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anatomy of a jalapeno

The Science of Chiles, Peppers, and Hot Sauces

"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." President Harry S. Truman

Chile, chili, chilli, chilies, pepper, paprika, aji, capsicum, chiles pasado, pimento, pimiento. Let's straighten out this mess.

In Central America the Nahuatl (Aztec) Indians grew a number of plants whose fruit they used in foods and medicines. They named it chil and its use spread across the region and Caribbean.

In 1492 Columbus discovered the Arawak Indians growing them on Hispanola and wrote that "They deem it very wholesome and eat nothing without it." He brought them back to Spain where the "e" eas added to chil, and within 50 years its' cultivation had spread around the world. Today there are scores of varieties, sizes, shapes, colors, flavors, and they all have a spicy heat of varying degrees. Horticulturists named the plant Capsicum, derived from the Greek word kapto, which means "to bite" and scientists named the active ingredient that bites capsaicin.

Here are the definitive definitions describing the differences between chiles and chilis, some info about how hot the common ones are, and some tips on using them.


There are three definitions for "Chile", with the concluding "e":

1) Chile is the colorful fruit (it is technically not a vegetable) of the Capsicum plant, also called a pepper (that's a fiesta pepper above). But this pepper is not at all the same as the black pepper we put next to the salt shaker. Black pepper is the powder made from grinding peppercorns, the fruit of the Piperaceae plant.

Most chiles are spicy hot, which they get from a chemical irritant named capsaicin, which, interestingly, is also used in ointments as a pain reliever for such ailments as shingles because it can numb nerves. Let that sink in for a moment. A few peppers, like the common green and red bell peppers, have no heat and can be quite sweet.

Let's bust another myth: Many people believe that the heat of a chile is all in the seeds. While the seeds do have some heat, by far most of the capsaicin is in the ribs that hold the seeds.

Most of the seeds are held in a bunch near the stem in a pod called the placenta. The closer the veins get to the placenta, the hotter they are. So if you have a low tolerance to heat, slice open the chile and gut it by removing the seeds and veins.

In the northern hemisphere, most chiles are harvested between August and October, and the biggest producers are New Mexico and California. Most are harvested when green, but the longer they ripen the redder they turn. Some are purple, yellow, and orange. When shopping for peppers, look for smooth skin, a sign of freshness, and select those that are heaviest. The main exception is the jalapeño, whose skin is often marked by thin woody brown cracks, which detract not at all from their quality.

Fresh peppers have very different flavors than dried peppers, chiles pasado. For that reason you should not substitute anchos, which are dried poblano peppers, for fresh poblanos in a recipe, or vise versa.

There are scores of different types of chiles, and they range in heat from mild to incendiary (see the table below).

Other definitions of chile:

2) Chile is also the name for powdered chile peppers in most countries. In Mexico and Asia and Europe, chile powder is simply ground dried red chiles.

3) Chile is a sauce made mostly of chile peppers. It is usually chiles chopped or pureed, mixed perhaps with some garlic and salt, but not much else. This definition is common in New Mexico and Texas, where chile sauce slathered on everything except marshmallows.

4) And of course, Chile is a sovereign nation in South America.


Chili, with the concluding "i", is used almost entirely in the US, and it also has multiple definitions:

1) Chili or American chili powder is a powdered spice mix made from dried chile peppers, cumin, garlic, and other spices.

2) Chili is also savory meat stew, usually beef, seasoned with American chili powder. It is the national dish of Texas.

3) Chili is a band: Red Hot Chili Peppers.

4) And Chili is a restaurant chain: Chili's Grill & Bar.

About Chili Powder

In Europe this is usually just ground hot chiles. In the US it is a blend of chiles and other spices.


Sometimes restaurants and recipes spell chili or chile with two Ls. It is wrong.

Bell Peppers and pimento

Those softball sized thick fleshed green and red peppers in your grocery store are called both bell peppers and sweet peppers.

The stuff in the middle of your martini olive is a slice of pimento which is a ripe red pepper which gets its name from the Spanish word pimiento, which means pepper. Pimento cheese sandwiches are common in the South and traditional at the Master's golf tournament in Augusta Georgia. It is made with chopped pimento, cheddar cheese, and mayonnaise

Sweet peppers can be roasted on the grill in the summer, allowing the skin to burn, then peeled, and frozen for use all winter. We usually put them in zipper bags with a splash of olive oil.

If you haven't tried them yet, I strongly recommend you experiment with orange bell peppers. They are rich, sweet, and have a hint of cinnamon. I love em.

