Chili pepper 101: Beginner’s Guide
Who doesn’t like the kick you can get from chili peppers? You’ll learn many interesting facts about chili peppers today.
Table of Contents
What are chili peppers?
Chili peppers (Capsicum annuum) are known for their hot flavor and considered as “fruit”, not vegetables: the fruits of Capsicum pepper plants. They are members of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family and are related to tomatoes, cherries, and eggplant. The fruits range from mild bell pepper to jalapeno pepper, to ghost chili.
Chili peppers are primarily used as a spice and can be cooked or dried and powdered. Powdered, red chili peppers are known as paprika.
Origin of chili peppers
Chilies are native to Mexico and spread to Middle and South America. The Columbian Exchange, where the people migrated from the old world to the new lead to the transportation of foods such as tomato, potato, corn, and chili pepper back to Europe.
While corn and potatoes become staple foods in Africa and Europe, chili peppers were taken to Asia by Portuguese explorers. There, they flourished in the tropical climate, and the native started to incorporate them into their cuisine.
Why is spicy food eaten in hot climates?
If you look at a global cuisine map, you’ll notice that the hotter the climate, the spicier the food. There are several reasons for the development of spicy food culture:
1. Spices have antimicrobial and anti-parasitic properties and keep meat and other protein from spoiling in a hot climate. They also help to mask off the meat flavors about to go bad. The people who prepared spicy dishes had a higher chance of survival and instructed their offspring to use spices, too.
2. Hot weather acts as a natural appetite suppressant. Spicy food acts as an appetite stimulant.
3. Spicy food boosts the metabolism, which raises the body’s temperature a little bit. This induces sweating as a mechanism for cooling off.
The spicy cuisines in the world
Japanese cuisine has some spicy dishes, but nothing like the spiciness you can get from Mexican and Chinese cuisine. In general, Japanese dishes are pretty mild (you’ll laugh if you like “spicy” food and try Japanese “spicy” stuff – how mild the “spicy” is). However, there are many countries that “very spicy” is the norm in their diets.
What brings on the burn?
Chili peppers get the kick from capsaicin – an alkaline, oil-based molecule. Pungency – the feeling of your mouth being set on fire, comes from a chemical reaction when capsaicin binds with the pain receptors in your mouth, which are located at nerve endings that also detect heat.
Pungency is similar to burning pain. Sensing your skin or mouth is in danger, your brain sends back sensations of pain, encouraging you to stop doing it.
However, these pain receptors can adjust to the capsaicin’s trickery. If you eat spicy food often enough, they’re more likely to become desensitized to capsaicin: you can handle the spiciness more than those who don’t.
A general rule of thumb:
- The smaller the pepper, the hotter it is.
- Fresh chili peppers will be spicier during the summer (of whatever region they hail from) and milder during the cool or rainy season.
- Fresh red chilies are a few times hotter than green fruit, and dried pods are between 2 and 10 hotter than fresh pods. When cooking remember that you can add but you can’t take away.
- It’s better if you cook them – it’ll release more of the bioactive compounds and they’ll be absorbed into the body more efficiently,
How to measure the spiciness
SHU = Scoville Heat Unit
A measure of spiciness – the concentration of capsaicinoids: a way of quantifying how spicy a pepper is. It’s named after a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville. Pepper Scoville Scale displayed as Peak SHU Values.
Interestingly, other spicy foods like wasabi, ginger, and black pepper, get their spiciness from different compounds. Unlike capsaicin, the spiciness only lasts for a few seconds. Spiciness by chili (capsaicin) lasts for quite a long while.
Some parts of pepper are hotter than others
If you’ve ever eaten a chili pepper, you might have noticed that the second bite is hotter than the first. Many people believe the seeds are the spiciest part, but it’s actually the white pith that surrounds them and runs in thick veins through the pod. The part of the pepper closest to the stem is usually the hotter part because it has the highest concentration of capsaicin.
Only mammals are sensitive to the kick
While capsaicin may burn and irritate the flesh of mammals, birds are completely immune to its effects. Hense, birds are largely responsible for helping wild peppers spread by eating them and excreting the seeds.
Pepper roulette by shishito peppers
In Japan, there is a mysterious pepper called “shishito“. The pepper is usually about as mild as bell pepper, yet one out of every 10 of these will be very spicy. Generally, these spicy outliers are still less hotter than jalapeño, but it surprises you enough for the sudden spiciness.
