Chile peppers are a very divisive food: you’re either magnetized by them and always left wanting just a little more, or you run in the opposite direction when you even hear one mentioned.
What makes a chile a chili?
Chile pepper is in the nightshade family, along with tomatoes, eggplant, bell pepper, and potatoes. First grown in Mexico since at lease 7500 BCE, they have since spread to the rest of the world and are common in most every cuisine with China now growing the most chiles. One of their first uses was as a substitute for black peppercorn, which is how they received the moniker of pepper.
What sets chilis apart from other peppers, though, is a the compound capsaicin. That’s what gives them their heat. While there are just a few varieties of peppers, each different preparation of a pepper gets a new name. Not unlike the tea leaf. For example, jalapeño is the fresh green chile, but becomes known as chipotle once it’s smoked and dried.
In order to know the potential spiciness of a chile, a heat unit rating has been created. The Scoville Heat Unit system rates spicy foods based on their capsaicinoid content.
For reference’s sake, here’s a list of common peppers and their heat unit rating:
Bell pepper: 0 SHU
New Mexico green chile: 0 – 70,000 SHU
Fresno, jalapeño: 3,500-10,000 SHU
Cayenne: 30,000-50,000 SHU
Piri piri: 50,000-100,000 SHU
Habanero, Scotch bonnet, bird’s eye: 100,000–350,000 SHU
Types of Chiles
While not all the chiles available everywhere, these are the ones we carry.
- Ancho – mild to moderate spiciness. Nice balance of flavor and heat.
- Bird’s Eye Chili – 100,000 heat units. The heat hits the back of your throat on this one.
- Cayenne – Moderate heat level
- Chili Flakes – Cayenne in larger pieces. Makes a great visual statement when sprinkled on top of food.
- Whole Chili – a dried whole chile pepper to steep or grind yourself
- Chipotle – smoked jalapeño, harvested at the end of their growing period and smoked for several days. Have an earthiness in addition to their spiciness.
- Ghost Chile – Extremely hot is an understatement, as this pepper is frequently the world’s hottest pepper at over 1 million Scoville units. Be sure to use gloves when handling.
- Paprika – is dried and ground bell pepper. Also available in a smoked variety.
- Chili Powder – Actually a blend of spices, containing chili pepper and other spices.
Help! It’s too hot!
We’ve all been there. You added too much heat and now you can’t bear to eat it. Don’t throw the food out, there are several ways you can bring down the spice level. With each of these suggestions, start with a little and taste as you go.
- Add sweetness in the form of sugar, brown, sugar, or honey. Even a pureed fruit or veggie if you want to add another layer of flavor.
- Add dairy: milk, cream, sour cream, yogurt, etc.
- Stir in some nut butter a spoonful at a time.
- Thin it down with broth.
- Add something acidic, like tomato, pineapple, vinegar, or citrus juice.
Chiles are for everyone! If you’re afraid of their spiciness start with a milder one like ancho and work your way up. They add great flavor to foods as well. And if you’re a chile fan to start with, there’s a whole world of them to explore!