The following paragraphs are bits of information that chile-heads of all stripes should know. Keep in mind, however, that these are the basics. This doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the available body of knowledge of chile peppers, plants and their uses. Most of the following data comes from the venerable Dave DeWitt. Mr. DeWitt is the publisher and editor of the Fiery Foods & Barbeque Magazine and the Fiery Foods Super Site (www.fiery-foods.com) as well as an author of many books on the subject, such as The Complete Chile Pepper Book: A Gardener's Guide to Choosing, Growing, Preserving, and Cooking. If you are interested in expanding your chile knowledge, I would recommend his books and the magazine. There is much to know. With that, may your education begin.
The Origins of Peppers
Current theories hold that all chile peppers originated in central Bolivia, South America. Some species drifted to the Andes mountains of Chile and Peru. Others moved south into southern Bolivia and southern South America. Other species migrated into the Amazon basin and into Central America and Mexico. All chile peppers come from the Americas. Columbus "discovered" them in the West Indies and brought them back to Europe where they eventually spread to the rest of the world.
What the Burn Is
The burning sensation from eating chile peppers is caused by a group of compounds called capsaicinoids. It is often simply called capsaicin, though this is simply one of the capsaicinoids. These compounds are concentrated in the white veins in the pepper that hold the seeds. The capsaicinoids in their pure form are a white, crystalline powder highly irritating to skin.
How the Burn Works
When hot peppers or sauce hit your mouth, the burning sensation is caused by an irritation of a particular cell called the trigeminal cell. These cells detect pain, pressure and temperature. This irritation causes them to release something called substance P (no joke). This is what tells your brain, "Ouch!" When there is a regular exposure of hot stuff, the nerve endings become somewhat depleted of this substance P. This is called desensitization. This is the tolerance that becomes built up after eating peppers for some time. If the chile diet is discontinued, the substance P stores will re-build to normal. It would take quite a bit of capsaisin to kill any tastebuds. Tastebuds replace themselves every couple of weeks anyway, so it should be no worry in the long run.
Soothing the Burn
We have all, no doubt, put something in our mouths with the sudden realization that it was a huge mistake. The feeling of panic may be overwhelming as we look for liquid to put out the fire. The first reaction is to reach for water. This, however, is false hope. Water does virtually nothing to abate the hot chile's sting. It is commonly held that dairy products are the best solutution. Science backs this up. First of all, the capsaicinoid compounds are not water soluble, but fat soluble. The fat in dairy will help to break to it down. As well, there is a substance in milk called casein. This stuff will actually strip the capsaicin from the nerve receptor. So, when you are paying for your arrogance at a Thai restaurant with the first bite of "Nuclear Fishin,'" ask for milk as calmly as possible. They'll laugh at you, still, but relief will be on its way. Beer works fine as well. Capsaicin is alcohol soluble. Plus, alcohol is good at deadening pain.
The Scoville Unit
The Scoville Unit is the measurement of heat in a pepper or sauce. It is named after a chemist in the early nineteen hundreds by the name of Wilbur Scoville. While working for a pharmaceutical company, he decided to devise a scale of heat for chile peppers. It's a bit complicated to describe in detail, but basically, the test involves the dilusion of a quantity of pepper until it can no longer be detected. It is recorded in units of 100. The test is called the "Scoville Organoleptic Test." This highly subjective method is no longer employed. These days, a sophisticated device called a liquid chromatographer is used. Out of reverence, it is still called the "Scoville Unit." To give some scale of heat in Scovilles, most jalapenos range from 5000-7000, cayennes/tabascos are from 30,000-50,000, Thai and pequin peppers are about 70,000-100,000, and habaneros hover around 200,000.
The hottest pepper in the world is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper from the island of Trinidad. It has been tested at over TWO MILLION Scoville Heat Units!!! The habanero, which gets up to 500,000, only thought it was the hottest and was declared so for many years. Jolokia (aka "Ghost Peppers") are currently considered the hottest family of pepper. The Trinidad Scorpions are a specific strain of Jolokia. The hottest product on the market is Blair's 16 Million Reserve. This is chemical-grade capsaicin, a white crystal powder in a very small vial. We sell it in the store for a paltry $500, a ten-minute talk and a waiver signature.
When spicy foods are consumed, the common reaction of the body is to sweat, particularly on the forehead. The technical term for this is gustatory perspiration.
