Posted March 22, 2005 by Nick Lindauer in Peppers

The Science of Chile Peppers

The very mention of chili peppers might have you reaching for a glass of water, but don’t be afraid, these hot peppers are actually good for you. Chili peppers are loaded with vitamin C (twice the amount found in citrus fruits) and the red ones are full of beta-carotene, even giving carrots a run for their money. As if that isn’t enough, they’re also packed with anti-bacterial properties and antioxidants.

But that’s not all. These veggies contain capsaicin, which is the compound that makes you feel like your tongue is burning and your head is about to explode. Really, that’s a good thing in the long run. That’s because capsaicin helps increase blood circulation and metabolism and lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol. The pain also leads to pleasure – the burning sensation leads to the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers and give you a sense of happiness. It’s the same feeling as a runner’s high. Chili peppers also have a history as a powerful weapon- the Mayans threw them at the enemy during battle.

The capsaicin is found on the white ribbed section that runs down the middle and along the sides of the pepper. Because the seeds are in close contact to this ribbed section, they are also very hot. Capsaicin is also found in smaller amounts throughout the flesh of the pepper. If you want to bring the heat down a notch or two, you can remove the white ribbed section of the pepper and the seeds. But remember to wear gloves.
And if you think all these fiery peppers will give you the same burn, think again. Even peppers from the same plant can differ in terms of hotness because of soil, weather and growing conditions.
A word of warning: you may want to steer clear of habeneros – the hottest chili peppers on record. These red peppers are shaped like lanterns and are similar to Scotch bonnets, the only difference being that Scotch bonnets are slightly smaller.

Ancho are heart-shaped, dried peppers that are often ground and used in sauces, while chipotle are medium-hot peppers with a smoky flavour. Cascabel are another favourite. The name means “jingle bell” in Spanish, and it refers to the sound the seeds make when they are dried. Cayenne peppers are one of the hottest of the hot peppers. These long and thin veggies are usually ground and commonly used in Caribbean dishes. Cherry peppers are so named because of their resemblance to the fruit, and are usually sold pickled in jars. And then, perhaps the most famous of them all are the jalapeno peppers. These tapered peppers vary in terms of hotness, and are used in everything from sausages to cheeses.

So, are you still up for the challenge? You’ll need to know, when choosing your prized hot pepper, to look for those that are firm and glossy and without any blemishes or cracks. Make sure their stems are fresh and green. The rule of thumb is: the smaller the pepper, the more lethal it is.
Store fresh chili peppers in a paper towel (a plastic bag will trap moisture) for up to three weeks in the refrigerator. Wear thin rubber gloves when preparing chilis, and avoid touching your face during preparation.

Chili pepper heat is measured in Scoville Units (multiples of 100). The method is named for Wilbur Scoville, who worked for the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company in the U.S. The process measures the amount of capsaicin in parts per million. According to the Scoville method, bell peppers are 0 on the scale while habanero peppers are over 300,000 units.

The great thing about chili peppers is that you don’t have to alter your original recipe, since the heat will only add to your dishes. Spice up your spaghetti sauce by adding a slice of your chili pepper of choice and letting it simmer in the sauce in the last few minutes of cooking. Chili peppers are also great for any dish containing sausages.

Want to add some spice to your next party? Try a dip that’s made from drained and chopped artichoke hearts with grated Parmesan cheese and chopped, green chili peppers (as much as you are willing to stand). Bake for 20 minutes and serve warm with crackers. For a lovely and spicy pasta dish, try fettuccine with red chili peppers.

How hot is your pepper? Check out the Chile Pepper Heat Scale

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog