based on how you plan to use them.
Grilling chili peppers
Fresh chili peppers roasting over a charcoal fire grill with garlic and shallots.

How to grill chili peppers

  1. Grill whole peppers or pepper pieces. To keep smaller pieces from falling through the grates, place them on a skewer before grilling.
  2. Brush the peppers with a light coating of olive oil and season.
  3. Place the peppers on the grill.
  4. Turn until they are evenly brown or charred, about 5 to 8 minutes.
  5. Place the peppers inside either a plastic resealable or brown paper bag for 15 minutes before peeling off the outer charred layer.
  6. Cut up the peppers as desired based on how you plan to use them.

How to Pan-Sear Chili Peppers

  1. In a large a heavy skillet, heat vegetable oil over medium-high.
  2. When the oil is hot, add the chiles; work in batches if necessary.
  3. Cook, turning occasionally, until browned and blistered on all sides, about 10 minutes.
  4. Season with salt and serve.

How to Toast Chili Peppers

  1. Heat an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat.
  2. Place whole or cut chili peppers on the griddle in a single layer.
  3. Cook for 1 to 3 minutes until the chilies become just fragrant; press down with a spatula and turn occasionally.
  4. After the chilies have cooled you can cut them open and remove the seeds and veins; wear rubber gloves.

You can also toast chilis in an oven at 350 degrees F.

Pepper stuffed
Pepper stuffed with feta cheese

How to stuff chili peppers

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Halve the peppers lengthwise and remove the seeds and membranes.
  3. Blanch the peppers in boiling water for 3 to 4 minutes.
  4. Pat the peppers dry.
  5. Stuff the peppers with rice, corn kernels, fish, sausage, or vegetables.
  6. Arrange in a baking dish, add 1 cup of stock, and bake for about 25 to 30 minutes.
  7. Serve hot.

Hot chili pepper flavor partners

  • Chilies have a flavor affinity for commonly used Latin American foods such as cilantro, lime, mole sauce, pinto beans, pumpkin seeds, tomatillo sauce, and tomatoes, and for commonly used Asian foods such as coconut milk, fermented black beans, fish, sauce, ginger, kaffir lime, peanuts, sesame oil, and soy sauce.
  • Chilies combine well with other herbs and spices such as cilantro, basil, ginger, oregano, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, fennel, and flat-leaf parsley.

Hot chili pepper heat ratings

  • Hot peppers range in pungency from the mildly spicy pepperoncini to the blazingly hot habanero. Human tolerance for the “hotness” of a chili pepper was once measured by simple taste tests; now it is measured by what is called the Scoville scale.
  • Scoville heat units indicate the degree of capsaicin present in a pepper. Capsaicin is a chemical compound that stimulates the thermoreceptor nerve endings in the skin and mucous membranes. The number of Scoville heat units (SU) indicates the amount of capsaicin present in a pepper.
  • To put pepper pungency in perspective, a sweet bell pepper has a 0 Scoville rating while a pimento or pepperoncini pepper has a rating of 100 to 500. A jalapeño pepper has a rating of 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units and a cayenne pepper has 30,000 to 50,000. The habanero pepper has a rating of 100,000 to 350,000 heat units. If you put just a tiny bit of one of these peppers in your mouth, you will get the idea.

Hot chili pepper handling caution

  • Capsaicin is an oily, alkaloid-like substance that clings to the outer skin, juice, and seeds of fresh and dried hot peppers. It is a skin and eye irritant. Use disposable rubber gloves when handling peppers to prevent burns to the skin. Do not rub your face with your hands after handling peppers or their plants. Use milk to wash a hot pepper’s sting from the skin.
  • Avoid touching your face—especially your lips or eyes—after handling fresh or dried hot peppers. The capsaicin in the pepper will burn you. Wash your hands, the knife, and the cutting surface with soap and hot water to eliminate capsaicin left over after the preparation of chiles. If your skin is sensitive, wear latex or rubber gloves.
  • To make sure you don’t regret eating a hot pepper later, avoid the seeds and the whitish inner ribs; that’s where the most capsaicin is. Soaking chilies in cold water with a little vinegar about an hour before eating may also help.
  • Too strong chili can cause intestinal burning: rice, beans, and bread are good antidotes. The fat content of yogurt and milk with soothe the tongue and mouth of a chili burn. Water will intensify the burning effect of hot peppers.
  • All of this said, enjoy hot peppers for the zest they add to cooking. The heat of an eaten chile can actually be cooling in hot climates. In Mexican cooking, raw hot peppers are often used in savory dishes and in the Hunan and Szechuan regions of China, chilies are used every day in stir-fries, dipping sauces, and soups.

Hot pepper nutrition

  • Hot peppers contain the daily quota of vitamins A and C.

Canning peppers

Beginner’s Guide to Canning Peppers

Red chiles near harvest
Red chiles near harvest

Get to know hot chili peppers

  • The hot, spicy flavor of chilies was once characteristic of Mexican, West Indian, and South American dishes. Hot peppers were one of the first plants cultivated in the Valley of Mexico in North America nearly 9,000 years ago. The name chili was the word used for pepper in the Nahuatl language of the region.
  • Christopher Columbus introduced chilies to Spain and Europe in the late fifteenth century, and shortly after the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan introduced them to Africa and Asia.
  • Today chilies grow as perennial plants in tropical regions around the world and grow as annuals in much of the cooler temperate world. Beyond Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean, chile peppers are now commonly used in the cookery of many African countries, the Szechuan region of China, India, Spain, and Thailand.
  • Chilies are often made into “hot sauces.” One hot pepper sauce in Thailand is called nam prik. Hot and sweet peppers are combined in Indonesia to make a relish called sambal. Chilies are used in guacamole and salsa in Mexico, and in Algeria and Morocco, harissa is a sauce made to accompany couscous.

The botanical name for most chilies is Capsicum annum. The botanical name of some chilies is C. chinense and C. frutescens.

Pepper articles at Harvest to Table:

How to Grow Sweet Bell Peppers

How to Plant and Grow Hot Chili Peppers

Pepper Seed Starting Tips

Six Tips to Grow Peppers for Flavor

7 Tips for Growing Peppers in Pots

How to Harvest and Store Peppers

Five Ways to Cook and Serve Sweet Peppers

Five Ways to Cook and Serve Chili Peppers

Beginner’s Guide to Canning Peppers

Pepper Growing Problems Troubleshooting

Mid-Season Pepper Problems Cures

Epsom Salt, Milk, and Organic Fertilizers for Tomatoes and Peppers

How to Prevent Blossom Drop — Tomatoes and Peppers

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Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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