So, why a separate section devoted to chiles, you ask? In a nutshell, because we love them, and they’re in the wheelhouse of cuisines all around this beautiful planet. There are somewhere north of fifty thousand chile cultivars grown worldwide, and that doesn’t include wild and unknown species. The word ‘chile’ may still be confusing to some, so let’s clarify. A lot of dictionaries still call them chili peppers, which is perfectly correct – That spelling stems from the Nahuatl ‘chilli.’. As chile culture has expanded worldwide, the chile spelling has become mainstream in North America, which helps to differentiate between the South American country, and the southwestern Tex Mex dish. Chillis or chiles are the fruit of the various wild and domesticated plants if the Genus Capsicum. And yes, Virginia, chiles are fruit, just like tomatoes.
A member of the Nightshade family, chiles originated in Mexico, and have spread around the world mostly due to the Portuguese and Spanish in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They are now an integral part of most major cuisines, from China to Europe, and Africa to the Middle East. Got a guess as to which country produces the most? As of 2014, it was China, with a shade over eighteen million tonnes annually – Far above anywhere else – Can you say, Szechuan?
There are five major chile species, which break down as follows.
Capsicum annuum. This species covers most of the sweet or low heat chiles, like Bell, Sweet Italian, and Paprika, as well as some medium heat standouts, such as the Serrano, Jalapeño, and Cayenne varieties.
Capsicum baccatum. More obscure to us here in El Norte, but widely cultivated down south. Includes varieties like Amarillo, Limon, Bishops Crown, and Piquanté, (The latter includes the noble Peppadew, one of my absolute faves.)
Capsicum chinense. This species is the parent for some of the nastiest stuff out there, including Trinidad Scorpion, Bhut Jolokia, Carolina Reapers, as well as milder but still potent standbys like the Hanbanero, or Scotch Bonnet.
Capsicum frutescens. Includes our legendary Tabasco chile, the lion’s share of the cultivars grown in India, the three most common hot chiles grown in China, and several potent North African cultivars.
Capsicum pubescens. Not super well know up here, but can reasonable be called a member of the Royal Chile Family down in South America. They’re a striking species, with flashy flowers, hairy leaves, and black seeds. Popular cultivars include Canaria, Rocoto, Manzano, and Peron.
Many recipes you’ll encounter will call for a specific chile. When you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to try as many different varieties as you can. Once you find what you like best, there’s not a thing wrong with using them instead of the called for chile if you like yours better.
A big heat caveat – in this day and age of truly ridiculous chiles grown solely to be the hottest thing out there, care and due caution is not only advised, it’s an absolute must. Don’t go loading up On Pepper X, Dragons Breath, Carolina Reapers, Trinidad Moruga Scorpions, or Bhut Jolokias unless you truly know what you’re getting into and genuinely can handle this stuff. I say this because those I just named are among the hottest things on record – they score so high on the Scoville scale, it’s ridiculous, (Pepper X is over 3 millions SHUs, and the increase rate is exponential.) Eating them will not only will be no fun, it can do you physical harm, and that’s no exaggeration – Don’t screw with über hot stuff casually. Finally, the list we’ve provided here is by no means complete, it’s just what we have in our pantry. You can round yours out as you discover things on your own.
speaking of heat ratings, while not all chiles are hot, (Bell peppers are indeed members of the Clan), the recent popularity of stupid hot chiles and sauces has developed a culture that makes rating the heat level of the varieties available important. The widely used Scoville Scale measures chile heat in terms of SHUs, or Scoville Heat Units. Wilbur Scoville, who in 1912 invented the test process that bears his name, was a Massachusetts Yankee, (and how about them apples?) Many sales and descriptive sites for chiles will offer a heat rating in SHUs. This can give you a decent measure to go by, once you have an idea of what a given rating means to you personally. The obvious kinks in the system are presented by the fact that heat perception and tolerance are very personal things, and once again, a supposedly ‘mild’ chile can from time to time be a killer. Those monsters I mentioned above? They all clock in north of two million SHUs, whereas a jalapeño is more in the 5,000 SHU range – Now do you get the picture about deadly Chiles? For the record, I don’t include any of the super hot chiles in the following list, because frankly, I think they’re ridiculous and potentially dangerous.
Respect for chiles: I remember back in the early ’80’s, working on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, some friends and I got together for a communal meal. Molly, from Texas, had a little canning jar full of some evil looking green chiles. She noted they were “real hot”, (Classic Texas understatement), and that anyone handling them needed to be “real careful.” One of the guys, perhaps under the influence of too many cervesas, didn’t heed the warning and headed off to take a leak. I will never forget the expression that spread across his face upon his return. From wonder, to surprise, to mild fear to full born panic, at which point he ran out of the house, across the lawn and straight into the river, where he stood, waist high, moaning. and when we lived in Texas, the sautéing of a supposedly fairly mild jalapeño literally ran the whole family out of the house choking and coughing. Caveat emptor.
