I’m in my 60’s and I’m pretty sure that my parents didn’t have a clue about cooking with chilli peppers.
Thankfully our modern multi-cultural generation has all the flavours of the world to choose from, but many only experience the wonderful variety of tastes and flavours of chilli peppers from takeaways.
Why don’t a lot of home cooks experiment with chillies and spices? I love intense flavours and a bit of heat so here’s my guide to cooking with chilli peppers.
Types of Peppers
Before you start, you need to know a bit about the types and varieties of peppers, and the flavours and heat they bring to food.
Most supermarkets stock a good range of peppers nowadays from salad peppers with no heat and little flavour, available in traffic light colours, probably up to Scotch Bonnets which are pretty fiery.
In between, we have pointed peppers, finger or birds-eye chillies, jalapeños and even Padron peppers with varying degrees of heat suitable for most home cooking across a variety of cuisines.
Beyond those widely available chillies, there are the super hot extra fiery specialities like the Carolina Reaper which up until very recently was the world’s hottest pepper.
With such a variety, how do we tell when cooking with chilli, which peppers are mild and warm and which ones will blow your head off?
That’s where the Scoville Heat Unit scale comes into play.
Heat and the Scoville Scale
The heat of chilli peppers comes from capsaicin which is the chemical responsible for the spicy sensation within a pepper.
The highest concentration of capsaicin is found in the white membrane and seeds within the pepper.
When I cook with chillies I usually remove the membrane and seeds because most of my family are total wimps and can’t tolerate much more heat than you find in a ginger nut biscuit. For curries and Thai style meals, I have to cook the chillies separately and add them to my plate when serving up.
The Scoville Heat Unit scale (SHU) is used to measure the amount of capsaicin and therefore the amount of heat sensation we get from a pepper.
The scale starts at zero which is the bell, salad or pointed peppers. Most of the supermarket chilli peppers fall at the lower end of the scale which is the zone that most of the western world palates can tolerate.
The scale tops out at the highly concentrated pepper spray (approx 16,000,000 SHU) used by armed forces widely.
The worlds hottest chilli peppers, which are constantly evolving due to new varieties and hybrids being cultivated, currently max out at about 3,200,000 SHU.
Worlds Top 10 Hottest Peppers
The hottest chilli peppers have been specially cultivated by dedicated enthusiasts for the maximum intensity of heat possible. I would not recommend that anyone experimenting with using chillies in cooking try any of these.
Currently, the world’s hottest pepper, specially cultivated over 10 years by Ed Currie in South Carolina, USA.
Has a fruity flavour followed by intense heat about 200x hotter than a Jalapeno.
Trinidad Moruga Scorpion
Intensely hot but without the initial sting of the Carolina Reaper.
Seven Pot Douglah
Was the hottest chilli pepper that’s not red until superseded by Pepper X.
Seven Pot Primo
Distinctive chilli pepper with that long stinger tail.
Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T”
Cultivated in Australia this chilli pepper has a unique burning sensation.
A rare hybrid pepper cultivated in the UK.
Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia)
The first chilli pepper to exceed 1,000,000 SHU.
Seven Pot Barrackpore
The hottest of the 7-Pot chilli peppers from Trinidad & Tobago.
Seven Pot Red (Giant)
The original 7 Pot chilli pepper, named for its ability to flavour 7 pots of stew.
What Happens When You Eat a Really Hot Chilli?
This enlightening description of what happens when you eat a really hot chilli, by a journalist from The Guardian newspaper says it all really.
She quite graphically details the experience of eating a British grown Komodo Dragon chilli (1,400,000 SHU), very similar to the Naga Viper:
“What is it that people love so much about chillies? The warm glow in the tummy? The endorphins? The feeling that the rest of your life is going to be spent slowly, agonisingly expelling every single one of your internal organs?
A nice bit of chilli is a rollercoaster ride of a meal: exhilaration, endorphins, perhaps a little light whooping. But this? This is nothing like that. If this was a rollercoaster, the seats would be made of razor blades, it would fire you into a skip full of rusty fence poles and then send in a troupe of fluffy helpers to jump up and down on your unmentionables.
At first, everything seems normal. Then you realise that someone has lit a distress flare inside your skull. Your face begins going numb from the mouth upwards. As the sensation reaches your eyeballs, you start to cry. By the time the feeling reaches the top of your head, your ears are ringing. Your skull feels as if it’s being crushed by a vice. Your stomach convulses as it attempts to retch it back up. And this isn’t even the worst bit. That comes in the middle of the night when you awake to find that your stomach acid has leapt into your chest and is sizzling away at your heart, while your colon is whipping around like a boxer’s skipping rope.