How to fix the heat in your mouth
- Get some dairy: Many milk-based products contain casein – a protein that can help break down those capsaicin tricksters. The key here is the dairy product you choose must contain casein: cow’s milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, or sour cream. Non-dairy products like soy milk and nuts milk don’t contain casein.
- Drink something acidic: capsaicin is an alkaline molecule. Balancing it with acid can help neutralize the molecule’s activity. Drink or eat something acidic – such as lemonade, limeade, orange juice or a tomato-based food item or drink. (Milk is also acidic, too.)
- Eat some carbs: a starchy food can act as a physical barrier between capsaicin and your mouth. Try eating a piece of bread, some rice, potato or a tortilla.
- A spoonful of sugar: The Scoville scale, which measures the spiciness of chili peppers and other foods, was created based on the amount of sugar water needed to dilute the spiciness of chili pepper to an undetectable level. Mix 1 tablespoon of sugar into an 8 oz glass of water or squirt enough honey to coat your tongue to tame the heat.
- Choose olive oil or peanut butter: Both are high in fat and oil.
- Water won’t help: Because capsaicin is oil-based, drinking water will basically just spread this molecule around your mouth – setting off even more of your pain receptors.
- Alcohol won’t help: Capsaicin dissolves in alcohol, but only if the beverage has a relatively high proof. The amount of alcohol to reduce pain exceeds the guidelines for moderate alcohol use. Additionally, a lot of alcoholic beverages are really more water than they are alcohol.
Types of chili peppers
The plant is capable of mutating very quickly, so there are over 400 varieties in the world – over 140 different kinds growing in Mexico alone.
Despite the huge range of species, only 5 are domesticated:
- Capsicum annuum
- Capsicum baccatum
- Capsicum chinense
- Capsicum frutescens
- Capsicum pubescens
Capsicum annuum is the most common of the group; it includes a plethora of cultivars both mild and hot, including bell peppers and jalapeños. The majority of peppers that you can think of all come from this 1 species.
The environment also impacts what the pepper will look and taste like: soil, temperature, and weather all need to be taken into account.
Almost 16 % of the world’s food production is attributed to chili. India is the largest chili producer followed by China.
Red or Green chili?
- Red chilies are nothing but aged green chilies. When they are dried, they turn red as they lose all the water content and become more pungent, furthermore, lose a major chunk of nutrients.
- Red chilies are usually consumed in powdered form. The process poses the danger of adulteration of the final product. In addition, there is always a possibility of store-bought red chili powder containing added synthetic color.
- If digested in excess, red chili causes internal inflammation, which can lead to peptic ulcer or even stomach cancer.
- Green chilies have higher water content and zero calories. It’s the perfect for weight loss without their daily dose of spice. Green chilies are a rich source of beta–carotene, antioxidants and endorphins.
- The best way to consume both red and green chili is eating them raw. This will avoid the artificial colors in the powder. Store them in the refrigerator will help them stay fresh.
Whole or dried red chilies or red chili powder?
Whole dried red chilies are healthier than red chili powder. They are basically the dried, ripe green chilies. They are used less for spiciness and more for flavor. It is safe to use them compared to red chili powder which may be loaded with artificial colors and flavors.
Sweet to Mild
Alternate Names: Green/red pepper, sweet bell pepper
Characteristics: Relatively large in size, the bell-shaped pepper in its immature state is green with a slightly bitter flavor. As it matures, it turns bright red and becomes sweeter. They’re great for adding color (yellow, orange, white, pink, and even purple) and moisture to any dish due to their high water content.
Scoville Heat Units: 0
Color differences on bell peppers
Although the peppers look different, color differences only due to the varying levels of maturity. The peppers start off green, then turn yellow, and finally red (but some of the time the orange or yellow is the fully mature color). Green peppers taste more bitter than their counterparts because they lack the same chemicals and vitamins that the more mature fruits develop. Due to ample supply of chemicals like vitamin C and beta-carotene, orange and red bell peppers have a much sweeter taste. Jalapeños also turn red but are usually picked before they’re ripe.
Alternate Names: Yellow wax pepper, banana chili
Characteristics: This pepper usually takes on a bright yellow hue as it ripens, but occasionally grows to be red, orange, or green instead. They’re generally mild enough to eat raw and add a kick to salads, sandwiches, and pizza.
