Some Like It Hot

(top left) Red hot chili peppers… Hey, that’d be a great name for a band! (top right group: rows one, two & three, l to r) Anaheim peppers, Banana peppers, Bell peppers, Cayenne peppers, Cherry peppers, Jalapeno peppers, Pimiento peppers and a garden full of Ornamental Peppers; (bottom group) Hey, a guy’s gotta’ eat: Peppers are GREAT on pizza and a MUST in fajitas and burritos!

With Memorial Day weekend coming up, it’s time for me to plan and plant my veggie garden. Working with Jackie and the girls, we’ll plan our garden like most people, prep the soil, and head off to the garden center – where I then focus on my favorite area – you guessed it – my peppers. Being a guy who gets a bit excited about heat, I get fired-up (get it) every year trying to figure out the best balance of taste, sweetness, texture and kick. Couple this with my organization and processing brain, my peppers garden becomes my own little PIA (Pain In The @#$) Job. I get to apply my love of problem solving, trial and error, care and nurturing, and with good sun and the right amount of water, success later in the season. THEN… I wake up and realize that unfortunately I do not have a “green” thumb and can’t grow a thing! If I want some of my favorite peppers I have to go buy them! So, for my post this week, I thought I’d pass along some general info on pepper types, and a little info on the famous Scoville scale. Many thanks to garden.org and theguardian.com.

  • Chile, Chili, Cayenne, Jalapeno – By Any Name, It’s Hot! Names for hot peppers can get confusing. Some people call them chili peppers, cayennes or jalapenos, and others just call them hot peppers. What are they really called? Is each of these names a separate category?
  • The confusion started in Mexico. Chile is the Spanish word for pepper. To specify which type of pepper, Mexicans would add the word for the particular type of pepper after the name chile. Therefore, chile dulce would be sweet pepper, chile jalapeno would be the Jalapeno pepper, and so on. When chile found its way into this country, different meanings were given to it in various parts of the country, and it even acquired a new spelling. In the Southwest and West, chile is used to refer to the Anaheim pepper. In other parts of the South and the Southeast, and still other sections of the country, chile refers to any type of hot pepper. Some folks refer to all hot peppers as cayennes or jalapenos. And all over the country we have different chile con carnes, which are pepper based.
  • Chile and chili are not varieties of peppers, but only words used to describe that the pepper is hot. So whether you say chile or chili, cayenne or jalapeno, and whether the word describes just an Anaheim pepper or all hot peppers, watch out! That pepper is hot!
  • Seed companies break the peppers we grow down into two categories: hot and sweet. The hot types include Cayenne, Jalapeno and Anaheim. Examples of sweet peppers are Bell and Pimiento. Banana and Cherry peppers come both sweet and hot.
  • When people talk about flavor, they usually focus on taste and smell. But there’s a third major flavor sense, as well, one that’s often overlooked: the physical sensations of touch, temperature and pain. The burn of chilli peppers is the most familiar example here, but there are others. Wine mavens speak of a wine’s “mouthfeel”, a concept that includes the puckery astringency of tannins – something tea drinkers also notice – and the fullness of texture that gives body to a wine. Gum chewers and peppermint fans recognize the feeling of minty coolness they get from their confections. And everyone knows the fizzy bite of carbonated drinks.
  • None of these sensations is a matter of smell or taste. In fact, our third primary flavor sense flies so far under our radar that even flavor wonks haven’t agreed on a single name for it. Sensory scientists are apt to refer to it as “chemesthesis”, “somatosensation”, or “trigeminal sense”, each of which covers a slightly different subset of the sense, and none of which mean much at all to the rest of the world.
  • Chilli aficionados get pretty passionate about their pods, choosing just the right kind of chilli for each application from the dozens available. The difference among chilli varieties is partly a matter of smell and taste: some are sweeter, some are fruitier, some have a dusky depth to their flavour. But there are differences in the way they feel in your mouth, too.
  • One difference is obvious: heat level. Chilli experts measure a chilli’s level of burn in Scoville heat units, a scale first derived by Wilbur Scoville, a pharmacist and pharmaceutical researcher, in 1912. Working in Detroit, Scoville had the bright idea that he could measure a pepper’s hotness by diluting its extract until tasters could no longer detect the burn. The hotter the pepper was originally, the more you’d have to dilute it to wash out the burn. Pepper extract that had to be diluted just tenfold to quench the heat scores 10 Scoville heat units; a much hotter one that has to be diluted one hundred thousandfold scores 100,000 Scovilles.
  • However you measure it, chillies differ widely in their heat level. Anaheims and poblanos are quite mild, tipping the scale at about 500 and 1,000 Scovilles, respectively. Jalapeños come in around 5,000, serranos about 15,000, cayennes about 40,000, Thai bird’s eye chillies near 100,000, and the habanero on my table somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Scovilles. From there, intrepid souls can venture into the truly hot, topping out with the Carolina Reaper at a staggering 2.2 million Scovilles, which approaches the potency of police-grade pepper spray.
  • Paul Bosland, the director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, a plant breeder by trade, has a keen professional interest in all the tiny details of how chilli heat differs from one pod to the next. Bosland says he and his colleagues distinguish four other components to chilli heat in addition to heat level. The first is how fast the heat starts. “Most people, when they bite the habanero, it maybe takes 20 to 30 seconds before they feel the heat, whereas an Asian chilli is immediate,” he says. Chillies also differ in how long the burn lasts. Some, like jalapeños and many of the Asian varieties, fade relatively quickly; others, like habaneros, may linger for hours. Where the chilli hits you also varies. “Usually, with a jalapeño, it’s the tip of your tongue and lips, with New Mexico pod types it’s in the middle of the mouth, and with a habanero it’s at the back,” says Bosland. And fourth, Bosland and his crew distinguish between “sharp” and “flat” qualities of burn. “Sharp is like pins sticking in your mouth, while flat is like a paintbrush,” he says. New Mexico chillies tend to be flat while Asian ones tend to be sharp.

Have fun planning your garden. I’ll swing by this subject later in the season, discuss our collective horticultural successes and share some great salsa and peppers recipes.
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