In any event, charitable and cautious are the bywords for handling chiles, (here’s a reason cops carry pepper spray, OK?) Dang near any chile can and might be real hot, even if all its buddies aren’t.
1. Test before you cook. When I cut the top off a chile to begin prepping it for cooking, I very lightly touch the freshly sliced chile top, and then very lightly touch my lip. That will tell you what you’re dealing with and you can adjust the amount used and prepping procedures accordingly.
2. It’s probably a good idea to buy some food prep gloves and wear them when you work with chiles.
3. Fresh or dried, Unless you really like heat, it’s best to ‘field strip’ your chiles prior to use. Remove the top, inner membrane, (Or pith), and discard that – Contrary to popular myth, the seeds of a chile aren’t where the heat is – It’s in that pith between the meat of the chili and the seed pods.
4. Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth right after prepping chiles, (Other than for field testing, as discussed above).
5. To clean up after chile work, wash your hands with hot water and plenty of soap, and use a fingernail brush too. Squeezing a little lime or lemon juice on your hands thereafter will help get rid of residual capsaicin.
what to do if you want to work with a chile that you know is hot? If field stripping doesn’t cool ‘em enough for you, then soak the stripped chiles in 4 tablespoons of salt dissolved in a quart of cold water – that will also help reduce the fire. Finally, roasting does a lot to chill things out as well, as will pickling. Between all those options, you should be able to try many chiles and actually enjoy the experience.
What to do if you just ate a nuclear chile and you’re now dying a slow, horrible death? first and foremost, Do NOT drink water – All that’s gonna do is wash the hot stuff down your gullet. Eat saltine crackers or bread and wash it down with cold milk. That will help cool the fire. I might add that lemon or limeade will bind nicely to the capsaicin and cool you down pretty well too – There is a reason that so many margaritas are sold with Tex Mex food.
Before we speak to specifics, know that chile names are not 100% set in stone. Take the noble Anaheim chile, which you can find almost year ‘round in stores these days. These guys got their name when Emilio Ortega brought the chile to California from New Mexico in the early 1900s, (And yes, Emilio is the guy who begat the Ortega brand of canned chiles and other Hispanic sundries, an enterprise that is very much alive and well to this day). In most places, it’s called an Anaheim, but fact is, a lot of what we call Hatch chiles are the same fruit, (Even If New Mexican chile heads get seriously pissed off when this is even suggested.) In Texas, those same chiles are often called Long Green or Big Jims. Colorado and Guajillos are also Anaheim variants. This occurs elsewhere in the world too, like when the Basque call a local chile one thing, and the French and Spanish two others – You’ll get the picture.
Finally, a note on home cultivation. For a long time, most of the chiles listed were only available as dried product from somewhere else, but that’s changing radically and rapidly – Many, if not all of these can be found as viable seeds, or even fresh in season, which means you can grow a lot of them. As far as where that works, we grow them here within rock throwing distance of the Canadian border, as do our friends in north central Minnesota – If we can do it, you probably can too.
Aleppo. This is a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean standout from the C. annuum species. They are generally medium heat, with wonderful fruity depth and complexity.
Amarillo. Not crazy, but quite hot for us normal folks. Long, slender, and dries well. Part of the Peruvian Holy Trinity aromatic base mix, along with garlic and red onion.
Anaheim. Around 5” to 9” long, slender and light green, the Anaheim and its variants are unsurpassed in creating great Tex Mex food. Anaheims vary from mild to hot and, like the Jalapeno, have a nice peppery flavor profile. The Anaheim is a bit wrinkly when fresh, but should never feel soft or mushy to the touch. Anaheims are often roasted, peeled, pureed and used for sauces.
Ancho. This is a Poblano chile ripened until they’re red, then dried and smoked. The signature Ancho is dark in color and flat as a pancake. The flavor is really something – earthy, fruity, and deep, with a hint of heat that can sometimes become a roar.
Arbol or Birds Beak. Also called the Colla de Rata, (rat tail chile), these C. frutescens cultivars are hot little beasts indeed. Cultivated worldwide, this is the horsepower behind hot Thai chile dishes and Ethiopian rocket fuel, AKA Piri Piri.
Cascabel. The ‘rattle’ chile, so named because they do just that when you shake ‘em. Mild heat and a very nice, light smoky flavor make these a wonderful choice for rubs and sauces.
Cayenne. For a long time, the only hot chile form available up here. I find them boring, frankly, because they sort of ended up overbred and underpowered, like delicious apples. That’s not entirely fair these days, because renewed interest in cultivation has brought some life back to the variety.