Scoville Heat Units: 0-500
Alternate Names: Italian frying peppers
Characteristics: very mild and great for sautéing.
Scoville Heat Units: 100 – 1,000
Alternate Names: Tuscan peppers or sweet Italian peppers
Characteristics: light green skin, usually sold pickled.
Scoville Heat Units: 100 – 600
Mild to Medium
Alternate Names: California green chiles, chile verde, New Mexican chile. When fully ripened, this pepper is known as the California red chile or a chile Colorado.
Characteristics: dagger-shaped hand-length peppers with a tough, light green skin. This is relatively mild and very versatile are mostly served cooked like chiles rellenos.
Scoville Heat Units: 500 – 1,000
Alternate Name: Ancho, mulato (At maturity, the poblano turns dark red-brown and dried. Anchos have a rich, raisin-like sweetness and are the backbone of many sauces, including mole.)
Characteristics: large, mild peppers that originate from Puebla, Mexico. Though the pepper lacks heat, especially when green and less ripe, some poblanos (particularly ripened red ones) pack a surprising kick. Finger-length with smooth, dark green thick skin makes them perfect for roasting and stuffing like Chile Relleno.
Scoville Heat Units: 1,000 – 2,000
Alternate Names: Chipotle (dried jalapeño)
Characteristics: Though it is typically plucked from the vine while still green, if allowed to ripen more, they will turn red and take on a slightly fruity flavor. The number of carefully-bred varieties of this accounts for an unusually wide range of heat levels, but they tend not to be too crazy spicy. A trick to reduce heat in sauces that call for jalapeños is to remove the seeds and membrane and use only the flesh.
Scoville Heat Units: 2,500 – 8,000
Characteristics: any variety of jalapeño that has been ripened to red, dried, and smoked. 9Smoke-dried chipotles come in 2 varieties: meco (mellow) and moritas (spicier). Smoky, woodsy, and spicy, chipotles are great for salsas, sauces, escabeche, and adobo. If you’re cooking with them, remember – a chipotle pepper weighs only 1/10 as much as a jalapeño, but packs the same heat, so go by count, not weight.
Scoville Heat Units: 5,000 – 10,000
Hot wax peppers
Alternate Name: Hungarian wax peppers
Characteristics: having yellow or pale green skin and can easily be mistaken for banana peppers. However, they’re exponentially hotter, so make sure you know which one you’re dealing with. Hot wax peppers are usually eaten fresh or pickled, and are used to season sauces, soups, and stews.
Scoville Heat Units: 5,000 – 15,000
Characteristics: These pepper plants tend to grow in the elevated regions of Mexico, like Hidalgo and Pueblo. When ripe, serranos are red or yellowish-orange – they can be cooked in both their ripe and unripe states. Smooth and glossy dark green skin, slightly smaller version of a jalapeño (a few inches long, with a tapered end), and almost as popular. However, serrano peppers are about 5 times hotter than the jalapeño: Swap serrano peppers in place of jalapeños in salsas and guacamole if you want spiciness.
Beware – the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. Though they pack a punch, serranos have flavors; some varieties have sweeter flesh while others taste bright and fresh without overwhelming heat. They are good roasted and are most often used in sauces, salsas, and as a garnish.
Scoville Heat Units: 6,000 – 23,000
Alternate Names: Finger chile, Ginnie pepper, and bird pepper
Characteristics: Slender and tapered, this chile is probably most familiar in its dried, ground form as “cayenne pepper”. Ground cayenne pepper is a main ingredient in the chili powder that flavors Tex-Mex dishes like chili con carne. It’s one of the spiciest types of peppers.
Scoville Heat Units: 30,000 to 50,000
Characteristics: about an inch long, shaped somewhat like old-fashioned Christmas tree lights. They can be harvested when unripe and green or fully ripe and bright red, and also some shades of orange and bright yellow. Unlike most peppers, which hang from their stems, Bahamian peppers grow in upright clusters, with their pointed tips in the air.
Scoville Heat Units: 95,000 – 110,000
Carolina Cayenne peppers
Characteristics: Long, thin, and bright red, it’s related to the cayenne that’s dried and ground into spice, developed at Clemson University, they are resistant to a particular crop-destroying nematode. Make sure you know which kind of cayenne pepper you have, though, as a Carolina cayenne is more than twice as hot as a regular cayenne.
