If you like to cook with chili
peppers - and so many people do these days, given
the popularity of such spicy cuisines as Mexican,
Asian, and Caribbean - you've probably heard of
the Scoville scale. Chile aficionados will brag
that their favorite chilies are the hottest, with
a scorching 300,000 on the Scoville scale, while
that jalapeño you've just learned to love only measures
a wimpy 4,000. But what exactly do these numbers
mean, and how do they translate into useful information?
Scoville took the guesswork out
of judging chiles. Let's start with the invention
of the Scoville scale, and then we'll look at how
different varieties of chilies rank in this heat
hierarchy. In 1912, a man named Wilbur L. Scoville
was working for a company that made an ointment
for aching joints in which capsaicin, the heat-causing
compound in chilies, was an important ingredient.
The company was constantly frustrated because the
heat level in chilies varied so much. Scoville devised
a formal test in which exact weights of chilies
were dissolved in alcohol and then added to sweetened
water in precise measures. Tasters were asked to
determine how much water was needed to neutralize
the heat. A rating number was assigned, according
to how many units of water were added before the
chili's heat became imperceptible.
Scoville's test was used for
the next six decades, yet it wasn't totally reliable,
given the fact that human testers' palates are different
and easily fatigued by repeated tasting of hot food.
In 1980, a more objective test was introduced, the
High-Pressure Liquid Chromatography Test, in which
powdered chilies are dissolved and then analyzed
through a light beam that shows the heat compounds
as fluorescent. Most large producers use this test
today, but because the Scoville name has been so
deeply ingrained in the industry, they make a conversion
and still express the pungency in Scoville units.
The Scoville scale ranks fire
but not flavor. So what does any of this have to
do with the flavor of chilies? Not much. These tests
isolate only the heat-causing compounds, but tell
us nothing about the overall flavor. The heat of
a chili is found in the inner membrane, while the
flavor comes from the meaty pod itself and makes
all the difference in how we experience the heat.
These tests also do nothing to discern how the heat
is felt. As anyone who has eaten a lot of chilies
will tell you, some, such as the habanero, deliver
sharp, quick bursts of heat, while others, such
as the fiery red Thai pepper, burn and linger. Some
hit you up front on the lips and tip of the tongue,
while others scorch your entire mouth and throat.
Even the researchers themselves will admit that
for all their accuracy, the pepper is a fickle plant:
its heat varies widely from pod to pod, plant to
plant, garden to garden, and season to season. Even
on a single bush, a pod from the sunnier side will
be hotter than one from the shady side. A quick
look at a sample Scoville scale (right) shows the
wide variances within each type of chili.
The Scoville rating provides
a good general measure of the relative heat of different
chilies. In other words, you can be assured that
a cayenne will be hotter than a Poblano. But ultimately,
taste remains a subjective experience. There's no
substitute for breaking open a chili and tasting
it yourself (carefully) for flavor and, of course,
Techniques for Fresh Chiles
Fresh chilies are becoming more
available all the time, and few supermarkets are
without the ubiquitous jalapeño. But the range in
quality can be discouraging, and it can be difficult
to distinguish fresh chilies from ones that have
been on the shelves a while. When shopping for fresh
chilies, look for those with smooth, tight skin
and a thick, meaty body. A fresh chili should have
some heft relative to its diminutive size.
If you won't use your chilies right away,
keep them cool and dry. You can refrigerate them,
but be sure to first remove them from the plastic
produce bag; otherwise, they'll be-come soft and
moldy. The length of time that chilies will stay
fresh in the refrigerator depends on how fresh they
were when you bought them, but generally they'll
keep for three or four days without suffering any
loss of freshness. Once the chill's skin begins
to wrinkle, it will lose some of its potency, and
if you're roasting or blanching them, the skins
will be difficult to peel.
