Utilizing peppers in the kitchen is a great way to add a touch of heat or a punch of flavor to your dishes. It can be intimidating trying to figure out which peppers to use, what flavors they provide, and how hot they actually are so we’ve taken out some of the guess work.
There are a variety of peppers commonly used in the kitchen; each pepper possesses a unique quality that can change the taste of your food. We’ve created a beginners guide for peppers so you can learn how to incorporate them into your cooking routine as well as a heat index to give you an idea of how spicy each pepper is.
Deciding Between Sweet Peppers and Chile Peppers
Peppers come in a variety of shapes, colors, sizes, and levels of heat. There are a few key differences to get you started. Sweet peppers are great for their mild, sweet flavor profile. Bell peppers for example are commonly served raw on salads and sandwiches and provide a nice crunchy texture and mild flavor. When you start looking at chile peppers, you commonly associate chile with hot, spicy peppers.
You can purchase peppers in several different forms. The most common are fresh, ground, and dried. Most grocery stores and markets have the commonly used peppers available for purchase. If you’re having a hard time finding a specific type of pepper, check out a local specialty market or check out Amazon.
What Makes Peppers So Hot?
The heat peppers give off is from an ingredient called capsaicin. Capsaicin is that ingredient that makes your tongue burn, your throat tingle, and your eyes water. After doing some research, we found that the area with the highest concentration of capsaicin is the interior veins of the peppers (where the seeds attach to the pepper walls). If you don’t handle spice well and you’re looking to ease the spice in your dish, you can remove the veins and seeds while you’re cooking. The peppers will still be hot, but may be slightly more manageable. Pure capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot, measures at 15 to 16,000,000 SHU (or Scoville Units).
Don’t be afraid to cook with hot peppers; they add amazing flavor to dishes that cannot be replicated. Start slow with more mild peppers and work up to using the hotter peppers available for consumption.
The Scoville Scale
The Scoville Unit of measurement is what we use to measure the ‘heat’ of peppers. The Scoville Scale ranges from anywhere between zero and goes up to measurements as high as 3,200,000+ units. As people continue to grow and cultivate peppers, the scale changes with the introduction of new, hotter peppers.
“The Scoville scale is a measurement of the pungency(spiciness/heat) of chili peppersand other spicy foods, as recorded in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) based on the concentration of capsaicin. Capsaicin is one of many related pungent compounds found in chili peppers, collectively called capsaicinoids. “
The Scoville Scale was named after Wilbur Scoville in 1912. He was an American pharmacist that created the “Scoville Organoleptic Test”, which we know today as the standard Scoville Scale. He created the scale in 1912 while working at Parke-Davis Pharmeceutical company. At first, the test was a subjective taste test that measured each pepper’s heat. Over time, the measurements have become more exact with the use of HPLC.
Peppers will change on the Scoville scale depending on factors such as how the peppers were grown or how ripe the peppers are.
Too Hot? Try Milk.
Pushing yourself to eat peppers that are just too hot for your taste can be uncomfortable to say the least — some would say unbearable. I also cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve watched people chop up chile peppers and then touch their eyes or elsewhere, causing them to go into a painful frenzy trying to ease the pain. MILK products are your saving grace. The protein ‘casein’ breaks down the ‘capsaicin’ and will help elevate the pain and burning sensation. Friendly tip — if you get hot peppers in your eyes, a paper towel soaked in milk helps a lot. Speaking from personal experience, go for the milk, skip the water, and do yourself a favor and do not touch your face.
If you’re cooking with hot peppers, you can always cut the heat by incorporating milk or yogurt based products. You see this often with Indian dishes that use curry.
Ease The Heat:
How To Seed A Pepper
To seed a pepper, slice your pepper in half and slide a small paring knife along the edges of the white membrane / veins where the seeds are attached. This area is where most of the pepper’s heat is concentrated. By removing the veins and seeds by scraping out those areas, you will remove some of the pepper’s heat.
How To Soak A Pepper In Vodka or a Vinegar Water Solution
If you really enjoy the flavors of hot peppers like the Carolina Reaper or the Trinidad Scorpion, but you aren’t interested in chugging a gallon of milk, you can slice your peppers, seed them, remove the membranes, muddle or slice, and then soak in vodka to remove some heat. You can leave the peppers for a few hours or a few days. This works because Capsaicin is alcohol soluble.
