Chiles are peppers that are very hot, even though that’s a relative term — some people think cayenne peppers are hot, but in general most people wouldn’t consider them hot enough to move them over into the chile category. They’re just hot peppers.
Not many European languages have enough words to distinguish between the various types of peppers. They just have one or two words for all peppers. English is perhaps the only European language that was flexible enough, and had the exposure to chiles through America, to develop enough words to convey all the nuances. Spanish, as spoken in Central and Latin America, would of course be the one language that developed even more nuanced words for chiles than English did, with words ranging in meaning from “this one will burn your tongue” to “this one will burn your tongue out.”
Most of the heat in chiles are in the seeds and the white membranes inside. In fact, the heat is actually in the membranes, and transfers to the seeds because of their proximity to the membranes. Generally, the larger a chile is, the milder it is.
How much is most of the heat? The oil “capsaicin” is the heat that you feel; the white ribs have 100 parts of capsaicin, the seeds 4 parts, and all the rest of the pepper, 6 parts. If your guests are good sports, leave the white in.
Don’t count on the colour or the size of a pepper as a sign of how hot it will be. Cooking does not reduce a chile’s heat.
Chiles grow well in container gardening. Many chile pepper plants are actually tender perennials, and can be over-wintered indoors in areas that have cold winters.
If you are buying fresh chile peppers, pick out ones that feel crisp, firm and unbruised. If you’re buying dried, avoid broken peppers: if they’re so brittle that they’re breaking, then they’re not just dried, they’re ancient.
The usual advice is that when buying chiles, look for plump ones that look fresh, and avoid shrivelled ones — all of which is common sense, but a few small ones naturally look shrivelled, and many fine chiles actually come dried.
Not all chile peppers are in the same “botanical” family. See “Language Notes” in main entry for “Peppers.”
The danger isn’t so much that you’ll rub your eyes while you are working with the peppers, as you’re usually too aware while doing that to make that mistake. It’s half an hour later that’s the problem.
Everyone always says when working with chiles to put on thin medical gloves. It’s not very helpful, given that there’s a dearth of medical gloves in most kitchens these days.
The actual element that you want to be careful of is the capsaicin, which contains the heat. It is an oil that can stick to your skin, and a quick rinse, even with soap, isn’t going to shift it.
There are two practical ways to handle this instead. If you’re working with a milder chile such as a Jalapeno, then just don’t rub your eyes while working with it, and develop the habit of immediately afterward scrubbing your hands really well with lots of soap — not just the usual 2 second splash under running water. Wash your hands a second time if you want to be really sure.
If you are working with a chile that moves into the dangerous range, such as a Habanero, some people advise taking the extra precaution before you start with it of lightly coating your hands with an oil, so that the oil can act as a layer between your skin and the capsaicin oil, so that when you go to scrub your hands well, the oil will come off more readily. If you do this, at least two scrubs are probably in order, and you would want to be even more cautious than usual when handling the knife as your hands may be slippery from the oil.
Wash fresh peppers before starting, then cut up as needed for what you are making. Discard stems, and seeds if desired.
When you encounter just “peppers” in a recipe, you just have to use common sense as to whether a chile pepper or a sweet pepper is meant.
Gram per gram, chiles contain 6 to 9 times as much vitamin C as do tomatoes.
- Once you have cut into a chile, wrap it in plastic wrap before putting the remainder back in the fridge;
- You can keep chile peppers in the fridge for up to 2 weeks if you wrap them in a piece of wet paper towel;
- You don’t have to blanch chile peppers before freezing. Wash, cut, remove the seeds (remove as many or as few as desired to reduce or keep heat), remove the white pith (for quality purposes), and toss into freezer bags or containers. Use for cooking (i.e. don’t try to serve them as fresh when you thaw them.)
It is estimated that chiles have been eaten since about 7,000 BC.
Columbus found chiles on his first trip in 1492. The natives were using them and introduced Columbus and his men to them. Because they were piquant, like black pepper, they got called peppers.
Literature & Lore
“Chilli” was the Nahuatl Indian word for “red”. The Spanish started all the confusion, by dropping one “l” and swapping a “e” for the final “i”, making “chile”, and then by also terming them “peppers”. In the UK and in Australia, “chilli” is used; it’s also used by some purists.
But general usage is that “chile” is the pepper, and “chili” is the meat and chile dish that originated in Texas.
“According to the New Mexican Chile Pepper Institute the spelling of the word ‘chile’ has evolved over time. Originally from the Aztec, Nahuatl word ‘chilli,’ the Spanish changed the spelling to chile in Mexico. In the United States while the USITC uses the category ‘chili peppers,’ production data from the USDA uses ‘chile.’ ” USAID Acceso. The US Market for Fresh Hot Peppers. Market Brief # 14. December 2014. Page 1.
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