Pepper Health Facts
It is well established that chile peppers are good for you. Low in calories, peppers contain twice as much vitamin C, per weight, as citrus fruits and more vitamin A than carrots (especially red chiles). As well, peppers aid in digestion and speed up metabolism. There are actually diet books on the market that outline a "chile diet" that will speed the burning of calories. Hot sauce is also a great way to replace things like salt and butter to help spice up bland food. Chile peppers are indeed a guilt free way to improve the way we eat.
Peppers Like Each Other
A unique characteristic of the chile pepper plant is that they all cross-breed with each other. For example, if a jalapeno plant is put next to a habanero plant, the offspring can have attributes of each plant (such as a super hot jalapeno or a mild habanero). The ease of cross-breeding is reliant upon the species of plants, however.
Peppers in Medicine
This is a fascinating aspect of the chile pepper. There are several uses for capsaicin in the field of medicine--some on the market and some in the research stages. Pain relief, especially for arthritis and joint pain, is the most common usage right now. Many creams for pain relief now contain capsaicin. The depletion of substance P in the nerves help to reduce nagging pain. Another medical use, amazingly enough, is in the treatment of ulcers. Since the discovery of the bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, as the primary cause of ulcers, antibiotics have been the common treatment. Chile peppers have natural antibiotic properties. As well, they stimulate the mucosa of the stomach. Quite a switch from the old ideas of avoiding spicy foods!
Other Uses for Peppers
Other than culinary and medicinal, chile peppers have some uses that are quite interesting. For example, capsaicin is being added to paint for the bottoms of ships to keep them clear of barnacles. Some home uses for chile powder include putting some cayenne in with the bird seed to keep out the squirrels. Birds have an incredible tolerance for pepper heat and the vitamin A improves their plumage. Cayenne powder is a handy remedy for pests such as ants. Just line the door jam to keep them out. A good, strong extract brushed on cables and wires will keep rodents from chewing on them. The uses go on and on.
Chile, Chili, Chilli or Chillie?
Within the world of spicy foods, there is some disagreement upon the spelling of the plant and pod that we all know and love. Probably the best answer to this is that it all just depends upon where you live. Here in the South and Southwestern U.S. (we're in Texas) it is called "chile" and "chile pepper." We have adopted the Spanish word as we feel that it's theirs to own. In professional circles it is known as such as well. However, in England, Australia and the American north, it is commonly spelled "chili." That is what we call our spicy meat stew. In India and Asia, it is often spelled "chilli." And finally, here and there (such as South Africa) it will be seen as "chillie." Who's right? Who cares. Just enjoy them.
Peppers Dried & Smoked
As you probably already know, there are many different peppers in both the fresh and dried varieties. It can get confusing when the same pepper is called different things when they are fresh or dried. Ancho is dried pablano. ChipoTLe (not chipolte. That drives me nuts) is a particular kind of jalapeno that is smoked and in different levels of dehydration. Chipotles en adobo (or adobe) are dried, smoked jalapenos that are reconstituted in tomato puree. Great for cooking. The confusion in the names of peppers extends to the fresh ones too. An Anaheim pepper in one place might be a pasilla somewhere else. When buying, ask the grocer.
A Word on Cayenne
The cayenne pepper is typically regarded as the grandfather of the chile for cooking most associated with the Cajun food of Louisiana. This popular chile variety is primarily grown and consumed in the U.S. All of these peppers grown in the U.S. are cultivated for mash to make the most common hot sauces such as Louisiana brand and Durkee's Red Hot. Most of the dried, ground "cayenne" used for cooking and medicinal purposes are not actually cayenne. Any small, red chile pepper can be labelled "cayenne." The term has become a generic name for a large number of varieties. It is difficult to find pure cayenne all by itself.
Peppers of Many Colors
It can be difficult to determine the type and variety of pepper sometimes due to the vast variation of colors. One variety of pepper pod may be green, orange, yellow, red or even brown. The change in color is due to how long it is left on the plant. Most all peppers start out green. Even though green means that it is immature, this does not mean that it is inedible. Most jalapenos and serranos are green at the store. If left on the plant, these chiles will turn red. Red jalapenos and serranos are available, but are typically more expensive. As they redden, the flavor usually mellows and becomes sweeter as there are more sugars stored in the pods. Red pods are often hotter and always have far more vitamin A than the green pods. Aside from these differences, the desired color is often a personal preference.