Scoville Heat Units: 100,000 – 125,000
Characteristics: shaped somewhat like the Scotch bonnet, below, except that instead of wearing a Scottish tam, the Jamaican pepper wears a Hamburg-style hat with a crown and a brim. The varieties with the most heat are the hot red and yellow varieties, while another variety, that ranges from purple to chocolate brown, are a bit milder.
Scoville Heat Units: 100,000 – 200,000
Bird’s Eye peppers / Piri Piri
Alternate Names: Thai pepper (maybe the hot bird’s eye or a milder pepper), phrik kee noo (mouse poop chili), Peri peri (Africa), African bird’s-eye pepper, African red devil pepper
Characteristics: When Portuguese sailors made a port of South Africa and Mozambique, they brought the bird’s eyes. They’re originated in Guyana, but are now widely grown across Africa, India, and Thailand. Though this chili has many names, the name was inspired by its size – at just an inch or so in length, this pepper packs a lot of heat per square inch.
Scoville Heat Units: 100,000 – 225,000
Characteristics: Small and bulbous, this orange chili (occasionally come in red, yellow, brown, and green) is one of the hottest chili peppers. It’s in the same family as the Scotch bonnet. If you can get past the heat, habañeros also have a fruity flavor. They’re popular on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and in the Caribbean, where they’re used to make hot sauces.
Scoville Heat Units: 100,000 – 350,000
Characteristics: flat, tiny, and spicy peppers (can often taste somewhat sweet) that allegedly look like traditional Scottish Tam O’ Shanter caps. They are most commonly used in Caribbean cuisine – pepper sauces and jerk dishes.
Scoville Heat Units: 80,000 – 445,000
Hottest Peppers in 2020
1. Carolina Reaper
Alternate Names: HP22B pepper
Characters: This is currently the hottest pepper in the world developed by a grower named Ed Currie. Despite the extreme spiciness, it’s surprisingly fruity and sweet. The Carolina Reaper pepper is 200 times hotter than a Jalapeno, and more than twice as hot as a ghost pepper.
Scoville Heat Units: 1,400,000 – 2,200,000
2. Trinidad Moruga Scorpion
Characters: About 2 to 3 inches long, wrinkled with a stinger from Trinidad. It’s one of the hottest peppers in the world (150 to 800 times hotter than Jalapeno) with a sweet and fruity flavor. Remember to wear latex suits and gloves just to handle it. Like most hot peppers, the heat of eating the pepper raw is not something that hits you right away. It takes some time to build and last for a long while.
Scoville Heat Units: 1,200,000 – 2,000,000
3. 7 Pot Douglah
Alternate Names: 7 pot
Characteristics: It is a rare and one of the hottest peppers in the world that gives you a quick heat that lingers and has a fruity flavor with hints of nuttiness and earthiness. It’s roughly habanero shaped, about 2 inches long from Trinidad. It starts off green but matures to a rich brown. The pungency of this pepper is similar to that of the Bhut Jolokia and Naga Morich. It’s said that 1 pod will spice seven pots of stew. For good germination, try to maintain a constant temperature of 28 to 32 degrees.
Scoville Heat Units: 923,889 – 1,853,986
4. 7 Pot Primo
Characteristics: It’s a cross between a Naga Morich and a Trinidad 7 Pot pepper. Approximately 2 inches long, pod-like, pock-marked with a scorpion-like tail and bumpy skin, the pods can grow rather lumpy. It is normally red, though there are also orange and yellow varieties. Once you get past the heat, it offers a quite fruity taste, with a floral scent. 100 to 507 times hotter than jalapeno.
Scoville Heat Units: 800,000 – 1,268,250
5. Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T”
Characteristics: Approximately 1 to 2 inches long, bulbous, pock-marked, stinger-like tail. It is indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago. These chilies age from green to yellow/orange to red in color. Sweet and fruity flavor. 100 to 585 times hotter than jalapeno – not to be eaten raw!
Scoville Heat Units: 800,000 – 1,463,700
6. Naga Viper
Characteristics: Hybrid chili of the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, Naga Morich, and ghost pepper – not quite stable, so variations in heat, look, and flavor can occur. About 2 to 3 inches long, elongated, wrinkly. The slower burn to this chili will fool you on the heat front, but only for a few minutes. 113 to 553 times hotter than Jalapeno with sweet, fruity, and tangy flavor.
