Chilies or hot peppers can be eaten raw, baked, fried, grilled, or stuffed. They are used as a vegetable fresh and as a spice dried.
Chilies, like sweet peppers, are not only aromatic—like celery and onion—but contain natural chemicals that enhance the flavor of other foods during cooking.
Generally, small, hot chilies—such as the jalapeño, Serrano, poblano, Anaheim, and banana–are used fresh. They are often chopped and then simmered or stir-fried with other foods. The longer a chili is cooked, the hotter the flavor.
Large hot peppers more often are 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.
Peppers boost the tastes 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.
The skin of a chili has its own distinctive flavor and that flavor varies from one variety to the next. To begin to learn more about which chilies you like best, start with the skins. The seeds and ribs of a pepper should be removed to isolate the flavor of the chili skin.
Chilies, like sweet peppers, are widely available fresh during the summer and fall months.
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).
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 which stimulates the thermoreceptor nerve endings in the skin and mucus 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 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.
Cooking. When it comes to cooking, it is best to use caution when adding hot peppers to a dish. Cooking intensifies the hotness of a 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 to 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.
One note that bears repeating: 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 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.
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 everyday in stir-fries, dipping sauces, and soups.
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.
Choose. 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.
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 a 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.
Store. Store chilies unwashed 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.
Prepare. 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 a chili can be removed by charring, roasting, frying, or sweating. Be careful not to burn chilies when cooking; the fumes can irriate 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.
Serve. 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.
Flavor partners. Chilies have a flavor affinity for commonly used Latin American foods such cilantro, lime, mole sauce, pinto beans, pumpkin seeds, tomatillo sauce, and tomatoes, and for commonly used Asian foods such as coconut mile, 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.
Health Note. 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.
Too strong chili can cause intestinal burning: rice, beans, and bread are a good antidote. The fat content of yogurt and mile with soothe the tongue and mouth of a chili-burn. Water will intensify the burning effect of hot peppers.
Nutrition. Hot peppers contain the daily quota of vitamins A and C.
Chile pepper facts and trivia. 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 chilli 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 perennials 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.