Hot peppers (chilies) are often used to spice up dishes, and they are especially popular in ethnic cuisine including Mexican, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Arab and Spanish cooking. Chili peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C if you can withstand their powerful bite.

Powerful Chili Peppers

Chili peppers contain a substance called capsaicin, which gives peppers their characteristic pungence, producing mild to intense spice when eaten.

Capsaicin is being studied as an effective treatment for sensory nerve fiber disorders, including pain associated with arthritis, psoriasis, and diabetic neuropathy. You can even get a nasal spray with capsaicin in it and it packs a wallop! It’s called Sinus Buster. Capsaicin not only reduces pain, but its peppery heat also stimulates secretions that help clear mucus from your stuffed up nose or congested lungs.

Spicing your meals with chili peppers may protect the fats in your blood from damage by free radicals – a first step in the development of atherosclerosis.

Contrary to popular belief, the hottest part of the chili pepper is not the seeds but where the seed attaches to the white membrane inside the pepper. This area has the highest concentration of capsaicinoids. Capsaicinoids are flavorless, odorless substances that act on pain receptors in the mouth and throat. Capsaicin is the primary capsaicinoid. Capsaicinoids can be found throughout the flesh of chili peppers though their concentration varies in different areas so that one part of a pepper may be hot and another part of the same pepper quite mild.

The seeds of chili peppers are often hot because they are in such close contact with the white membrane.

There are several varieties of chili peppers and each differs in flavor and heat intensity. Even within each variety, there may differences in how hot each particular chili is. Typically, larger chilies are more mild because they contain less seeds and white membrane in proportion to their size. Most varieties can be found dried, canned, or fresh.

Spice it Up

A study out of Laval University in Quebec found that people who consumed hot red pepper ate less food and burned more calories (probably because the pepper raised their metabolism) than those who didn’t. Just remember, more isn’t necessarily better – and may leave you with steam coming out of your ears. A quarter teaspoon of red pepper flakes or a dash of hot pepper sauce should do the trick. Other spices may help, too. Anything that makes food more interesting like paprika or garlic, will make you feel more satisfied so you’re less likely to overeat.

Chili Peppers: Cardiovascular Benefits?

A substance that gives cayennes, jalapenos, habaneros and other chili peppers their hot taste also may protect against heart disease, according to research presented at the 243rd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society. The authors do caution against consuming excessive amounts of chlies in an effort to reap potential benefits.

In any event, the more you know about peppers – and the more you use them, the more you stand to gain from them! So here are some pepper facts to get you started.

Sides of peppers should be firm. Do not purchase dull colors, or ones with soft areas. These usually indicate decay. Refrigerate and use within three days. High in vitamin A and C, peppers are available all year.

Varieties include habanera, poblano, chile de arbol, pimento, Anaheim, banana, Hungarian was, cayenne, Serrano, mexi-bell, jalapeno, casabel, ancho, cuanelle, cherry and bell.

When cutting hot chili peppers it is best to wear rubber gloves so that your hands will not be burned and you do not rub your eyes. If you get hot pepper juice in your eyes you will never forget the experience.

New Mexico has one of the lowest incidences of heart disease. Researchers say that it is due to the high consumption of chili peppers, which are grown there. Over 55,000 tons are eaten annually in New Mexico. They may also lower blood fat levels and increase the blood coagulation time.

Chili peppers contain oil that will actually burn your skin. You can get relief by washing the area with white vinegar.

Chilies are probably the oldest known spice having been found in archaeological digs in Mexico that have been dated to 7000 BC.

Chili peppers were burned by American Indians when they were fighting off the invading English. The fumes kept the English at bay.

Capsaicin gives chili peppers their hot bite, but the seeds and outer and inner walls are not the hottest parts. The inner membrane that holds the seeds is the hottest part of the chili pepper, almost 100 times hotter. The alkaloid capsaicin found in peppers is proven to numb pain when applied topically. Capsaicin enters nerves and temporarily depletes them of the neurotransmitter that sends pain signals to the brain.

Southwestern chili peppers have complex flavors with varying degrees of heat. For example, the Anaheim packs some heat but with a terrific southwestern flavor for flavoring salsas if you like them on the mild side.

