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Ingredient Spotlight: Chili Peppers

Jalapeño, dried cayenne, and candied habanero peppers. I

grew both the cayenne and habaneros.

When I was 19 and still pretty dumb, I had a jalapeño eating contest with one of my co-workers. We ate pepper for pepper so it seemed a pointless exercise until some genius (me) suggested we drink the juice for the win. I drank the juice. I have very few regrets in life but chugging that jalapeño juice is one of them. While the peppers themselves were a bit hot on my tongue when I ate them, they were actually quite tasty. The juice, on the other hand, affected my system immediately and for three days after. Every breath I took was a fresh assault. My esophagus and stomach exchanged cramps like a game of tennis. And I simply avoided breaking a sweat for fear of gassing anyone in my vicinity.

I wish I was exaggerating!

Like most hard lessons in life, I walked away with some valuable insight. Number one is obvious: don’t drink a cup of vinegary juice that has had hot peppers sitting in it for a decade. But number two is just as important: when it comes to chili peppers, keep the ego in check. More often than not, go for a well-rounded flavor rather than an intense heat that blazes through you (the same can be said for dating).

Now, I’m not saying that occasionally superheating your tongue, sinus cavities, and body is a bad thing. A lot of feel-good endorphins are released when we eat spicy foods. The sweat that is produced can also cool us down. But there comes a point when all that remains is heat. For me, I want my heat to walk hand-in-hand with big flavors. And many chili peppers bring the flavor.

Cayenne peppers, for instance, are extremely versatile. They complement fresh ginger and garlic, but also work well with slightly bitter sweets like molasses, dark brown sugar, cola, or dark chocolate. And they’re great with tropical and citrus fruits like mangoes, grilled pineapples, limes, and oranges. I also like adding cayenne peppers to broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, potatoes, and carrots.

Or take habanero peppers. While they are quite hot and a little goes a long way, habaneros also have a very fruity component to them. They taste great with strawberries or kiwi. I like to slice them and soak them in a simple sugar syrup and then dehydrate them in a low oven until they’re like raisins. I store them in the freezer and add a few pieces to mashed sweet potatoes for a delicious kick. They’re also wonderful with peanut butter.

Then there are poblano peppers (called ancho if they’re dried). If you’ve ever had Chiles Rellenos (“stuffed peppers”), then you’ve probably had poblano peppers. They’re slightly bitter and smoky in a pleasant way and vary in heat. Sometimes you’ll get a little zing on the tip of your tongue, and other times, that zing turns into a punch. But overall, they’re delicious and they really complement beans and rice; rich foods like cheese, cream, and eggs; or acidic or fermented foods like fresh tomato salad with balsamic or red wine vinegar, cabbage slaw, or pickled radishes, cucumbers, or mushrooms.

If you’re interested in exploring the flavor components of chili peppers but want to avoid the intense heat, remove the seeds and ribs from the peppers you use and choose peppers that are low on the Scoville scale. Using trained tasters, the Scoville scale measures the pungency (or burning sensation) in peppers, in what are called Scoville Heat Units (SHU).

Because each taster is different—and each pepper within the same variety is often different—the Scoville scale rates peppers within a range. In our above examples, the poblano pepper is 1000 – 1500 SHUs; the jalapeño is 2500 – 8000 SHUs; the cayenne averages 30,000 – 50,000; and the range for the habanero is 100,000 350,000 units.

Of course, you can always try the world’s hottest pepper (for now): the Carolina Reaper. The Reaper, a cross between a ghost pepper and a red habanero, registers a measly 1.4 to 2.2 million SHUs. I already know that eating the Carolina Reaper would be an instant regret!

Give chili peppers a try and stay tuned for flavorful recipes with a kick of heat!

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