Chiles can do all kinds of amazing things for your food. Understanding all of the amazing variations of the flavors and heat of the world’s chilis and the science behind them, help you become a Master of the Heat.
CHILE, OR CHILI?
Chile (chee-lay) or chili (chill-eee) or chilli (chill-eee), any works fine. Nahuatl peoples, including the Aztecs, were eating them before the Spanish “borrowed” them, and called them chillies. The Spanish word, Chile, is adapted from there.
The SCIENCE OF DA SIZZLE
Chilies get their sensation of heat from a natural chemical called capsaicin (/kæpˈseɪ.ᵻsɪn/). It’s why you can’t shake that heat for a while when you eat one.
Capsaicin is really good at getting into the cellular tissues of skin because it is carried along by natural oils in the chili. Add those to any other fats in your food and oils blend.
So, when oils with capsaicin molecules land on your taste buds (papillae), or in the skin of your mouth or lips, which always love them fats, they go in like a rocket at a cellular level and hang out, causing that burning sensation that we find oddly pleasurable when we eat chilis.
Capsaicin is hydrophobic: Its molecules repel water. Which is why drinking doesn’t take away the burn. A pinch of salt will, though, because salt is our body’s natural fluid exchanger anyway, and it allows fluids in to flush out the capsaicin. That’s why a margarita glass is lined with salt! It helps with the burn.
ANATOMY OF A PEPPER
All peppers, from bell to bonnet, are relatives of the capsicum family of plants, whose seed pods with a waxy, cellulose flesh.
They have varying levels of capsaicin, from none in a bell pepper, to screaming amounts in a ghost chili pepper or a wiri wiri.
The heat isn’t in the meat of the flesh, or the seeds, for that matter. It’s in the connective tissues to the seed, the little white pith lines that run up the pepper to the stem.
Want to lower the heat, or remove the majority of it, from a fresh pepper? Strip the pith and remove the seeds. Peppers, like Jalapeños, have a really lovely flavor that emerges best when control the heat.
The waxy outer skin of a pepper slows its drying, which is possibly a reason why it became a useful foodstuff for people who didn’t have refrigerators. The skin, along with the right climates, especially in Mexico and the more arid parts of Africa, where humidity is low, let them just air dry into an easily stored food.
Most cultures dry peppers to extend their shelf-life, often making decorative hangings of them to both dry and attractively adorn a home. In Mexico and throughout the American Southwest you might see this ristras, hanging from people’s portals, the breezeways and porches of a home near their doors.
When a pepper dries, the moisture is slowly drawn out. The skins and the high level of acids in chilies tend to retard spoilage in low-humidity, although the high sugar content of some chilies may cause a few to rot or develop mold in thicker walls of the chile or where the skin is thinner.
Two things also happen to a pepper when it dries.
- The flavor, like jerky, intensifies.
- The heat transfers to the outer meat/shell. Capsaicin is hydrophobic. It doesn’t dilute in water. So when the water escapes, a bit of the heat that is stored in the pith is sucked into the oils in the “meat” of the chile, and into the oils in its seeds. How much varies by the type of chile. So the shell of a dried chile will be somewhat hotter than the fresh.
The pith still traps the majority of the capsaicin, so removing pith and seeds from a dried chile, or some of it, will bring down the temperature of the recipe in which you are putting the dried chile, but remember more of the heat stays in the dried than the fresh. If you need tamer, try fresh deseeded and pith completely removed.
THE JALAPA GLOBETROTTERS
Peppers are a very adaptive kind of plant.
In just four hundred years, they have evolved a lot. There are 27 known kinds. Five of them are considered to be “domesticated,” e.g. they can be reproduced without variation anywhere.
The other 22 are essentially wild, even if they’re farmed, because they are a bit unpredictable in how they’ll turn out.
That’s because chilies, unlike the other Central and South American crops like potatoes that the Spanish and Portuguese exported all over the world are changed by three big factors: Soil, climate and weather.
Put the same plant in Texas, Mexico, or China, and it will change flavor because the conditions are not the same.
The African bird’s eye chili and the Thai bird’s eye chili are the same plant, but the shape and the intensity of the African one is smaller and much spicier. How is that possible?!
You know the old saying: “You are what you eat?” That is especially true if you’re a pepper plant.
Peppers are super adaptive. Some plants won’t grow where the conditions aren’t right.
Peppers aren’t picky. The soil though, what is in it, changes them.
Which is why a Hatch chile featured in my Green Heroin article about New Mexico’s Hatch Valley green chilies, is only legit if it’s grown in that valley, in that soil. Which is why you can’t buy “generics” and have them taste the same if they aren’t grown in the same place.
Dirt is a such a “thing” in growing peppers that the fertile dirt in the Chimayo chile growing region of New Mexico is revered: The local Christians give it “holy” status.
Climate or microclimate where they’re grown is the second factor in flavor.
Peppers can grow pretty much anywhere, from deserts to the tropics. Each adapts to its own climate, and microclimate.