When grinding dried chilies, beware of the chili dust in the air, as it can irritate your eyes and your throat.

Roasting pimentos are best for roasting because they tend to have a higher sugar level and roasting brings out their deep sweetness and makes it silky smooth.

When making stuffed peppers, coat the outside of the pepper with vegetable oil and it will retain its color.

Stuffed peppers should be cooked in muffin tins to retain their shape.

Sweet red peppers contain more vitamin C than an orange.

If hot chile peppers and sweet bell peppers are planted near each other in a garden, cross pollination may occur, causing the bell peppers to be spicier.

Tabasco Pepper Sauce, invented in 1868, is made by mixing crushed peppers and salt in white oak barrels and letting the concoction age for up to three years.

Ease the Burn of Chili Peppers

The best way to ease the burning sensation of a chili pepper is to drink milk, or eat yogurt or any other dairy product. A substance found in dairy products known as casein, helps to disrupt the reaction. This substance, acts like a detergent and literally strips capsaicin from its receptor binding site. If you get the oil on your skin, you may want to rub it with rubbing alcohol first, then soak in milk, this seems to alleviate the burning. If you get it in your eyes, the only thing you can do is repeatedly rinse with water or saline. Be very careful when handling hot chiles, especially pod types like habanero as there are reports of these chiles actually blistering the skin. Gloves are recommended when handling or peeling any types of hot chile.

There are absolutely no varieties of peppers that are poisonous; all capsicum species are edible. Some of the ornamental varieties just don’t taste very good, while others are extremely hot or pungent, which may lead to this misconception; however, there is an ornamental plant called a False Jerusalem Cherry, botanical name, Solanum Capsicastrum, which is poisonous and not intended for consumption. It is not a chile plant, only a relative.

As chiles ripen, the pods become more firm. A gentle squeeze of the pod is the best method to test when to pick a chile. If the pod is firm with a slight crackling sound when you squeeze it, it should be ready.

Varieties of Chili Peppers

chili peppersAnaheim (California Green Chile or Long Green Chile): One of the most commonly used varieties in the United States, especially in stuffed chiles. This chili is long, slender and lobed, green or red in color and mildly hot. They can be eaten when green or when they are their mature red color.

Ancho: Dried or fresh poblano pepper. Dried anchos are flat, wrinkled, and heart shaped. They range in color from very dark red to almost black. Anchos are mild to moderately hot and often soaked and ground for use in sauces.

Cascabel: Green or red, small and round, moderately hot and typically available dried. When dried, their skin turns a translucent red-brown color and their seeds rattle inside.

Cayenne (Long Hots): Red when fully mature, long (6 to 10 inches), thin and straight or curled at the tips. Very hot. Cayenne can be found dried and ground into a powder that is seen as generic “red pepper” in the spice aisle.

Cherry Peppers: Round and red like a cherry. Sold fresh or pickled in jars, these peppers range from mild to moderately hot.

Habanero (Scotch Bonnet): Typically yellow-orange but they can be green, red, or orange. These peppers are lantern shaped and typically about 2 inches long. The hottest pepper grown commercially; intense fiery flavor; a unique floral flavor and an extremely intense heat that affects the nasal passages.

Hungarian: These peppers start out yellow and ripen to orange or red; they are moderately hot.

Jalapeno: Most often green when mature but sometimes red, these peppers are about 2 inches in length with cracks around their stems. They are very hot, with an immediate bite. Jalapenos are sold canned, sliced, and pickled and are added to many products during processing including sausage, cheese, and jelly.

Poblano: Ancho peppers that are green. Poblano peppers look like small bell peppers and are mild to hot in taste. They are often roasted and peeled prior to being used in soups, sauces, casseroles or even stuffed with meat and cheese for a dish called chilies rellenos.

Serrano: Sold red or mature green and about 1 to 4 inches in length. Moderate to very hot with an intense bite. Serrano chilis are often used in Thai cooking and they are also quite popular in Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Availability, Selection, and Storage of Chili Peppers

Chili peppers are available year round and in the United States they are grown in California, New Mexico and Texas. When selecting chilies, look for firm, glossy chilies with taut, unwrinkled skin and fresh green stems. Dried hot peppers should be glossy yet unbroken. Choose fresh chili peppers that have vivid, deep colors and glossy, firm and taut skins.

