Technically, chile peppers are a fruit. Once dried, they are considered a spice.

Chile Pepper, Chili Pepper, Chilli Pepper – Which is the Correct Spelling?

Each of the three spellings is recognized by different dictionaries as being correct. The Oxford English Dictionary shows “Chilli” as the primary spelling while citing both Chile  and Chili as variant spellings. Websters gives equal weight to both chili and chilli but chile is not included. Chile is most frequently used by Americans though chili is also quite common, though this word also refers to the Southwestern bean dish (chili con carne, vegetarian chili). Google searches of the words combined with “pepper” shows “chilli” in the lead. Which is correct? That’s up to you – just don’t call them chilly.

More Confusion – Why Pepper?

Columbus was looking for a more direct route to Asian countries that produced valuable spices like black pepper, but he bumped into the Americas along the way. When Columbus and crew landed in the New World, they stuck an erroneous and confusing moniker on the native chiles. He named them “peppers” because they spiced up food just the way black pepper did. We credit Columbus for being politically astute choosing “pepper” as a name considering his Spanish sponsors were looking for a spice route. It took about two centuries for botanists to figure out that chile peppers belong to the genus Capsicum, a totally different botanical family than black peppers.

Fresh vs. Dried Chile Pepper

Although the preoccupation with the heat of chile pepper is ubiquitous, their flavour contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. The flavour of a fresh chile pepper is quite different to dried, similar to the taste difference between a fresh tomato and a sun-dried one. Upon drying, usually in the sun, caramelization of sugars and other chemical changes create more complex flavours. While fresh chiles have a distinct heat and sweetness, dried chile pepper carries a full-bodied, fruity, raisin sweetness with varying degrees of tobacco and smokiness.

Preparation Tips for Fresh Chile Pepper

Fresh chile pepper should have smooth, firm, glossy skin with no soft spots or shriveling. Cut away and discard the stalk end. Holding the chile under cold running water to prevent the oils from affecting your eyes and throat, slit it from the stalk end to the tip. Scrape out the placenta (membrane) and seeds. Afterwards, wash your hands, knife and chopping board thoroughly to clean off the oils. Do not touch your eyes, lips or other sensitive body parts even after washing your hands. chiles can literally burn. You should consider wearing gloves when you prepare hot peppers (we suggest physicians gloves available at drug stores). Fresh chile pepper takes on a wonderful smoky flavour when roasted or charred over a flame. To roast chile pepper put the peppers on a baking sheet lined with foil, and roast in a hot (500°F) oven, under the broiler, or on the grate of a barbecue grill. The more intense the heat, the more often you need to turn the peppers. They should be blackened and blistered rather evenly when done. This can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes depending on which method you use. Let them cool in a paper bag (optional) then remove the skins and seeds.

Cooking with Chile Pepper

Dried chile pepper can be used whole in curries and almost any other kind of slow-cooked liquid, as the flavour seeps out and flavours the food. A variety of ground chiles are available to be used in a wide range of curries, sauces, pickles, chutneys and pastes Its good to keep in mind that the intensity of the heat and the timing of when it hits you is often affected by the amount of fat or oil in the dish. Oils and fats coat the capsaicin molecules, either reducing them or delaying their bite. A stir-fry with chiles and thai spices will be fairly sharp and hot, but add high-fat coconut milk and the heat will be tamed and will hit your palate a little later. Sweetness will also tone down the heat. It’s always best to start with a light hand and add a little at a time to get your flavours right. Once too much has been added there is little that can be done, though you can try adding sugar, cream or coconut milk. The starchiness of chopped potato can sometimes help (remove after about 30 minutes). Leaving the dish in the fridge overnight can help too, allowing the flavours to mature and round out over time.

How Hot is Hot?

The heat in all chiles, whether hot or mild, is due to the flavourless, odourless, colourless chemical known as capsaicin. In 1912, William Scoville, a Detroit pharmacologist, measured capsaicin by having a panel of hardy souls sip a sweetened solution of dried chile peppers dissolved in alcohol. The concoction had decreasing amounts of capsaicin until it no longer burned. The results were converted into Scoville units — with no mention made as to what happened to all those tasters. In recent years, this subjective test was converted to a chemical process, but with results still expressed as Scoville units. Scoville units can range from zero (the good old bell pepper) to more than half a million (the Red Savina habanero chile). Disagreement is common, and the heat of chiles can even vary on the same plant, but the ratings give a good idea of relative chile heat.

Cooling Off

When your food bites back, don’t guzzle water, beer or wine. Instead, try quenching the flames by eating rice, bread or a tortilla. These soft, starchy foods help mop up the spicy oils. A spoonful of sugar gives the most immediate relief. Milk – which contains casein, a protein that literally grabs capsaicin — will also help douse the fire. Raita, the yogurt/cucumber dish in Indian cuisines, serves the same function. Some chile eaters find piping hot liquids such as tea soothing. Others find sucking on an orange or lemon helpful. If you get the oil on your skin you may want to rub it with rubbing alcohol first then soak it in milk, this seems to alleviate the burning. If you get it in your eyes the only thing you can do is repeatedly rinse with water or saline.

Health Benefits of Chile Pepper

Aside from their eye-opening flavor, perhaps the most surprising feature of chile pepper is their vitamin C content: 91 milligrams in 1/4 cup of fresh chilies. Though we don’t eat chili peppers in large quantities, the amount of vitamin C is still significant. Red chiles are full of beta-carotene. The nutritional aspect of hot peppers most interesting to researchers today, however, is capsaicin, the compound that gives chiles their “burn.” Capsaicin seems to have a positive effect on blood cholesterol, and also works as an anticoagulant. And the “high” that some people experience when eating fiery chile-spiked foods is a perfectly safe one: Some scientists theorize that in response to the discomfort produced by the chiles’ “burn,” the brain releases endorphins, substances that, at high levels, can create a sensation of pleasure.

Scientific Names

Capsicum annuum (common varieties such as bell peppers, paprika, jalapeños, and the chiltepin) Capsicum frutescens (includes cayenne and tabasco peppers) Capsicum chinense (includes the hottest peppers such as habaneros and Scotch bonnets) Capsicum pubescens (includes the South American rocoto peppers) Capsicum baccatum (includes the South American aji peppers)
Fam: Solanaceae

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