Scoville Heat Units: 900,000 – 1,382,118
7. Ghost Pepper
Alternate Names: bhut jolokia (India)
Characteristics: One of the spiciest chili peppers in the world even used as a natural animal deterrent in India to keep the large mammals from trampling on farmland and eating crops. Ghost peppers are consumed both fresh and dried and sprinkled into curries, chutneys, and fermented fish.
Scoville Heat Units: 850,000 – 1,050,000
8. 7 Pot Barrackpore
Characteristics: Originated from the region of Barrackpore on the Caribbean Island of Trinidad. About 1 inch long, conical, wrinkled surface with ridges that run the length of the chili to its pointed tail. They ripen from green to orange and then to a bright red. The Barrackpore variety tends to be fruity but more bitterness and less sweet than other 7 Pot peppers. At least 3 times hotter than the habanero pepper.
Scoville Heat Units: 1,000,000 – 1,300,000+
9. 7 Pot Red Giant (Jonah)
Characteristics: This variety is closely linked to the 7 Pot/Pod and Trinidad Scorpion varieties. When this plant is grown in a pot it grows to almost 1 meter in height. On the other hand, if it is planted in the ground it can double in height. It’s a larger plant that produces larger and rounder Trinidad 7 Pot strain pods, with a fruitier flavor than the standard 7 Pot and slightly higher heat. It can get larger than a golf ball and weigh up to a half oz. The peppers mature from light green to red.
Scoville Heat Units: 800,000 – 1,200,000
10. Red Savina Habanero
Characteristics: About 2 inches long, wrinkled, with sweet and fruity flavor. It was selectively bred over generations to produce larger and hotter fruit from the Caribbean Red Habanero. It has a sweet taste, almost fruity. It is one of the easiest super hot pepper varieties to grow and a very productive plant. 44 to 231 times hotter than jalapeno.
Scoville Heat Units: 350,000 – 577,000
Capsaicin in hot peppers increases body heat and stimulates brown fat, the metabolically active fat in the body that increases the rate at which you burn calories.
In addition, they can suppress your appetite by forcing you to drink more water to cool off, and by distracting your mind, making you forget your hungry state.
Spicy foods help heal the lining of the stomach and slow down the production of excess acid. Eating chili peppers may even lower the risk of ulcers in the first place. Spices such as ginger and chili powder can reduce stomach inflammation and treat the infection. Turmeric may be helpful in treating irritable bowel syndrome.
However, spicy foods can produce a burning effect, especially if you’re not used to eating them. For this reason, start off with small portions of foods that aren’t too hot until your system is better able to tolerate them.
Curcumin, the ingredient in the turmeric that gives curry its bright yellow color, has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show that it kills cancer cells and prevent cancer cells from forming – stomach, breast, lung, colon, prostate, and liver cancers.
Cold and flu fighter:
Spicy foods with chili peppers, horseradish, or wasabi can help ease congested nasal passages, help with breathing problems from bronchitis, and relieve flu symptoms, too.
A healthy heart and blood vessels:
Due to a considerable proportion of beta-carotene, green chilies help in maintaining the proper functioning of the cardiovascular system and also help in boosting immunity. Capsaicinoids in hot peppers can lower blood cholesterol levels and keep blood vessels from constricting (helping to improve blood flow). They may also help lower blood pressure, too.
Good for inflammation:
Chili peppers alleviate sore muscles and tame arthritis thanks to those aforementioned endorphins, and also by inhibiting substance P, a neuropeptide that causes inflammation.
Chillies are natural painkillers:
The fiery sensation of chilies is caused by capsaicin, a potent chemical that survives both cooking and freezing, but apart from the burning sensation it also triggers the brain to produce endorphins, natural painkillers that treat headaches and migraines.
Good for skin:
The good source of vitamin C isn’t just orange. Chili peppers, for example, have about 107 mg of vitamin c, compared to an orange’s 69 mg. Green chilies are also a rich source of vitamin E which make them a very good spice for a healthy skin.
Conclusion: Spicy kick isn't the only benefit that chili peppers could offer. Enjoy the health benefits as well! Also try various chili peppers for your cooking - you might find your new favorites.
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