The same pepper plants, grown in the mountainous regions of Africa are different than the ones grown in fertile riverbeds in the bust-and-boom of rain cycles in certain countries.
The climate creates the conditions that affect the soil’s nutrients and how compacted it gets.
Rainforests and deserts can both produce chilies, just very different variations of the same plant.
Which is why, when many of you buy pepper plants at a nursery where the flavor you’re used to comes from the dry soils of regions Texas or New Mexico or Morocco or Egypt, and you plant them in Florida or New York or London, the pepper pods don’t taste quite the same as the ones you’ll get from the store. You’ve changed the climate when you transplanted the chile, unless you grow it indoors and in soil amended to be similar to the soils where the chile is grown.
Climate is not weather, though, which has effect on the heat of chilies.
Climate and weather may seem to be the same thing, but they’re not. Even within a climate, chilies are highly weather sensitive. A dry year will produce chilies that tend to be spicier, and a wet year will tame the chilies down.
Climate affects crop yields too. Spicy chiles are thirsty for water like the people who eat them. Very dry years cause the plants to produce smaller yields with fewer seeds.
BUYING CHILiES SMARTER
For 99% of people, going to a market and tossing whatever they find available to them into the shopping basket is how they select both fresh and dried chilies. Be the 1% who do it smarter.
Knowing where and when your chilies were harvested, and comparing it to the weather in that area during its growing season may sound a bit extreme before you buy, but, since dried or roasted/frozen chilies keep for a couple of years, buying them in a year that matches to your temperature comfort levels can make a big difference.
Fresh is best. I grow a few, buy from the farmers’ market or local market when available, or, for the hard-to-find ones that are regional, I get some by the Internet, straight from a farm or a co-op that I trust to put out a high-quality pepper. Those are bulk box orders where freezing or drying becomes necessary to preserve them.
Freezing changes the texture of chilies, but from soups to sauces to stews, it provides more texture and depth than dried for many recipes where the chilies don’t dominate. It is a pretty close second, and essential if you are trying to use them throughout the year. I roast chilies on the barbecue, or, in the case of jalapeños, occasionally smoke them to turn them into chipotle chilies.
Remove the stems and then freeze them whole. You can always chop them after being defrosted. It’s the same amount of work, but it keeps the integrity of the chile pod together which freezes without so many edges for the freezer to break down.
Dried, chilies can be purchased whole or ground. They are the base flavors and colors of Texas “chili,” a number of hispanic sauces, and pastes and marinades of African and Caribbean cultures. Coarse-crushed they are the “arrabbiata,” the spicy in Italian cuisine.
I prefer whole, and grinding it myself using a coffee mill that I keep just for spices. Here’s why:
- Grinding yourself releases the essential oils, laden with a bit of capsaicin trapped in the skin/dried meat. The flavor is more intense and you can control the level of heat for that particular dish.
- Ground only comes in one grind per vendor at most places, although, WorldSpice.com offers a grinding service for some of its product where they will vary the grind for you. Still, the more you grind a chile, the more you expose its essential oils to oxygen, even in an airtight, unless it’s vacuum sealed,container.
Buy whole for your dried chilies, if you can. They keep better, and allow you to control how to use them.
KNOW WHERE THEY GROW
Inquire where your chiles come from. You may like the more mild chile of Thailand rather than the spicy cousin from Uganda. Some are sun-dried. Others are oven or kiln-dried. I prefer the sun-dried ones. They have a richer flavor.
Increasingly dried chiles from the far-flung corners of the world are finding their way into Internet stores and more supermarkets in North America and Europe. If you don’t see them, venture to your local ethnic market, Caribbean, Latin, Asian, Indian, etc., where you’ll surely find them. If you’re not sure, ask! The grocers in small ethnic markets usually are quite helpful, and I’ve also found that people who cook shopping in these places love to tell you how to use this or that!
SpiceJungle.com is a great source, because I get great, well-sourced product, prompt response and they are very passionate about their products!
USING CHILIES IN YOUR COOKING
Peppers aren’t always about adding heat to your food, although they certainly can do that. They can also add color and a lot of subtle flavor palette to your foods.
A great, sharp paring knife is your friend in working with chilies. It’s size proportionate and easy to make more delicate slices than a bulkier blade.
Using fresh chiles well in your dishes is all about how you cut them. A sharp edge maximizes control, and a sharp tip on the blade is useful because you want to be able to separate the connective pith and seeds for both heat control and appearance.
Their shape and thickness determine how they are perceived. If you grind them into a paste, they disappear, save the heat, and their flavor contributions to the dish. If you leave bigger pieces, say in an omelette, they can be both seen and tasted. That can be very attractive, or it can set off warning bells for those who worry about heat. When having guests over, always good to find out how much they like heat before firing up your foods.
Wafer-thin slices make a lovely garnish on meats, topping rice dishes, in soups and more.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT CHILIES FOR THE JOB
There are 27 chile varieties, and, because of the changes in the way they grow, hundreds of variations. Usually how we pick them is by what’s available to us in the market where we do our shopping. The Internet has blown the barn doors off of our choices, though, so you have almost a limitless supply of choices within reach.