Cherry. Fat, hot little guys with some delightful sweetness. These chiles, dried and smoked, are sublimely potent.
Chile de Arbol. These ‘Bird’s beak,’ or ‘Rat tail’ chiles are small, skinny, shiny red balls o’ fire. While they will add chile flavor and red color to a dish, they’re claim to fame is heat, plain and simple. These days you are starting to see fresh de Arbols more often. Used as a more complex option than a plain ol’ cayenne.
Chipotle. A smoked, dried Jalapeno by any other name. Like the Habanero fad, chipotle seasoned pseudo Tex Mex has exploded lately, but this too shall pass… Chipotles are little, wrinkly guys that vary from tan to dark brown in color, with a distinct smoky note and a surprisingly complex taste profile. They’re the go-to chile for making chili powder. Heat level is moderate to hot.
Colorado. Ripened and dried, this is what becomes of the Anaheim, Hatch, etc chile. Dark red and shiny, these are what comes into your mind’s eye when you think of a ristra of dried chiles hanging in somebody’s kitchen. If that somebody happens to be you, and you thought those things were just window dressing, think again! These guys can be rehydrated for use in sauces, or ground and made into chili powder. The heat varies from mild to wow, with everything in between.
Ethiopian Hot. Roughly jalapeño sized and shaped, these things are nuclear. Not stupid, like the stuff grown just to be stupid, but enough to really get your attention for quite a while if you’re not careful.
Guajillo. The dried form of the very popular Mirasol Mexican chile. Guajillos are shiny red and thin fleshed and their flavor profile is truly wonderful. Tannic, with fruit tones and a minor smoky note, They shine in sauces and salsa, and make great chili powder as well.
Habanero. Widely touted as “The hottest chile,” for many, many years, they ain’t even close these days – That said, these guys top out at 350,000 SHUs, which is most formidable, so beware. While the Habanero has gotten a bad rap as having nothing to offer but heat, nothing could be further from the truth. Granted, in general, these little buggers are way hot compared to everything else we’ve discussed so far, but they have a delicious, fruity flavor profile that no other chile I know offers. The best examples of using these guys stems from Caribbean cookery. Remember what I wrote earlier about using what you like – habaneros can be tamed such that taste overrides heat.
Hahong Ku Chu. Korean rocket fuel. Roughly the size and shape of a Serrano, these are notably hotter, with a very nice, fruity profile.
Hungarian. Most are jalapeño shaped but larger, and most are hot to some degree – Not stupid, albeit they can get pretty spicy. Really nice flavor profiles leaning toward fruity. Wax, yellow, and black are popular, and for good reason.
Inca. Several varieties available up here in the states, they are generally small and amazingly potent – Hot enough to qualify as a don’t screw with it chile, there is remarkable flavor here as well.
Italian. Wide variety, from sweet to hot, the frying peppers are delightful, and I count this variety of sweet peppers among my absolute favorites – Much more flavor and character than bells.
Jalapeño. The go-to chile for Tex Mex and the heartbeat of Sriracha. In our house, you won’t always find bell peppers or other fresh chiles, but you will always find jalapeños.They’re a low to medium heat chile with a distinct peppery flavor profile. Used widely in dishes, salsas, or as a side item either pickled or fresh. Jalapenos are most often in the 3” to 5” length range, kind of torpedo shaped, and with a glossy, green or red skin.
Kung Pao. A fairly new Chinese varietal, these look like long, skinny Serrano’s. They are medium hot, with excellent flavor that goes well in their namesake dish, as well as a raft of other Chinese and southeast Asian dishes.
Limon and Lemon Drop. South American C. annuum standouts, That lean toward the hot side. That said, they’ve got an intensely floral, citrusy profile that’s out of this world.
Malagueta. The National chile of Brazil, these tiny little things pack a serious wallop. That said, they also have amazing flavor, and are great for pickling and marinating, (but be cautious).
Mulato. Similar to an Ancho, in that they are a dried form of Poblano. Ripened until they turn brown, Mulatos are smoky, sweet in taste, with hints of chocolate, cherries, and tobacco therein. Along with Ancho and Pasilla, they are part of the Mexican Holy Chile Trinity, and a key to great molé.
New Mexican. While basically an Anaheim chile, the variety, complexity and depth of the chiles that comes from New Mexico are absolutely unique and undeniably desirable. When we moved to Texas almost twenty years ago, you’d see, hear and smell the sound of Hatch chiles being roasted at your local market in the early fall – Now that happens all the way up here by the Canadian border, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s part of the annual joy of fall to buy, roast, freeze and dry Hatch chiles to see you through the long winter. While not all chiles called Hatch actually hail from that small New Mexican town, if they’re from down there and fresh, they’re a must have.
