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Chili peppers

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Aside from their eye-opening flavor, perhaps the most surprising feature of chili peppers is their vitamin C content--91 milligrams in 1/4 cup of fresh chilies. Most people don't eat chili peppers in large quantities, but the amount of vitamin C is still significant. And red chilies (although not green ones) are full of beta-carotene. The nutritional aspect of hot peppers most interesting to researchers today, however, is capsaicin--the compound that gives chilies their "burn." Capsaicin seems to have a positive effect on blood cholesterol, and also works as an anticoagulant. And the "high" that some people experience when eating fiery chili-spiked foods is a perfectly safe one: Some scientists theorize that in response to the discomfort produced by the chilies' "burn," the brain releases endorphins--substances that, at high levels, can create a sensation of pleasure.

Members of the genus Capsicum, chili peppers are native to the western hemisphere. Hot peppers are liberally used to add spicy heat to dishes, particularly in tropical and subtropical cuisines, especially Mexican, Caribbean, Indian, Thai, Szechwan, Vietnamese, and North African. While North American palates still prefer sweet bell peppers, chilis are becoming more popular every year.

Varieties

Chili peppers are cultivated in a range of sizes, shapes, and degrees of hotness. While nearly all of them belong to one species--Capsicum annuum--the number of varieties is daunting, and the names are confusing as they vary from region to region.

While the following list can help you distinguish the most common chili pepper varieties, it can be tricky, if not impossible, to determine just how hot a pepper is. Capsaicin content is measured in parts per million. This measurement is converted in Scoville heat units, the industry standard for gauging a pepper's punch. One part per million is equivalent to 15 Scoville units. To put things in context, sweet bell peppers have 0 Scoville units, while habaneros--the hottest chili peppers--register a blistering 200,000 to 300,000 units.

Even within an individual variety, the more mature the pepper, the hotter it will be--for example, a red Anaheim will pack more punch than a green one. Soil, climate, and other conditions also affect the amount of capsaicin in a pepper, so that peppers of the same variety--even those on the same plant--can differ in hotness.

As indicated below, most of the leading varieties are marketed in dried or canned form as well as fresh.

Anaheim: Among the most commonly used chilies in the United States, with a bite ranging from mild to moderately hot, these long, slender, lobed peppers come in varieties also known as New Mexican, long green, long red, or California. Anaheims are eaten in both the green and red stages of development. When mature and red, they are often made into a ristra--a strand of peppers that are strung together on a cord--and left to dry. Green Anaheims are the peppers of choice for the classic Mexican dish called chiles rellenos, or stuffed chiles. Scoville units: 100-10,000. (That's quite a wide range, but as a rule of thumb, Anaheim peppers grown in California are milder than those grown in New Mexico.)

Ancho: Technically, ancho refers to a dried poblano pepper, but many distributors and markets also apply the term to the fresh version. Dried anchos are flat, wrinkled, and heart shaped, ranging in color from oxblood to almost black. Considered one of the mild to moderately hot peppers (like poblanos), anchos are often soaked and ground for use in cooked sauces. Scoville units: 1,000-1,500.

Cascabel: These moderately hot chilies are mostly available dried. In their fresh state, they are green or red and shaped like a small tomato. Dried, their skin turns a brownish red and becomes translucent, and their seeds rattle around inside. The name cascabel means "jingle bell" in Spanish. Scoville units: 3,000.

Cayenne: Among the hottest chilies, cayenne peppers are long, thin, sharply pointed red pods that are either straight or curled at the tip; they grow to a length of 6" to 10". (The chile de arbol is closely related and similar in shape, but grows only 2" to 3" in length and usually does not have a curled tip; it is also slightly less pungent.) Ground, dried cayenne is a popular spice. Scoville units: 30,000-50,000.

Cherry So named for their resemblance to the familiar fruit, cherry peppers are round and red. They range in pungency from mild to moderately hot. Cherry peppers are sold fresh, and also are commonly pickled and sold in jars. Scoville units: 0-3,500.

Chile de arbol:About 3" long and 1/2" wide, this hot pepper is a good substitute for cayenne. Scoville units: 25, 000.

Chipotle:Also known as smoked jalapeno, the chipotle is medium hot with a deep, smoky flavor. It can also be found packed in canned adobo sauce. Scoville units: 10,000.

Guajillo:These long peppers measure about 6" by 1 1/2" and have a sweet, medium-hot flavor. The guajillo is frequently used in Mexican cooking. Scoville units: 3,000.

Habanero: These lantern-shaped peppers, measuring about 2" by 2", are Capsicum chinense, not Capsicum annuum. Their color is most often yellow-orange, but can be yellow, orange, or red. Habaneros hold the distinction of being the most fiery of all domesticated peppers; however, their heat can sneak up on you, so beware of taking a second bite if you think the first one wasn't hot (which is unlikely). Furthermore, rather than dissipating quickly, the heat of habaneros persists. They are also called Scotch bonnets. Scoville units: 200,000-300,000.

Hungarian wax: These are the hot version of sweet banana peppers. They are never green--the peppers start out yellow and ripen to orange or red--and are mostly sold when yellow, either fresh or pickled in jars.