Unless you have particularly
tough hands, it's a good idea to use rubber gloves
when handling fresh chilies. Many cookbooks recommend
using dishwashing gloves, but I find that these
are rather clumsy and that getting a handle on small
chilies while wearing them can be frustrating. Instead,
I like to keep a few pairs of surgical gloves around
the kitchen. Available at most drugstores, surgical
gloves are cheap, disposable, and best of all, they
allow you to get a firm grip on the chilies. Once
you've begun working with the chilies, be extremely
careful not to touch any part of your body, especially
your eyes. After you've finished, wash your knife
and cutting board with hot soapy water.
with a grip. Surgical gloves protect sensitive skin
from chilies painful sting, and they improve your
is the chemical compound that gives chilies their
heat. An alkaloid, capsaicin is distributed throughout
the chili, but the heaviest concentration of capsaicin
is found in the white pith on the inside of the
chili--those ribs that hold the seeds in place.
Further down on the scale of concentration are the
seeds and then the chili's flesh, which has the
least amount of capsaicin. This gives you a convenient
way of controlling the amount of heat that the chili
contributes to a dish. To get the most bang out
of the chili, use it whole; for a milder flavor,
simply trim out the seeds and ribs.
chilies the easy way
Start by cutting off the entire
stem, and then slice the chili in half lengthwise.
With the tip of a paring knife, you can remove the
seeds and ribs by slicing or nudging them with the
knife point. With seeds and ribs out of the way,
the chilies are easily cut into strips or a fine
and seeding a chile. After removing the stem, slice
the chile lengthwise to expose the seeds and ribs.
Remove the seeds and ribs to moderate the heat,
or leave them in for extra punch.
Many dishes, especially Mexican
and Southwestern recipes, call for the chilies to
be peeled. You can do this by first charring or
blanching the whole chilies. To char, rub them with
a little oil and then set them directly over a gas
burner. Turn the chilies frequently with tongs or
a fork to prevent burning through to the flesh.
When the skins have charred and blistered slightly,
pop the chilies into a plastic bag and let them
steam in their own juices for about 20 minutes.
The skins should now rub off easily.
chilies won't give you the smoky flavor that charring
does, but the technique is great if you don't have
a gas stove. Simply drop the chilies into boiling
water for 30 seconds or so, and then plunge them
into ice water. Once the chilies have cooled, they
can be skinned just as if they were charred.
Drying chili peppers
Drying chilies is one of the
best ways to preserve your harvest, but be sure
to dry them when they're fully ripe for the finest
flavor. For poblanos, this means when they turn
bright red. Any type of chili can be dried by one
of the following methods, except for jalapeños,
which do best when they're smoke-dried (turning
them into chipotles). Don't try drying chilies with
black spots; they'll turn moldy and rot.
If you live in a dry climate, the simplest way to
dry the chilies is to tie them on a string by their
stems, in clusters of three, and hang them in the
sun. This is called a ristra. When the pods
are dry but still pliable (this could take weeks,
depending on the heat and humidity), hang them indoors
and out of direct sunlight to finish drying.
Chili Growing Tips
In areas of high humidity, the chilies might rot
before the sun can dry them, so your best bet is
to halve them lengthwise and use the oven (or a
food dehydrator). In a gas oven, set the halved
chilies directly on a baking sheet and dry them
using just the heat from the pilot light. This may
take a couple of days or longer. In an electric
oven, the chilies will dry much faster. Set the
oven to low, about 175°F, and check the chilies
few minutes to make sure they don't burn.
The chilies are fully dry when they snap, not
just bend. Store them in sealed glass jars in a
cupboard, or in the freezer double-wrapped in freezer
bags. (Don't put bagged chilies in a cupboard because
the plastic is porous and the chilies can oxidize,
ruining both the color and the flavor.) With both
storage methods, dried chilies last indefinitely.
To reconstitute the chilies, soak them in hot
water for about 15 minutes, fry them in a bit of
oil until they puff up, or lightly roast them. Dried
chilies can also be ground to a powder when you're
ready to use them (no earlier, because the powder
would lose its flavor).