Ortega Hot. A red New Mexican variety developed by the namesake company. Plenty hot, with great grassy, earthy flavor to back it up.
Paprika. There a wide variety of these dried, powdered chiles, and like the fruit themselves, they vary in heat and flavor a lot, depending on where they’re from and what they’re typically used for. In very broad terms, you can find hot, sweet, semi-sweet, and smoked quite readily. Again, Spanish is a whole different animal than Hungarian, and so on – If you’re a chile head, you’re gong to want to experiment with a range of these powdered gems, and of course, most of us can grow them successfully as well.
Pasilla. In its true form,this is a dried Chilaca chile; as noted previously, dried Anaheims can sometimes be called pasillas, but it just ain’t necessarily so… Pasillas are found as Pasilla Oaxaca and Pasilla Negro and the two are somewhat different. The Oaxaca chile has a distinct, smoky fruit flavor and heat that hits you later than sooner. The Pasilla Negro is fruity and milder, with less of a dominant smoke note. The Negro, Mulato and Ancho chiles are known as ‘The Holy Trinity’ for making mole.
Peppadew. Trademarked name for a South African variant of the C. baccatum piquanté chile. They’re a very mild chile, and the commercial version has quite a bit of sugar added during brining. They’re firm little cherry tomato sized things, and absolutely delicious.
Pepperoncini. Thin skinned, yellowish green chiles, some short, some long, and prized for pickling. The longer mild ones are fabulous frying chiles. Virtually all of them have wonderful flavor.
Peperoncino Piccante. Famous chile from Calabria, these arrived in the 1500s and have been prized ever since. The hot variety has fangs, indeed, with a deep, sweet fruitiness to back it up.
Pequin. Another of my favorites to grow, not the least because they used to grow wild all over Texas and northern Mexico. Tiny and very hot, they hit hard and dissipate fast. Birds love to eat ‘em and who ever knew they were Chileheads too? A nice, peppery fruit taste profile goes with the fast heat.
Pimente D’espelette. Called Biperra by the Basque, this rightfully famous chile is a delight. Nice back of the mouth heat pairs with smokiness and a complex, fruity profile.
Poblano. The fresh form of the venerable Pasilla and Ancho dried chiles, the Poblano is the go-to wrapper for Chiles Rellenos. Dark green and glossy, between 4” and 8” in general, with a strong, rich pepper flavor, Poblanos vary from mild to hot. Look for chiles with smooth, firm skin and no signs of rot or age at the base of the stem. The heartbeat of the Holy Trinity of Mexican chiles, and the worlds finest stuffing chile, as far as I’m concerned.
Serrano. A small, bullet shaped, medium-green chile that usually packs a pretty good heat wallop. Usually around 3” to 5” in length and slender, the Serrano may not be as widely known as the Jalapeno, but is dang near as popular in Tex Mex cooking. My Tejano friends like ‘em better than Jalapenos because they have more heat and a more complex, earthy flavor profile. Choose smooth skinned, firm chiles with no signs of rot or age.
Shishito. Called Khwari-Gochu in Korea, this mild, sweet chile is a Japanese cultivar that hails from the C. annuum species. Great flavor and thin skins make these a very fine frying pepper.
Tabasco. If you think the sauce is hot, let me tell you – That’s nothing compared to these little bastards eaten straight. The length of a thumbnail, half as wide, and bright red, this is nature’s way of saying beware. They also pack a fabulously deep, fruity, earthy flavor profile, which is why they rock for pickling and marinades, as well as dried – A couple of shakes will add a perfect amount of mouth feel and umami richness to soups, stews, and sauces.
Takanotsume. Another Japanese cultivar, these short, skinny chiles pack pretty serious heat. Nice earthy, fruity flavor profile.
Tepin. These pea sized little bombs grow wild in northern Mexico and parts of the southwestern US, (they’re called Chiltepin in Texas). They pack an unbelievable heat punch into a small package. I’d be willing to bet that the Guyanan Wiri Wiri chile derived from this stock too.
Thai. There’s a wide variety of chiles called Thai. Count on all of them being rather hot, but every one I’ve tried also had very nice flavor to go along with the heat.
Vietnamese. Same gig as the Thai chiles – Notable heat, with great flavor to go along with that.
Urfa Biber. Also known as the Isot chile, this is a Turkish and Kurdish mainstay, and one of my absolute favorites – It’s not well known or widely used here in the States at all, but it should be. Dried, smoked and ground, this is a remarkably moist, oily chile, with a smoky top note, followed by amazing complexity – earthy, woody, chocolate and dried fruit all come to mind. Amazing in dishes where they’re allowed to speak as a dominant note.