Jalapeno: Probably the most familiar hot peppers--and almost as popular as the Anaheims--jalapenos are tapered, about 2" in length, and have slight cracks at their stem ends. They vary in degree of heat, sometimes tasting much like a green bell pepper and other times being very hot, with a bite that you notice immediately. Most often, these peppers are consumed at the mature green stage, but sometimes you will find fully ripe red jalapenos on the market. In addition, they are sold canned, sliced, and pickled, and are used in a wide array of products including sausage, cheese, and jelly. Canned types may be milder than fresh because they are usually peeled, seeded, and packed in liquid--but they will still pack a punch. Pickled jalapenos are always hot. Scoville units: 2,500-5,000.

Pasilla: In Spanish, pasilla means little raisin, and this pepper is so named because of its deep black color and raisinlike aroma. It is mild with a smoky flavor. Scoville units: 2,500.

Poblano: These are ancho peppers in the green state; they look like small bell peppers at the stem end, tapering to a thin point at the blossom end. Ranging from fairly mild to hot, poblanos are usually roasted and peeled before using in casseroles, soups, and sauces, or stuffed with meat or cheese for chiles rellenos. Scoville units: 1,000-1,500.

Serrano: Very popular in Mexico and the southwestern United States, these small (1" to 4" long) torpedo-shaped peppers are primarily consumed fresh, usually in salsas. Serranos are very hot and are typically sold in their mature green state, although they are also sometimes available when red. Scoville units: 10,000-23,000.

Availability

Fresh chili peppers are also generally available year-round. They are grown in California, New Mexico, and Texas; some are imported from Mexico. Dried chilies are available at all times of the year. Most supermarkets have canned or jarred chilis, and many supermarkets carry both fresh and dried chili peppers now with the rise in popularity of Mexican, Asian and other "spicy" cuisines.

Shopping

Fresh chili peppers should be well shaped, firm, and glossy. Their skins should be taut and unwrinkled, and their stems fresh and green. Watch out for soft or sunken areas, slashes or black spots. Except for jalapenos, which often have shallow cracks at their stem ends, chili peppers should be free of cracks.

Dried chili peppers should be glossy and unbroken (wrinkled is fine), not dusty or fragmented.

Storage

Store unwashed chili peppers, wrapped in paper towels, in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Do not store them in a plastic bag, because trapped moisture will hasten spoilage. Check the chilies frequently; immediately use any that have developed soft spots. If you've gotten more than you can use or purchase a fresh branch, you can hang them to dry and use them in their dried form.

Store dried chili peppers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to four months. If you are keeping them longer, place them in the refrigerator.

Preparation

Exercise caution when handling chili peppers. If the capsaicin contained in their inner flesh and seeds comes into contact with your skin or eyes, you will experience a very painful burning sensation. It's a good idea to wear thin rubber gloves when preparing chilies; if you don't wear gloves, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap afterward.

Wash the chilies just before using them. Next, cut them open and remove the seeds and ribs, if desired: This procedure tempers the chilies' pungency (soaking the peppers in cold salted water for an hour will further diminish their hotness).

To add the mildest chili flavor to food, cut a few slits in a whole chili pepper, impale it on a toothpick or skewer, then add it to food that is already cooking. When the dish is done, remove and discard the hot pepper.

With chili peppers, you will find that even those of the same type vary in hotness. Consequently, you may need to use a different amount each time you prepare a favorite recipe. Sample a bit of the pepper before deciding how much to use in a particular dish. It's a good idea to add chilies a small amount at a time, until the food reaches the degree of hotness you desire.

Roasting: Fresh chili peppers take on a wonderful smoky flavor when charred over a flame. You can fire-roast whole peppers in a well ventilated area, over the flame of a gas stove, in a broiler, or on a barbecue grill; halved or sliced sweet peppers can be roasted under the broiler.

Cut a small slit near the stem of each pepper. One at a time, impale each pepper on a long-handled cooking fork and hold over the flame, or grill or broil 4 inches from the heating element or fire, turning frequently until the skin is blackened. Immediately place the charred peppers in a paper or plastic bag to steam for about 15 minutes, then remove them and scrape off the skin with a table knife. Cut around the stem, pull out the stem and core, and scrape out any remaining seeds. Cooking time: six to 10 minutes.

Preparing dried hot peppers: Wipe the peppers with a damp cloth. They can be pulverized in a mortar and pestle or food processor, for use as chili powder. To soften their texture, soak them in hot water for 20 minutes.

Preparing hot peppers for stuffing: Fire-roast and peel Anaheims or other large, mild chiles as directed above. Cut a 2-inch slit near the stem. Holding onto the stem, reach into the chile and detach the core with the seeds attached. Scrape out and discard any remaining seeds.

Nutrition Chart

Green chili peppers/1/4 cup chopped

15
Total fat (g)
0.1
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0
Dietary fiber (g)
0.6
1
Carbohydrate (g)
4
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
3
Vitamin C (mg)
91

Red chili peppers/1/4 cup chopped

15
Total fat (g)
0.1
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0
Dietary fiber (g)
0.6
1
Carbohydrate (g)
4
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
3
Vitamin C (mg)
91
Beta-carotene (mg)
2.2


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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