So, which chile to use?
The best way to learn your chiles is to cook with them in relatively simple recipes, and see what they can do. Many recipes, like a curry, or a dahl, are so full of other spices that heat is really the chile’s major role.
Most of the well known chilies are the ones that have a lot of heat-macho on the Scoville scale. Sauces in stores with names like “Ass Reaper” and “Kick U Momma” are novelties that people like to take home more for the bottles than the condiments inside.
Fresh & Frozen
Markets offer a wide variety of fresh peppers these days.
Fresh and Frozen, you should investigate peppers with great flavors. I wrote up another article on the amazing Hatch green chilies of New Mexico. Fresh or frozen, they offer such big flavor you can make a simple stew with just pork, potatoes, onions, a touch of garlic, Hatch chilies and salt.
Jalapeños are often thought about more for their heat, but, when they are deseeded and deveined, they bring a big rich flavor with a little bell-peppery sweetness and a whisper of heat to dishes that normally use a lot of fats for happy, especially in all kinds of Mexican dishes. I use a bit of them them in omelettes and as riffs in things like my Mac n’ Queso.
Scotch Bonnets are a stock pepper for jerks and other Caribbean foods known for their heat, but if you knock the seed level down to your desired level of heat (or none), you will find that they contribute a lot of nice flavor to all kinds of dishes outside of their cultural corner. They marinate well. I’ve used a half of one diced up in a nice ceviche, and even in the odd sushi roll that I make from time to time. They’re particularly good as a sub for jalapenos in Pho dishes and ramens too.
Diced or chopped chiles, fresh or frozen can be used in so many recipes that they’re too numerous to mention in one article. The obvious dishes are from chile-rich cultures in African, Latin America and Asian cuisines, from jerk chicken to burritos to dals to hot and sour glass noodles.
Chilies that are dried take on a bit more heat, but sometimes too they up their flavor.
Some smaller chilies like Tepins, look more like oversized peppercorn pods. Crushed in your hand and dropped into soups or marinades Tepins add a lot of savory flavor along with their heat. Use to your heat level.
I make a wonderful enchilada sauce with Guajillo Chiles where I strip out the seeds and pith and focus on the deep, rich flavor of the pepper pods themselves. Throw the dried chiles into a blender with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and a little beef broth and you have a base enchilada sauce that rocks the house!
You can find smoked jalapeños, or Chipotles, dried in stores. Strip the pod, decompress to your liking, and they add smoky goodness to roasted chickens that even have other flavor/culture bases.
When I make my Texas chili, I use Chimayo chili powder instead of the bland brown that they sell in the spice aisles of the local market. It has a depth and character, along with a couple of bottles of Shiner Bock beer, cannot be matched. If you can get the whole dried pods, that’s the best way to go. Chimayo red also amps up all kinds of roasted meats with a rich flavor similar to when people coffee rub a meat.
They make a good salt substitute, because their flavor and heat lessen the need for sodium.
For most peppers, save the bell, which is so big it’s easy to cut the top off of and de-seed, With fresh, I find that scoring the outside of the chile around the top, then running the knife downward from the score to the tip of the chile pod allows me to pop the seed pod, which is strongly connected to the stem, mostly in-tact. Two or three small scrapings and the connective tissues can be removed more easily.
For dried, make sure you have a bowl or trash can nearby. Use a long broad knife and cut through the top of the chile on a cutting board. Some seeds will pop out. I will sometimes scrape the seeds into a storage container if I think I can use them in another recipe later. You can also just dump them in the trash.
Roasting is one way to peel off the tough outer skin of a chile, and it lightly cooks the natural oils inside the pepper pod. Some types of chilies can be roasted in bulk, and stored either refrigerated for a couple of weeks or frozen (better) for use later.
If you have a grill, you can roast chilies. Just char the skins pretty thoroughly, turning occasionally with tongs to get off all of the skin. Make sure you use tongs and/or gloves when handling the roasted chilies.
If you have a gas stove, and you want to do one quickly, you can just put it on the rack over the burner and turn with tongs.
After roasting, some people shock them hot by dipping them in ice water after they cook, then peel the skin. Waiting for them to cool, though, leaves more flavor.
Needless to say, wash off all cutting equipment and boards well. Make sure you get handles and all side and bottom surfaces because capsaicin gets everywhere when you’re working with chilies.
Because the capsaicin in chilies can penetrate skin cells easily, it gets into tissues and causes a burning sensation.
Always good, if you’re handling chilies to work with food-grade gloves.
Washing your hands is a regular thing in good culinary practice in a home kitchen, but there is one trick that someone in New Mexico showed me once if you’re working with a lot of chilies: Wet your hands, then rub a little kosher salt between them, wait a moment or two, then soap up. The salt can help remove more of the capsaicin, but not 100% of it.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or other sensitive areas of your body for a couple of hours with fingers that have been handling anything spicy. Anyone who works with chilies regularly can attest to what happens when we forget that golden rule.