You can also soak your seeded peppers in 1 part vinegar, 3 parts water to remove some of the heat. You want to let your peppers soak for about an hour. If they’re still too hot, drain your solution and re-make, allowing the peppers to soak longer.
How To Char A Pepper
Cooking peppers over high heat for a few minutes can help reduce the heat. You can char your whole peppers under a broiler, on a grill, or on a stovetop. If you do this, peel off the charred part and the slice and seed. Cooking peppers over flame or allowing them to soften and cook over a period of time in a skillet will make the heat more manageable.
- A touch of heat: While there is a special place in my heart for extra-hot hot sauce, it’s important to remember that there are levels of heat that are pleasant and unpleasant. Take it slow and remember that a little goes a long day. Heat, and other main components like salt, acid, and fat, add flavor and texture to meals. Be thoughtful about this crucial building block and use it wisely.
- Consider Who You’re Cooking For: When it’s up to me I want something spicy that has a nice kick. If I’m cooking people that aren’t into spicy food, I tend to go for very mild spice that won’t have them in the kitchen eating a pint of ice cream. Split your portions in half at the end of your cooking process if you have people that want different levels of heat. It won’t work for everything, but often times you can throw extra peppers or sauce onto half towards the end for those that want something extra spicy. It’ll make everyone happy.
- Go for flavor and prep carefully: The flavors you get from peppers is dependent on the way you prepare them. You can use methods like soaking, charring, or seeding the peppers to adjust the amount of heat you’re getting in your final dish.
- Ease the heat: Using ingredients that are acidic or dairy based helps cut the capsaicin some. Incorporate lime juice, sour cream, cheese, or yogurt to help ease some of the heat. It will still be hot, but more manageable if you get a very spicy bite.
- Try a variety of peppers: Lucky for you, grocery stores stock a variety of peppers now. Go beyond the normal, boring jalapeño and try something new.
- Consider the time of year and how accessible the peppers are: Winter is at our doorstep. This isn’t prime time for chilies — dried varieties are a great option for harnessing the heat and flavor you want. You can rehydrate dried chilies and use them like fresh chilies for your meals. If you find super hot peppers, save them. You won’t find many! The super hot peppers are not usually available in grocery stores.
- Know Your ‘Safe’ Peppers: Some peppers are easy to work with, have great flavor, and aren’t overly spicy. We love incorporating peppers like Shishito peppers into our meals for flavor and a mild kick. You can eat some peppers raw, whole, or sliced up. Utilizing mild peppers is great for those of you who have picky-eaters or who aren’t used to eating spicy food regularly.
- Start Slow: Start slow and try not to be overly ambitious at the beginning. You can always add more spice, but it’s hard to take it away. Start with more mild peppers and work up to peppers that have bolder heat levels. The more spicy food you eat, the easier it will get.
- Pay attention to your kitchen space and practice food safety : Capsaicin is an oil and sticks to your skin. If you’re working with extremely hot peppers, it’s highly recommended that you wear gloves or perhaps even wear protective eyewear. The gloves are a great idea if you’re working with very hot peppers so you don’t wind up with the oils in your eyes or other sensitive areas. If you’re working with peppers lower on the Scoville scale (lower than Jalapeños), still be careful, but you will be fine without the rubber gloves or glasses if you don’t want to wear them. (We cook with Trinidad Scorpion and Carolina Reaper peppers regularly and have been totally fine not using gloves or glasses, but it is much smarter to protect yourself — especially your hands!!)
- Cook in a well ventilated space and turn your fan on: Don’t choke out everyone in your house cooking peppers. Make sure you have your fan running over your stove, have fans on, and are cooking in a well ventilated space. Peppers can be very potent, it’s important to use them carefully.
- Do not microwave hot peppers under any circumstance: The capsaicin will turn into essentially an aerosol which can burn you as soon as you open that microwave door. It’s like pepper spraying yourself in the face from your very own kitchen.
- Keep a dairy product in your fridge: It helps cut the heat and counteract the capsaicin due to the levels of casein. It will really help with soothing your taste buds if you overdo it.
- Water spreads the capsaicin: Keep this in mind if you get a bite of pepper that is way too hot. You want to go for something dairy based, something with a little acid, or something bland like a piece of bread of a bikte of rice or pasta.