Sweet or heat? If you’re like most folks, your choice would be sweet. Sweet peppers traditionally have been America’s preference, and bell peppers top the list. In colors of green, red, purple and yellow, they are the most common pepper found in grocery store produce departments, farmers’ markets and backyard gardens. Each day, 24 percent of Americans consume foods containing either fresh, frozen, dried or canned bell peppers.
But the bell pepper isn’t the only player on the field. Hot peppers feature prominently in ethnic cuisines such as Indian, Thai, Hungarian, Italian, South American, Mexican and Mediterranean. They can be eaten fresh, roasted, pickled, stuffed, or used dried. They add flavor to chutneys, curries, stir-fries, soups, stews, salsas and salads. Once just thought of as “spicy hot,” chiles are now much more appreciated for their subtle nuances of flavor.
Technically, all peppers are chiles (from the Mexican-Spanish chile), but it is typically hot peppers that are associated with the name. Peppers are in the Capsicum genus, and it is the chemical capsaicin that gives them their heat. Capsaicin doesn’t bother birds, but it does discourage most mammals, including humans. But we are a tenacious lot. A little – or in some cases, a lot of – heat couldn’t deter folks for long. Humans, it was discovered long ago, enjoyed having spice in their diet.
Just when did humans begin to play with fire? Archaeologists haven’t pinpointed a specific time when chiles were first cultivated, but by 5,000 B.C., depictions of chile pods adorned ancient pottery and textiles. In Central and South America, chiles were a dietary staple, and each region cultivated different varieties. From the five domesticated species of peppers, thousands of varieties have been developed in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes and in a kaleidoscope of color, ranging in heat from mild to firecracker hot.
Christopher Columbus brought chiles to Europe from the New World in the late 15th century. He mistakenly called them “peppers,” thinking they were related to our familiar table condiment, black pepper (Piper nigrum). The two species are not related, but the name stuck.
Europeans, however, were slow to catch on. Peppers, along with potatoes, eggplant and tomatoes, are part of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family. Also included in the family are deadly nightshade, mandrake and henbane – all well-known to the early Europeans as poisons. This family link gave peppers a stigma, and they were regarded with deep suspicion.
Additionally, they were considered just plain too hot to eat. “When we break but the skin, it sends out such a vapor into our lungs, as we fall all a coughing,” wrote Richard Ligon in 1657, about the chile in his history of Barbados. Well into the 17th century, peppers were largely used as just a garden ornamental curiosity. The Hungarians are thought to be some of the first Europeans to wholeheartedly incorporate peppers into their cuisine; paprika became an integral flavoring in their traditional goulash dish.
Of the thousands of different chiles, the most widely recognized in the United States are the cayenne and jalapeño. Many other varieties are commonly found in grocery stores and farmers’ markets, or, if you prefer to grow your own, many are readily available in garden centers as seeds or transplants. Each adds its own unique flavor to dishes – not just heat. Here are just a few, ranging from mild to blistering, fiery hot.
Pepperoncini: Also known as Tuscan peppers, sweet Italian peppers and golden Greek peppers, pepperoncini are a mild pepper, with just a hint of heat, and very flavorful. The Greek varieties tend to be sweeter and less bitter than the varieties grown in the Tuscan region of Italy. Pepperoncini are an excellent pepper for pickling.
Poblano/Ancho:Originating in Mexico, the poblano is a mildly hot 3½-inch-long pepper that is green when fresh. When dried, it is a dark reddish-brown, and it is called an ancho chile. Though poblanos are mild, occasionally you’ll come across one that’s significantly hot. Even peppers from the same plant can vary substantially in their degree of heat. Poblanos are usually used in sauces and salsas. The dried ancho pepper adds a fruity, smoky taste to dishes and is often ground into a powder and used as a spice.
Anaheim: Long and tapered to a point, Anaheim peppers are mildly pungent. The 6- to 8-inch fruits are dark green, turning to bright red when ripe. This is a thick-walled, fleshy pepper that does not dry well, but is excellent for stuffing, roasting or eating fresh.
Pasilla/Chile Negro: Pasilla peppers are mildly hot, with a rich, smoky flavor. Green when young, they turn deep brown. Pasilla means “little raisin” in Spanish, which refers to the ripe pepper’s wrinkled appearance. Dried, it’s called a chile negro and is favored for use in mole sauces.
Hungarian: Like poblanos, the heat of Hungarian wax peppers can vary greatly from pepper to pepper, though most often it is described as “medium-hot.” This fleshy 3- to 4-inch pepper is a beautiful golden color, which turns orange to red when ripe. Hungarian wax peppers add a nice balance of sweet and heat to just about any dish, and are an excellent choice for pickling.
Serrano: With a distinctive crisp, biting flavor and slow after-burn, the serrano is a pepper for those who like it hot. Resembling a small jalapeño, but much hotter, it is an extremely pungent chile, though not nearly as hot as the santaka, Thai or habanero. The 1½- to 3-inch fruit can either be eaten green, or fully ripe and red. They do not dry well and are most often used fresh in salsas, sauces, relishes, guacamole and salads.
Santaka: Considered a must for Asian cooking, the santaka is an extremely hot Japanese pepper. The 2- to 2½-inch-long red fruits are thin-walled and grow upright on the plant, making it not only a favorite for stir-fries and soups, but a nice potted
ornamental as well.
Thai Hot: Small in size, the zesty little Thai packs a big wallop. If there were a Chile Hall of Flame, these extremely hot chiles would rank in the top 10. The ½-inch-long fruits start out green and develop to a deep red as they mature. The plants have an excellent ornamental quality, and the fruits can be used either fresh or dried.
Habanero: A hundred times hotter than a jalapeño, this is one pepper that’s definitely not for the faint of heart. On the Scoville scale, which measures spicy heat, this 1- to 2-inch lantern-shaped pepper registers a whopping 200,000 to 300,000 units of heat! Only the Naga jolokia, or “Ghost Pepper,” rates higher. With their spicy, smoky flavor, habaneros are considered one of the best peppers for hot sauces.
If you’re still not convinced there’s a chile variety out there for you, consider the health benefits of eating peppers. They are packed with vitamins A and C, and for those on a low-sodium diet, chiles are a flavorful alternative spice for salt. A recent study has found that a daily intake of food containing capsicum enables the body to burn up to twice as many calories throughout the day as foods without capsicum. Capsicum also releases endorphins into the body, which give a feeling of euphoria. Eating hot peppers makes you feel good!
GRIT blogger Cindy Murphy grows potted hot peppers for both their ornamental and culinary qualities (Hungarian wax are her favorites). Admittedly, she is addicted to fresh-made, spicy, roasted hot pepper salsa, and puts it on nearly everything she eats.