Chili Peppers — Heat or Flavor?

Have you noticed how everything today seems to be flavored with hot peppers? Each producer wants to outdo the other with how hot they can make their product. I must admit that I have a fondness for flavored potato chips. (Don’t tell anyone!) It used to be that you could get all sorts of interesting flavors. Today (sadly to me) it is all about being flavored with chilis and other ingredients that add hotness. This has certainly brought certain chili peppers into the everyday language of consumers and is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

The first thing to address is the word itself. Is it Chile, Chili or Chilli? It is often a matter of location. In American English, the preferred spelling is “chili” and it refers not only to the peppers but also to the delightful stew-like dish we all make. “Chilli” is the preferred spelling in British English whereas “chile” is the predominant spelling in Spanish-speaking countries.

Another interesting distinction is when you are referring to the ground powder. “Chili powder” generally means it is a mix of dried, ground chile peppers along with other spices. “Chile powder” should be solely dried chili peppers.

I do not know about you but I’m sure I vary how I spell the word without thinking about which is proper. In fact, I may alternate spellings within this Cooking Tip. If it is important to you, though, you now have the somewhat authoritative word on this subject.

I am much more interested in the different types of chili peppers, their heat level and their culinary uses.

The active ingredient in chili peppers is capsaicin. That amount that a plant contains depends on the genetic makeup of that plant but also on growing conditions and its ripeness. Higher temperatures and drought increase production of capsaicin. The amount of capsaicin increases until it begins to ripen when it starts to decline. It is maximum about the time that green fruit begins to change color.

Since those are items that you cannot control, what can you do to modulate the heat level in the dish you are making? Here are four factors that you can control.

  1. The variety of chili you use – if you want less heat, you can choose a chili that is known to have less capsaicin.
  2. The amount of chili you use – this is obvious but the more chili you use, the more capsaicin you will have in your dish.
  3. The presence or absence of the parts of the chili that contain the capsaicin – if you carefully remove the seeds and the membranes, you can decrease the amount of capsaicin you are left with.
  4. The length of time that the chili is in contact with the other ingredients – the longer the time, the hotter the dish.

Is there anything you can do to reduce the burn once you have ingested the capsaicin? Everyone has their own remedies but these are recommended although they are temporary measures.

  1. Ingest some dairy (not plant based). Dairy contains a protein that helps to break the bonds between the receptors in our mouths and the capsaicin and washes it away, like a detergent.
  2. Put something rough/solid into your mouth, such as a cracker or rice. The roughness distracts the nerves with a different type of signal.
  3. Take a spoonful of sugar. The sugar molecules bond well with the capsaicin.
  4. Wait it out. The pain caused by the capsaicin generally dissipates within 15 minutes.

Choosing which chilis are hotter depends on knowing a bit about the Scoville scale, which is a rating of pungency/heat level. The higher the pepper is on the scale, the hotter the pepper. The scale goes from zero for bell peppers to 15 million for pure capsaicin. A chili known as the Carolina Reaper was certified as the world’s hottest chili pepper by the Guinness World Records in 2017 at 2.2 million units. However, other peppers known as Dragon’s Breath (2.48 million units) and Pepper X (3.18 million units) claim they are hotter although their claims have not been certified. There are many charts you can find that list the ratings for different peppers but I like this compact one for easy use.

Which are the best peppers to have for your cooking? The following is far from a complete list of peppers but they are the ones that you are most likely to see in the supermarket. They are listed in order of heat level from lowest to highest.

Bell Peppers

These are zero on the Scoville chart, making them a great choice if you just want flavor without heat. These are part of the Cajun trinity (similar to mirepoix in French cooking) and are the base for Creole cooking. They add flavor, crunch and color (green, yellow, red, purple) when served raw on a salad or as part of a veggie tray. They are a great shape/size for making stuffed peppers. Roasting them adds some smokiness. One of my favorite pizza sauces is just puréed roasted red bell peppers.

Anaheim Pepper

This long pepper is also known as a California green chile or a New Mexican chile. The peppers originated in New Mexico, where they are still grown in different versions. They arrived in the city of Anaheim in southern California in 1894 and began to be grown commercially and thereby gaining its name. If grown in the Hatch region of New Mexico, it is known as a Hatch Chili Pepper. This pepper starts out green and turns red when mature. The Scoville rating is from 500-2500. They are very popular in salsas and southwestern dishes.

Poblano Peppers

This pepper is low on the Scoville scale (1000-2000 units) and is used greatly in southwestern cuisines. In dried form, they are called Ancho Chilis. They are fairly large in size and dark green in color until they fully ripen when they turn red. At that point, their hotness level increases. Green poblanos are very flavorful without burning. Think of chili relleno.

One caution about looking for poblano peppers in the store. Many stores mislabel them as Pasilla. In reality, pasilla peppers are the dried form of the Chilaca chile. I am really not sure as they look nothing alike although some say it is because the pasilla pepper looks similar to the dried poblano, the ancho chili.

Jalapeño Peppers

Other than bell peppers, this must be the most known and commonly used chili pepper in the US. It carries a Scoville rating of 3,500 to 8,000 units. We normally see it in its green form but it will turn red when it takes on a slightly fruity flavor. When dried, a jalapeño is called a chipotle. Jalapeños are used in many dishes but are most commonly used in salsas and sauces.

Fresno Pepper

Similar in appearance to a jalapeno, it is higher on the Scoville scale at 2500-10,000 units. In addition to the increased heat level, it also has more fruitiness than the jalapeno. Also like the jalapeno, they are great in salsas and hot sauces.

Serrano Pepper

Serranos are only a couple of inches long, with a tapered end. They are usually found in our stores in a green state but when ripe, they are red or yellowish-orange. It is a very spicy pepper rating between 6,000 and 23,000 on the Scoville scale. It is also said that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. These are used where you want a bit more heat, especially in Mexican and Thai cooking.

Cayenne Pepper

This little chili is slender and tapered. In our stores, you are more likely to find it in its dried, ground form—known as ground red pepper or just cayenne pepper. It is often also found in spice mixtures such as some chili powders. It is spicy with a rating of between 30,000 and 50,000 units. Use sparingly in any dish you want a bit of heat.

Thai Pepper

Thai peppers are spicy chili peppers with a wide range of heat – from 50,000 – 100,000. Although in our stores we will probably just see something called “Thai chili peppers”, there are many different varieties. What they all have in common is that they are small in size but high in heat.

Habañero Pepper

Having become popular in recent years, this pepper is now easier to find in the stores. It should be used with care, though, as it rates between 150,000 to 350,000. It is small and bulbous and has a fruity flavor underneath the heat. They are often used to make hot sauces.

As I mentioned, there are so many different chili peppers that it impossible to mention all of them in this Cooking Tip. Being able to recognize the above, where they fit on the heat level and how to use them will help you to harness the power and flavor of Chili Peppers!