My favorite hot pepper sauces are blends of both hot chiles and sweet peppers. Frank's is a great example.

sweet bell peppers

Buying and storing peppers

Try to buy firm fleshed peppers with tight skins like a botoxed face. A few peppers, like Scotch bonnets and habaneros have undulating surfaces, but small wrinkles are usually a sign of a pepper that is not fresh. Beware of soft flesh and bruises. They can be mushy or moldy inside. Moisture is the enemy of fresh peppers. Store them in the fridge in a paper bag for about a week. Plastic bags promote mold growth.

About paprika

The nomenclature for paprika can be confusing. In some countries paprika means fresh sweet chile peppers, in others it can mean hot chile pepper powder, but in the US it is always a powder and it is never hot unless it is so labeled.

When I refer to paprika or American paprika or sweet paprika in my recipes, I mean the simple mild reddish orange powder on most American grocery store spice racks. It is made from dried sweet red peppers. Much of it comes from Spain and Hungary and it resembles Spanish paprika or Hungarian paprika. When fresh, it has a mild flavor, and is used primarily for color. When old, it is just flavorless red dust. The McCormick spice people say that, pound for pound, paprika has a more Vitamin C than citrus fruit.

Then there's hot paprika, which has some hot peppers in the blend. There's also smoked sweet paprika and smoked hot paprika. They are made from peppers that are slowly dried in the presence of hardwood smoke, and they are easy to make at home. Just smoke hot red peppers at a low temp, preferably about 225°F for four to six hours until dry enough to grind. I usually remove the stem, split it lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds. This helps it dry faster and gets more smoke to the party. Show some style and make a blend of sweet red pepper and hot red pepper, and throw out that store bought dust.

How hot is that chile?

The amount of heat in a chile pepper is measured on a culinary Richter scale called the Scoville Heat Units (SHU) scale. One part per million of capsaicin is equivalent to 15 Scoville units. About 85% of the capsaicin in a chile pepper is concentrated in the ribs on the inside of the pepper, about 10% is in the seeds, and 5% in the meat and the skin. This means that you can get the flavor of a jalapeño, for example, without the heat, by removing the seeds and ribs.

Peppers start green and as they ripen turn red, orange, yellow, or purple as they ripen. In general the smaller the chile the hotter, the greener, the hotter, the skinnier, the hotter. The most notable exceptions to the rule are the habanero and the Scotch bonnet, both of which are broad shouldered, medium sized, orange or red, and very very hot. Recent research indicates chiles are hotter when grown in hot humid climates.

When chopping hot chile peppers it is wise to wear rubber gloves, and be sure not to touch your eyes, pick your nose, use the urinal, or make love before you wash thoroughly. On the last two items, I could relate stories I have heard, but this is a family website.

Chile sauces will change color and flavor with age, but the heat will not diminish.

Putting out the fire

Capsaicin is not water soluble, so if your mouth ignites when eating hot peppers or hot sauce, beer and cold water are not very good at putting out the fire. They only distribute the capsaicin oils. On the other hand, lipids in fats bind with capsaicin, so milk, yogurt, butter, and other fats do a better job of damping the flames. Ice cream and Indian fruit lassis are the perfect fire extinguishers. Reader Bob Walsh of Shoreview, MN, sent me this tip: "When your trying hot sauce have some chocolate chips on hand. If it's too hot pop one or two in your mouth. For most people it will tame it right away."

Here are some common peppers and their SHUs. Actual heat may vary depending on the sub-varieties, climate, and vintage. A more complete listing can be found on chilehead Scott Roberts' site.

To make your own signature hot sauce, start with my recipe for Controlled Burn Hot Sauce.

How hot is it?

Here are some benchmarks:

SHU (estimated) Chile
16,000,000 Pure capsaicin
5,300,000 Police grade pepper spray
1,000,000 Bhut Jolokia "Indian Ghost Chile"
210,000 Orange Habanero chiles
150,000 Red Habanero chiles
100,000-250,000 Scotch Bonnet chiles
80,000 Dave's Insanity Sauce
50,000-100,000 Thai chiles
30,000-50,000 Cayenne
15,000-30,000 Habanero hot sauces
15,000-30,000 McCormick's Crushed Red Pepper
25,000 Serrano chiles
5,000-15,000 Del Arbol chiles
5,000-15,000 Tabasco Sauce (original)
5,000-10,000 Chipotle powder, Sandia chiles
5,000 Standard Jalapeños
4,000 Pasilla (dried Chilaca)
1,000-3,000 Big Jim, Anaheim
1,000-3,000 New Mexico #20, New Mexico 6-4
1,000-1,500 Poblanos, Anchos (dried Poblanos)
1,000-1,500 Typical American chili powder
100-500 Pickled pepperoncini
0 Green bell pepper

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