Hot peppers, also called chiles, are simply beautiful: at the market on a dreary winter day, those glossy-smooth skins and warm, brilliant colors are a pleasure to look at. And the enormous diversity of flavors— from mild and grassy, to fruity and pungent, to pure, incendiary heat— makes chiles endlessly interesting in the kitchen.
Chiles are key ingredients in the cooking of Central and South America, the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India, and all over Asia. Every region has developed its own chiles over time, and because new varieties are easy to breed, there are hundreds of different cultivars worldwide.
Hotter climates produce hotter chiles
Chiles thrive in areas with long, hot summers. In the United States, they’re grown mainly in California and throughout the Southwest and Florida; they’re also imported from Mexico. The heat level of chiles is highly influenced by the climate in which they grow. Spicy-hot pods grown in cool conditions will lack the pungency of the same variety grown in a consistently warmer climate.
The biggest, best-quality harvests come at the same time as sweet bell peppers— in late summer and early fall. But because crops are grown in warm southern and Mexican climates, you should be able to find good fresh chiles throughout the winter.
At the market, look for shiny, firm pods with strong, uniform color. They should feel dense and heavy for their size; good examples of even the very smallest ones will feel heavier. Avoid chiles that are flaccid, wrinkled, bruised, blemished, or discolored.
All chiles mature from green to their final color, which may be red, orange, or yellow; even purple chiles will ripen to red. They’re usable at all stages, but various varieties are traditionally picked and used at a particular color stage. Jalapeños are most often used at the green stage, while Asian chiles are often sold and used fully red, although you can also find green ones. As chiles ripen, their flavor generally intensifies, but beware: they’re hot throughout the ripening process.
Chiles are well-travelled
It fascinates me that chiles are one native American food that has emigrated into almost all of the world’s cuisines since Europeans came upon them five centuries ago. Chiles soon became core ingredients as they travelled along established spice trade routes from Europe to Africa and throughout Asia. Unlike other New World natives, like the tomato, chiles were quickly accepted and integrated into local diets because they flavor food so well and they’re easy to select for local growing conditions.
Add flavor, from mild to flaming
A much wider range of chile varieties has become readily available here in recent years. Most of us are still learning about and experimenting with their different flavors and heat levels in sauces, stews, and sautés.
I use milder pasilla or Anaheim chiles—roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped—to add zip to a mix of green beans, carrots, and corn, to a sauté of eggplant, tomatoes, onions, and squash, or to cheese sauces. Grilled pasillas top my favorite chileburgers. I use hot chiles like jalapeños for pickling with carrots, in salsas, and to add zing to bean casseroles. I toss pungent chiles like serranos or Thai bird chiles into curries, stir-fries, and salsas.
Chiles’ heat comes from capsaicin, an alkaloid found in varying amounts only in chiles. Capsaicin is contained in the sacs along the fruits’ inner walls, so when you cut into a chile, the capsaicin mingles with the seeds and the skin. Capsaicin levels vary depending on the chile variety and are further modified by climate and growing conditions. Pungency is generally rated in Scoville units—a measurement scale developed by Wilbur L. Scoville in 1912, based on the expression of pungency at different dilution levels. For example, a 5,000 Scoville heat unit chile like a jalapeño will have 1 part chile extract to 5,000 parts water before it can no longer be detected, but a hotter chile like a serrano would need to be diluted 10,000 to 1 for the same effect, and the superhot Tabasco chile would score 30,000 to 50,000 to 1, and thus has a Scoville rating of 30,000 to 50,000.
If you need to douse the burning heat of chiles in your mouth, drink milk or eat a milk-based food like cheese or ice cream, because the casein in dairy unbinds the capsaicin from nerve receptors in the mouth. Other foods that contain casein include beans, nuts, and milk chocolate. (Chocolate lovers, take note of this new reason to indulge.)