Chilies are in the same family
as tomatoes and potatoes. They are grown for their
fruits, which are usually picked when green, although
they can be left to turn red on the bush, which
usually takes about another 2 to 3 weeks. They are
best picked green as leaving them on the plant until
red will not improve on the flavour. Chilies will
grow in similar conditions to tomatoes although
better results are achieved in higher temperatures
and humidity. A better crop will be achieved by
growing under glass, although they can be cultivated
outdoors in sheltered sites with plenty of sun.
Seeds need to be sown in 1 inch pots with 2 to 3
seeds in each and thinly covered in compost. Germination
can then take up to 4 to 6 weeks in a temperature
of 70F, although the majority of seeds germinate
in about the first 2 weeks. As soon as the seedlings
are large enough to handle, prick them out into
individual 3 inch pots discarding any weak plants
and give them a potash liquid feed to maintain growth.
The plants will still need a temperature of about
60F, so will need to be kept indoors or a heated
After about 12 weeks they should
now be large enough to transplant into 10 inch pots
which can now be placed in an unheated greenhouse
or outdoors, if weather is suitable, about 12 inches
apart. Now weather and variety depending, they will
grow to about 24 inches high or slightly higher
in a greenhouse although they should be encouraged
to bush out by pinching out the growing tip when
4 to 6 inches tall. Always keep well watered if
grown in pots or growing bags as they tend to dry
out fairly quickly, more so than if planted straight
into the ground, erratic watering will lead to problems
such as blossom end rot or cracking of fruits. Mist
plants regularly to keep down pests and encourage
fruit set. Once fruit has set a nitrogen liquid
feed will be necessary with each watering, also
some kind of support may be necessary to attach
stems to depending on size.
should be ready for picking after about 5 to 8 months
depending on location and temperatures although
outdoor growing may need up to another 8 weeks.
Cut chilies when they are green, swollen and glossy,
any ripe unpicked chilies left on the plant will
turn red within 2 to 3 weeks.
will stay fresh for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator
if kept in a sealed container. When using some of
the hotter chilies they are best prepared wearing
gloves when removing the seeds and inner pith, as
any contact with the skin afterwards will cause
burning when you touch your face or other any other
delicate parts......which is inevitable, take my
word for it, washing with water afterwards will
not remedy the situation. With a good harvest bag
the chilies up and freeze them, or if weather is
good enough dry them out in the sun, although I
have had good results spreading them out on a baking
tray and placing on top of a boiler.
Diseases are not common on chilli
peppers, but some of the little blighters to look
out for are:
Aphids: (greenfly and blackfly) chillis
should be checked regularly for their presence
and any infestation should be dealt with
by spraying with dimethoate, derris or malathion.
If the chillis are ready for picking use
Red spider mite: Common pest in the greenhouse
in hot dry conditions, causing leaf discoloration
and affecting growing adversely. Spraying
weekly with dimethoate and malathion can
control the problem as well as creating
a damp atmosphere.
Whitefly: Various species of whitefly may
attack the chillis causing a black deposit
of sooty mould on the leaves. Try controlling
with 3 to 4 sprays of pyrethum, permetmrin
or pirimiphos-methyl every week.
Grey mould: Irregular watering may cause
brown sunken areas on the chilies which
will in turn go soft and mouldy. Always
keep chilli plants well spaced, well ventilated
and well watered, always removing dead or
dying plants leaves or stems.
Leaves yellowing: nutrient deficiency, give
the plants a liquid feed such as seaweed.
a couple of ripe chilies for next years crop. Hang
the chilies in a dry atmosphere and then when dried
out, collect all the seeds and seal in an envelope,
label up and keep in a dry cool place for following
year. Germination may not be as high as bought treated
seeds but enough seeds from a couple of plants should
yield a satisfactory number of plants.