From super sweet bell peppers to scorching serranos, peppers are enjoyed in many global cuisines, but what are the differences between hot and sweet peppers on a biological and chemical level and how can you safeguard yourself from the scorching heat? Could you tell the difference between an innocently sweet pepper and a five-alarm chili, for instance? It’s probably best that you’re able to especially when traveling or eating unfamiliar food. There are many factors that go into the heat level of a specific pepper, including its genetic makeup and growing conditions, but knowing the basics can protect your tongue from an unpleasant surprise.
What makes a pepper ‘hot’?
Chili peppers have an active ingredient called capsaicin that acts as an irritant, causing a burning sensation when it comes in contact with the tongue. The highest concentration of capsaicin within chili peppers lies within the interior veins of the pepper, where the seeds attach to the walls. Removing the seeds and veins within the peppers before consuming does help with spiciness, but won’t get rid of the effect altogether. Be sure to avoid contact with eyes and skin when handling a chili pepper- the ‘spice’ levels can be damaging to sensitive areas.
The Scoville Scale
The Scoville scale is the measurement by which all peppers lie regarding ‘heat’ when it comes to concentrated spice. For example, mild bell pepper can measure as little as zero Scoville units, whereas a deadly Carolina Reaper pepper tops the scale at 3,200,000 units. A single pepper variety can hold multiple spots on the Scoville scale, as ripeness and growing conditions can affect a pepper’s spiciness. For example, a New Mexican Hatch chile can be extremely spicy or fairly mild depending on how much water the pepper had available during maturity.
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Dave DeWitt breaks down 400 varieties of peppers.
How to Tell How Hot (or Sweet) a Pepper is
Please know that this is a rough guide to testing the heat of a pepper and do it very cautiously as certain peppers can do actual medical damage. Disclaimer aside most of the capsaicin is concentrated around seeds and inner ribs of a pepper while the outer tip of the pepper will have the least heat and thus is a good place to take off a small taste. It should give you some indication of what sort of Scovilles you’re dealing with (or at the very least that it’s hot and not sweet).
Another thing to consider is that capsaicin is known to cause stress lines or striations in peppers so a jalapeno, for instance, with very few or no lines or wrinkles is likely to be milder than one with many.
How to Beat the Heat
If the heat just can’t be tamed, there are a few remedies that will help ease the pain of a scorching hot pepper that work better than plain water. Milk products help tremendously with the burn because they contain a specific protein called ‘casein’ that breaks down the unpleasant reaction. This is often why yogurt-based sauces are paired with spicy Indian dishes; a cooling raita will do just the trick in balancing a hot curry.
Here’s a breakdown of a few of the sweetest and hottest peppers:
Sweet: Bell Pepper, Banana Pepper, Pepperoncini, Anaheim (Hatch) Pepper, Poblano
This sweet and smoky sauce blends mild red bell peppers and toasted walnuts to add bold flavors without the spice factor. If you have fresh peppers instead of jarred, simply place peppers under a broiler and turn every 2 minutes until the pepper is completely charred, about 8 minutes. Place peppers in a heat resistant bowl and cover with plastic wrap, allowing to stand for 5 minutes. Peel skin and remove stem and seeds and proceed with our Romesco Sauce recipe.
Roasting bell peppers transforms these mild varieties into flavor bombs, packed with sweet richness and silky texture. Peperonata is a sauce that lends its flavor from roasted bell peppers and stewed onions, served with hot pasta or tossed with roasted vegetables for an Italian-inspired meal.
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Hot: Jalapeno Pepper, Serrano Pepper, Guajillo
This heat-packed salsa is more like a sauce with its creamy consistency and bright green color, ideal for breakfast tacos or drizzling over a quesadilla. Roasted jalapenos are emulsified with oil in a blender to create a lusciously smooth sauce, packed with plenty of heat. Get the recipe.
Hotter: Scotch Bonnet, Carolina Reaper, Pepper X
Can you handle it? The Carolina Reaper, one of the world’s spiciest peppers, is cooked down into this flaming hot sauce that is not for the faint of heart. Be warned, cooking peppers this spicy could result in pungent fumes that can cause uncomfortable air conditions. Get the recipe.
Related Video: How to Soothe the Burn of a Hot Pepper
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