Chilies should be stored unwashed and wrapped in paper towels in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Dried chilies should be stored in airtight containers at room temperature for a maximum of four months. To keep dried chilies for more than four months, store them in the refrigerator.

Green Chili Tip

To keep green chilies fresh for a longer time, remove the stems before storing.

Preparing Chili Peppers

It is very important not to touch your nose, eyes or mouth after handling or eating hot peppers. If you do, flush with water immediately. The capsaicin in the peppers can be extremely painful to your eyes and can even burn or irritate your skin (especially if you have cuts on your hands).

If possible, wear thin rubber gloves while preparing chili peppers. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water when done working with chilies. If the bite is too strong when you eat a chili, chew on bread or another starchy food; water only makes the bite worse as it spreads it.

To decrease the heat intensity of chilies, wash them, cut them open and remove the seeds and veins. Also, soaking cut up chilies in salt water for at least an hour will help cool them off.

To add a mild pepper flavor to your dish, poke holes in the chili of your choice with a toothpick (or cut slits in it) and add it to a food that is already cooking. When cooking is complete, remove the chili from the dish.

Chilies can also be roasted whole over a gas stove, broiler, or on a grill. Use a cooking fork to hold each pepper over flame. Turn frequently until the chili’s skin is blackened. After cooking is complete, place chilies in a paper or plastic bag for 15 minutes. Scrape off skin, cut off stem and pull out core. Scrape any remaining seeds.

Preparing Dried Hot Peppers

Use a damp cloth to wipe peppers. Grind chilies in a food processor for use as chili powder. To soften their texture and make their flavor more mild, soak chili peppers in water prior to using.

Chili Powder

Chili powder is great in dishes in during the cold winter months. It’s heat warms the soul on cold nights. Use the spice in soups, stews, and of course, in chili.

  • Keeping a small piece of Indian spice in the same container as chili powder will keep it lasting for a longer period of time.
  • Buy chili powder with a lovely rusty-red color. It’s usually a mix of ground chiles, along with herbs and spices such as garlic, cumin, coriander, cloves and oregano.
  • Store chili powder for up to one year in the cupboard and up to two years stored in the refrigerator.
  • For chili con carne, add about one tablespoon of chili powder to four cups of liquid. You can add a bit more if you like a stronger flavor.
  • Add minced chili peppers to yogurt and use as a condiment or dip.
  • Chili powder also complements chicken and beef dishes and is always great in Mexican dishes, too. It’s great tossed with nacho chips and cheddar cheese.

Sweetened Jalapeno Peppers

These fiery peppers are a sweet treat for chile lovers.

  • 1/4 cups fresh jalapeno peppers, sliced
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water

Place the jalapeno slices, sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and cook until the jalapenos are cooked and the liquid has boiled down to a thick syrup, 15 to 20 minutes. Set aside to cool and then transfer to a thick glass container and refrigerate. Makes 3 servings.

Nutrition information: Calories: 76; Calories from Fat: 2; Fat: 0.2g; Saturated Fat: 0g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 0mg; Carbohydrates: 18.9g; Dietary Fiber: 1.1g; Protein: 0.5g

Did You Know?

  • Two of America’s founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are both known to have grown chiles.
  • Eating chilies is addicting! How? When capsaicin comes in contact with the nerves in your mouth, pain signals are sent to the brain. Subsequently, the brain releases endorphins, natural painkillers, that create a feeling of well being. The more spicy food ingested the more endorphins released. The effect is a pleasurable feeling that true Chile heads crave.
  • Six of the hottest peppers are the habanero, Thai chiltepin, Tecpin cayenne, de arbol, serrano and jalapeno.
  • A 1994 Red Savina Habanero from GNS Spices has tested an astonishing 577,000 Scoville Units and is believed to be the hottest pepper ever tested.
  • Indian tribes strung chilies together and tied them to their canoes to ward off evils lurking in the water.
  • Early Spanish priests noted the passion the native people had for Chiles. Feeling something was amiss, and being unsure of the Chile’s “powers”, the priests assumed they had to be aphrodisiacs and warned against consumption – which probably added to their popularity among the adventurous newcomers.

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