Pay no attention to comparisons to standard kitchen chillies. Ignore the fact that it’s 400 times hotter than a jalapeño. Put aside the fact that it’s four times hotter than a scotch bonnet. The comparison you really want to focus on? At 1.4m units, the komodo dragon chilli isn’t a foodstuff, it’s a chemical weapon”.
Antidotes to Chilli Burn
Before we start experimenting with chillies, let’s prepare the fire extinguisher just in case.
Unlike most other tastes like salty, sweet or sour, chillies don’t activate taste buds but instead trigger pain receptors. This explains why spices like chilli, mustard and radish will affect your skin, eyes and nose as well as your mouth.
🔥 In the Mouth
Most people have sometimes eaten spicy food which sets your mouth on fire. It is the previously mentioned capsaicin that binds to the receptors on your tongue which gives the burning sensation.
No matter how much you like chilli, at some point, you will eat one hotter than you can tolerate and need to put the fire out.
The go-to remedy for chilli fire in the mouth is some milk or yoghurt. The casein protein found in dairy products will reduce the burn. Avoid water, which can make it feel worse.
Sugar, honey and citrus juices like lemon or orange can also be beneficial.
🔥 On the Skin
Like in the mouth, some relief from chilli burn on the skin can be got from rubbing yoghurt on the affected area.
I much prefer to use aloe vera gel for relief from most skin irritations including sunburn. Keep it in the fridge for extra cool soothing power.
🔥 In the Eyes
I learnt the hard way about this. Believe me, you should NEVER EVER rub your eyes after handling cut chillies without thoroughly washing your hands first. Within seconds you will experience severe pain and burning.
Try dipping some cotton wool in milk and gently apply. The hotter the chilli the worse the pain and burning.
If your eyes swell or the pain persists call for medical assistance without delay.
Benefits of Eating Hot Chillies
Eating peppers and cooking with chilli peppers has been shown to be beneficial if you eat them regularly.
Various studies have concluded that peppers improve longevity, speed up your metabolism, combat inflammation, and kill some bacteria. A study by UCLA also showed that the capsaicin in chillies inhibited the growth of prostate cancer cells in mice and left normal cells unharmed.
History in the UK
Stereotypical British cooking has a reputation for being bland. My sister-in-law, who comes from Peru, added a liberal dose of chilli sauce to all her newly discovered cuisine enjoyed by her husband as it was in her words, “tasteless”.
That was in the 1990s and my brother has since been “educated” in how food should taste. I like her cooking! My brother, however, well that’s a different story. He likes good old fashioned meat and two veg.
With British society becoming increasingly multi-cultural and us Brits travelling further afield, the interest in the tastes, flavours and ingredients of other cultures has grown dramatically.
I have come back from many a holiday thinking “I wonder how they cooked that”? With Google to search for recipes and the availability of ingredients from all over the world in our shops, it has never been easier to try and recreate different recipes from our normal fayre.
Interest in chillies in the UK has grown so much that we now have chilli festivals, chilli farms, the UK Chilli Cook-Off, and we even export to Mexico and Pakistan!
I suppose the ultimate chilli experience culminates in challenges to see who can eat the hottest chilli or down the hottest chilli sauce, just search YouTube. The first man to cry and grab the creme fraiche loses.
Grow Your Own
While it’s easy and convenient to buy your chillies from your local supermarket but there’s nothing more satisfying in my opinion to eat something which you have grown yourself.
Chillies are really easy to grow with modern varieties like Apache being compact with high yields.
Potted starter plants are available in most garden centres and for the more green-fingered, packets of seeds will give you many plants at a fraction of the price.
Methods of Preparing Chillies
Whether you choose to spice up your chilli con carne with some chilli sauce or want to try including raw or pickled chillies in your cooking, here are a few ways to get you started.
Remember, cooking chillies does not remove the heat. Removing the white membrane and seeds by halving the chilli lengthways and scaping them out with a spoon is the easiest method.
Slice or chop the de-seeded chilli as your recipe requires. If you are sensitive to chilli, wear catering latex gloves.
Generally speaking, the smaller the chilli, the hotter it is.
Pickled chillies in vinegar have a softer texture and less heat than their raw counterparts so make great side dishes or garnishes.
Do you eat the pickled chillies on your doner kebab?
To liven up your pizza scatter some chillies which have been simply sliced crosswise seeds and all.