Hot Hotter HottestBy Dennis Linden
Across the country, supermarket produce departments are kicking off the month of May with a Spanish flair, complementing promotions throughout the store with products associated with Cinco de Mayo celebrations
Amongst this cornucopia of fresh Latin ingredients is always a very large and colorful selection of chile peppers of all shapes and sizes; some are best in sauces or salsas and some are better for frying, pickling or as a condiment. To help readers take full advantage of this annual holiday promotion, here is an overview of what’s hot and what’s not and how to best prepare a few of the most prevalent hot varieties found in supermarkets.
First, the science of heat that comes with most, but not all, chile peppers is something to keep in mind. A chemical compound in the pepper called capsaicin is the pyro-agent that produces all the fire. The amount of heat in a crop of chile peppers can differ greatly from season to season, even within the same variety, depending on a number of variable growing conditions – sun, rain, soil, temperatures, etc. Still, all hot chile peppers are similar in structure, which you can use as a guide to managing the amount of spicy heat for cooking according to tastes. Specifically, there is a higher concentration of capsaicin in the upper or “shoulder” part of the pepper where the seeds are located, as well as in the pronounced interior ridges protruding from the walls of the fruit; approximately sixteen times the heat than in the rest of the chile pepper, to be exact. Hence, slicing off the top, removing the seeds and scraping down the ridges will each lessen the heat of any pepper a notch; used in combination, one can definitely tame Scoville units.
Each chile pepper variety has been assigned a heat ranking in thousands of Scoville Units.
Wilber Scoville was a pharmacologist who, in 1912, came up with a system to score the amount of capsaicin in a pepper by grinding it with a mixture of sugar, water and alcohol. He then had five tasters sip the mixtures and grade them for hotness. Alcohol and hot peppers! Modern technology has developed much more sophisticated tests to measure capsaicin, so measuring the capsaicin in Scoville Units is simply a way to honor his early work. However, Wilbur’s protocol may have had some collateral influence beyond his lab, as his original test bears a close resemblance to what is known in the adult libation industry as the “shooter”. So thank you twice, Mr. Scoville!
To put the heat ranges on this list in context, Green Bell peppers have 0 Scoville Units while one of the hottest chiles on the planet, the Habanero, scores upwards of 200,000 to 300,000 Scoville Units!Anaheim Peppers
[1000-1400 Scoville units]
A farmer named Emilio Ortega brought the seeds of this pepper from New Mexico to what was then the small farming community of Anaheim, California, in the early 1900s. Anaheims are marketed green. Their flavor ranges from mild and sweet to moderately hot, depending upon growing conditions. Anaheims are the pepper of choice for Chile Rellenos. This variety has a tough skin, but it peels off easily when charred over a flame and then steamed in a paper bag for several minutes. Anaheims are available year-round, but summer harvests have the fullest flavor. When it has reached a mature red, the Anaheim is called a Chile Colorado or a California Red Chile. Once roasted, use these chiles whole or stripped as a mild flavor additive on pizza or in quesadillas; the Anaheim is often paired with shredded beef or chicken. Special variety note: In August and September the very similar looking New Mexico Hatch Chile Pepper is available for a limited time. To chile pepper aficionados, these are the most flavorful green chiles in the world. Try ‘em!Poblano
[2,500 - 3,000]
Poblanos are sweeter and a bit hotter than Anaheims, with a skin that is not as tough. Dark green and about the size of a bell pepper but tapered at one end, it is also often used in Chile Rellenos. Poblano chiles, when dried, are called ancho. This is not a chile to eat raw; in fact, roasting and peeling of this pepper adds a pleasant smoky flavor, which makes it a great component in soups and stews. Roasted Poblano can also add a little taste punch to sauces and salads. Poblano peppers can be enhanced by certain herbs and spices including chives, thyme, cumin, oregano, garlic, and basil. When selecting them, look for ones with richly colored, green shiny exteriors for the best taste. Note: In the U.S., this pepper is often times marketed as a “Pasilla” though a true Pasilla is a long, very thin pepper.Jalapeño
[3-4,000 Scoville Units]
This is the number one selling pepper in the U.S. marketplace. The small jalapeño has extremely thick fruit walls making it easy to dice into small cubes as a sauté ingredient in an array of stovetop dishes from eggs to stir-fry. This pepper is prized for its warm, burning sensation and distinct acidic taste. The red variety is a bit milder and sweeter than the green variety. In fact, there is a definite flavor and heat difference between a fully mature jalapeño and one harvested early. A fully mature jalapeño pepper, regardless of size or color, will have small cracks called dry lines around the shoulders of the fruit. These lines indicate that the pepper has reached optimum taste as well as peak heat. When smoked, jalapeños are called chipotles. The chopped jalapeño pepper forms an interesting contrast when combined with tomatillos in a salsa. Use sparingly as this one is quite hot.Red Fresno pepper
A beautiful glossy color, Red Fresno peppers are the mature, somewhat sweeter and hotter version of the more common green Fresno. Their moderately thick walls provide both fruity sweetness and a potent heat. This pepper shares an appearance and taste very similar to that of a Jalapeño, only quite a bit hotter. However, the Fresno is a bit less dense than the Jalapeño, which allows for a much finer dice that is especially useful as an ingredient blended into dips and salsas. Red Fresno peppers are often combined with rice, adding color and a spicy heat to an array of Latin casserole recipes. This beautiful pepper was named in honor of it birthplace, Fresno, California.Serrano
[8,000-22,000 Scoville units]
Immature Serranos are green and mature to a deep red, about three inches long and 1/2 inch around. The flavor is very crisp and biting, with a delayed heat that remains on your palate. The smaller they are, the more kick they have; also, the more mature red peppers are hotter than the green, though this is by no means a consistent rule in chile peppers. Serrano chile peppers have thin walls, and they don't need to be steamed or peeled before using, making them the easiest chile pepper to use for salsas and spicy sauces. The Serrano is said to be about 5 times hotter than the jalapeño.Habanero chile
[200,000 - 300,000]
The Habanero is native to the Caribbean, Yucatan and north coast of South America. This toy-like, small pepper shaped like a miniature lantern that ranges in color from green to bright orange when ripe looks innocent enough but it packs a huge heat. It is one of the hottest chiles on the Scoville scale, with an intense fiery, fruity flavor with a berry-papaya aroma. It is mostly used in salsas or as an ingredient in meat rubs. As a paste, combined with fresh peaches or apricots, it produces a wonderful flavor when the right balance between sweet and spicy can be found. This pepper also pickles quite well. While all chile peppers are high in vitamin C, one could technically consider the Habanero the solution to the common cold as it can definitely clear nasal passages big time! Wash your hands several times after using as this one as it is ten times hotter than the jalapeño!
When selecting any variety of chile pepper, make sure that they are firm to the touch and the skin is smooth. Once they are wrinkled, their crisp texture and fresh flavor are gone. Use them as soon after purchasing as possible; though, they can be stored for up to two weeks in a home refrigerator if wrapped in a dry paper towel and placed inside a paper bag in the vegetable crisper set to low humidity. Happy Forks!