Pepper, chile

Other Names: Chilli (Britain), aji (South America).

General Description: Chiles (Capsicum annuum, chinense, or frutescens) are a huge family of peppers that contain capsaicin. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of chile varieties used throughout the world to impart fiery flavor to foods. Wild chiles were gathered in Mexico as long ago as 7000 b.c. and were cultivated before 3500 b.c. The Spaniards and Portuguese brought chiles to India and Southeast Asia; they reached Europe by the mid-16th century.

Chiles get their heat from capsaicin, an alkaloid found mainly in the spongy white tissue to which the seeds cling. Individual chiles from the same plant can vary greatly in their hotness quotient, which in the U.S. is measured by the Scoville scale. Anaheims score 1,000, jalapeños 2,500 to 4,000, and habaneros 200,000 to 300,000. The general rule is, the smaller the chile, the hotter it will be. Each type of chile has subtle flavors in addition to its heat.

Capsaicin can also irritate or even burn human skin and inner tissues. People develop a tolerance for the hotness, so that those who are accustomed to eating chiles can eat much hotter food than novices. Chiles may also be mildly addictive; people who eat a lot of chiles miss them quite badly if deprived. All chiles change color as they mature from green to white, yellow, orange, red, purple, or brown (depending on variety).

Anaheim peppers are long, round-tipped green or red peppers, developed in California in about 1900 for use in a new cannery. They are considered mild.

Cherry hots are very meaty, bright red, and cherry-shaped. Often found pickled, they are medium hot.

Cubanelle, or Italian frying peppers, are large, blocky, and light green maturing to light red. The thin walls of this mild pepper make it excellent for frying.

Habaneros are famed for their intense heat and underlying sweet apple-tomato flavor. Distinctive in shape, habaneros are squat, orange, lantern-shaped pods 1 to 2 inches in diameter. They may have originated in Cuba as their name means “from Havana.” Close relatives of the habanero, Scotch bonnet peppers come from the Caribbean and are light green, yellow, or red. Take real care when handling and eating both of these types of chiles because their heat level makes them extremely potent, and cooks can burn their fingers without realizing it.

Hungarian wax peppers range from mild to medium hot. They are waxy yellow in color maturing to light red, with small, elongated, pointed tips.

Jalapeños have blunt, almost oval pods about 2 inches long and thick flesh walls often striated with thin brown lines. They are the most common hot chile in the U.S. Their heat is medium hot to hot, and they hail from Veracruz state in Mexico. Most fresh jalapeños are sold green, though occasionally red ripe ones may be found. When smoke-dried, red jalapeños are called “chipotles.”

New Mexico peppers are fairly mild. They are long and tapered in shape and may be brown, green, red, orange, or yellow. When fresh they are often stuffed; when dried they are used for chili powder.

Pasillas are mild dried Mexican chiles that are often used to make Mexican mole sauces. They are called chilaca chiles in Mexico when used fresh. However, in California the term “pasilla” is incorrectly attributed to poblanos. Since most poblanos are distributed from California, this mislabeling carries over into supermarkets nationwide, causing much confusion.

Poblanos, called “pasillas” in California, originated in the Puebla region, south of Mexico City. A large chile shaped like a long, pointed heart, the poblano is deep green in color and is moderately hot. It is often stuffed for chiles rellenos. When smoke-dried, it is called an ancho chile.

Rocotillo peppers originated in the Caribbean and are often found in Caribbean markets. They resemble tiny pattypan squash and can be green, red, or gold. They are usually used fresh in hot sauces and salsas, and they are mild enough to use raw.

Serranos have small bullet-shaped pods and are named for the mountain ridges in Mexico where they originated. Mainly eaten green, serranos are popular in Mexico and commonly used in salsa and guacamole. Serranos are normally about twice as hot as jalapeños.

Thai hot peppers, or Thai dragons, are small, thin, bright red chiles that are extremely hot.

Season: Different kinds of chiles are found at the market year-round, with the most variety in hot summer months and in areas with a large Hispanic population.

Purchase: Choose firm, plump chiles with shiny skin and a fresh smell. For the most flesh, get the heaviest ones.

Avoid: Undesirable chiles are wrinkled or soft. Avoid chiles with any mushiness toward the stem end or soft, brown, spoiled spots.

Storage: Refrigerate fresh chiles in a plastic bag for up to 1 week.


Note: Handle chiles with care. Protect your hands because the capsaicin can make the skin burn. Wear rubber gloves, or coat your hands with oil, which native cooks have done for centuries. Once your hands or gloves have been in contact with chiles, do not touch your lips, eyes, face, or delicate body parts. To prevent burning those sensitive areas later, scrub your hands and arms vigorously with plenty of hot soapy water. Don’t rinse chiles in water because this removes the oils, which hold much of the chile’s flavor.
Preparation will depend on the desired heat.

For a More Mild, Smoky Flavor:

  1. Hold the chile with tongs over high, direct heat, either from a gas burner or a backyard grill. Alternatively, place on a baking sheet under the broiler. They are done when brown-black and blistered.
  2. Remove from heat and place in a heat-resistant, heavy plastic bag. Let sit until the chiles are cool enough to handle.
  3. Peel by rubbing the skins off with your fingers, or scrape with a knife.
  4. Trim off the stems. The inner fibers and seeds may be kept or discarded.

For a Fresh, Hot Flavor:

  1. Slice the stem end off the raw chile.
  2. If a mild flavor is desired, slice the chile open and cut out the seeds and white ribs. If intense heat is desired, do not discard the seeds.
  3. Chop the pepper.

Serving Suggestions: Stuff poblanos with picadillo (a mixture of ground beef, raisins, almonds, and green olives) or Monterey Jack cheese to make chiles rellenos. Combine thinly sliced serrano or jalapeño peppers to chopped tomatoes and onions to make fresh pico de gallo. Add diced red and green chiles to a black bean salad. Make a Thai curry with shrimp or chicken, coconut milk, fish sauce, and thinly sliced hot chiles.

Flavor Affinities: Latin American foods: cilantro, lime, mole sauce, pinto beans, pumpkin seeds, tomatillo sauce, tomatoes. Asian foods: coconut milk, fermented black beans, fish sauce, ginger, kaffir lime, peanuts, sesame oil, soy sauce.

from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com