Hot peppers are a staple of any Texas culinary arts school. The vibrancy and spice they provide gives any meal color and heat, sometimes enough to send you running for a gallon of milk. (we’re looking at you, ghost chilies). The challenge of working with hot peppers is finding the right amount of heat for a specific dish, a task that is only made more difficult due to the fact that everyone has a different tolerance for spicy foods. Like many vegetables, hot peppers were originally native to Latin America and then spread throughout the world by traders and explorers. Various peppers have since become a major part of innumerable international cuisines, but some of the spiciest peppers still grow in the Central American region. In the United States, Texas is home to many of the most popular peppers in American cuisine, including cayenne, jalapeno, chipotle, and habanero.
Cooking with hot peppers
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when cooking with hot peppers is that the heat is easily transferred to your hands and utensils. If you chop up a jalapeno on a cutting board and then cut up a red onion on the same surface, some of the heat will cling to your other vegetables. This is also true of your hands. Hot peppers are coated in oil that is not easily washed away. To prevent your hands from burning, wear gloves when working with hot peppers and regularly wash your hands with dish soap. Even if your hands aren’t particularly sensitive to heat, don’t forget that that oil sticks around, potentially providing an unpleasant surprise later when you rub your eyes or take out your contact lenses.
The Scoville Scale
The standard measurement for the heat of chili peppers is based on the Scoville Scale, a test developed over a century ago and named after its creator, Wilbur Scoville. Scoville heat units go from 0 to 16 million, accounting for the wide range of heat in various peppers. Bell peppers are on the mild end of this spectrum, coming in at a whopping zero heat units. These of course are your classic green, yellow, orange and red peppers found at any supermarket or grocery outlet. Though many peppers and hot sauces have been modified to provide more heat, most peppers are well under a million Scoville heat units. Habanero peppers, for example, only average 100 to 350 thousand. The seeds and ribs on the inside of peppers are their hottest portion. Removing seeds and gutting peppers will ensure a milder overall flavor.
Some basic peppers
- Bell: As mentioned earlier, bell peppers provide no heat and come in a variety of colors that make it the perfect vegetable for adding color, texture and mild flavor to any meal, including tacos, stews and pastas.
- Jalapeno: Jalapenos are one of the most well-known hot peppers. Their maximum heat is around 10 thousand Scoville heat units.
- Serrano: The Serrano pepper looks similar to a jalapeno, though it is usually smaller in size. Serranos packs a lot of heat that depends on the size of the pepper. Serrano peppers are used often in Mexican American cuisine and are good additions for salsa and guacamole.
- Cayenne: The cayenne pepper packs a little more heat. Cayenne pepper seasoning, derived from dried and ground peppers, is the main component of chili powder.
- Habanero: These usually red and orange peppers are extremely hot and can be tough to work with. Though they provide remarkable heat and flavor, they are primarily used to create hot sauces. Always wear gloves and goggles when working with these peppers.