Using Hot Chile Peppers
Ever since early cooks realized that chili peppers could keep food from spoiling, the zesty fruits have found their way into the dishes all over the world. From the enchiladas of Mexico to the stir-fry dishes of Thailand and China to the curry dishes of exotic India, the lively pepper adds a pleasant heat and unique tingle to some of the world’s best-loved dishes.
While there are only five domesticated species of chili peppers, over 100 cultivars, or varieties, are enjoyed the world over. Poblano, ancho, jalapeno and chipotle peppers are often used in the dishes of Mexico. The poblano pepper is a long, fat dark green pepper with an intensity rating of between 1,000 to 2,500 Scoville units. When dried, the sweet-hot pepper is referred to as an ancho pepper. Similar in size but lighter in color than the poblano, the jalapeno pepper is popular in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. The jalapeno scores higher on the Scoville scale, between 3,500 and 8,000 units. When smoked, it is called a chipotle pepper. Slightly spicier, the Serrano pepper ranges between 10,000 and 23,000 units and the hotter habanero pepper ranges in intensity from 100,000 to a scorching 580,000 Scoville units!
Roasted, peeled poblano peppers are extremely versatile; they can be used in salsas, bean dishes, enchiladas and even Mexican lasagna. Ancho peppers, the most commonly used chili peppers, are often ground into mole sauce and used to adorn everything from corn casserole to turkey breast.
Jalapeno peppers enjoy the distinction of being one of the most popular appetizers on the menu at many famous Mexican restaurants. From Jalapeno Poppers to Nachos, these little green triangular peppers pack just enough power to stimulate the taste buds without causing the bowels to revolt. Its smoky cousin, the chipotle, is often used to add an additional layer of flavor to sauces and meats and has an entire chain of American fast-food restaurants named after it.
Serrano peppers pack a potent punch and can set almost any food ablaze. A Serrano-infused tequila adds zing to a run-of-the-mill margarita while the piquant pepper pushes the intensity of a modest green salsa into the stratosphere. If you want to throw caution to the wind, and you have a fire extinguisher nearby, try mincing some habanero peppers into your next batch of chili beans, salsa or hot sauce. Don’t forget: when handling hot peppers, be sure to wear gloves and wash hands and utensils thoroughly.
Peppers are multi-cultural fruits. In addition to traditional Mexican fare, chili peppers turn up in savory dishes from the Orient and the Middle East to Hungary and Germany. Most Asian cookbooks include recipes that call for the spicy little red peppers known as Bird’s Eye Chili or Thai chili. Measuring 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville units, the fiery fruit is used as a spice in Asian cuisine and can often be found in Filipino and Thai food. These peppers are often used whole and biting into one directly is not recommended.
You can make your own ground chili pepper by toasting Thai chili peppers in a cast iron pan on the stove then grinding them in a food processor or coffee grinder. Warning: The aroma from these potent powerhouses can burn your eyes, nasal passages and lungs. Use a mask when grinding or cooking with pepper. Thai chili peppers give Kung Po Chicken and other Szechuan dishes their signature kick and can be added whole while cooking.
According to the Scoville scale, Bhut Jolokia peppers from India pack more bang for the buck. These peppers, used in Indian cuisine, held the title of the hottest peppers on earth at over a million Scoville units until 2012, when it was unseated by the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper, coming in at 2,000,000 units. Bhut Jolokia makes a mean salsa.
Using chili peppers to create hot sauce can enable you to transform any dish from a bland, meat-and-potatoes meal into a death-defying dish in minutes. Choose peppers from a variety of cultivars to create a tapestry of tantalizing tastes that will add depth and texture to anything you prepare. Ripe peppers with smooth, disease-free skins make the best ingredients for a sauce. Add a dash of your own savory hot sauce to eggs, soups, stews, casseroles and appetizers. Some experts even suggest a splash of searing sauce to help minimize the effects of a hangover!
Chili peppers can be used in hundreds of ways, from decorating the dining room with an ornamental wreath of dried Red Hatch peppers to adding zest and color to ethnic drinks, such as peppery tequila or a warming mug of cayenne coffee or cocoa. Add some flame to your next fiesta with the piquant flavor of peppers.