A chile pepper refers to any of the many species and cultivars of hot peppers in the family of nightshade. Most of them are native to the United States and Mexico. Yet, they all thrive in warm climates around the world. The most common cultivar of chili peppers is the Capsicum annuum, which includes jalapeño, serrano, cayenne, and Thai chile peppers. However, the cultivar Capsicum chinense contains the hottest peppers around. This includes the number one hottest pepper in the world, Carolina Reaper, along with habanero, ghost chili, or bhut jolokia. Another cultivar is the Capsicum frutescens, which includes the famous tabasco, peri-peri, and some of the pepperoncini peppers.
Nevertheless, chile peppers can be eaten raw, cooked, dried, or smoked. They are an essential ingredient in chili powders, hot sauces, and any meals that require heat. And speaking of heat, chile peppers can provide as much as 2.2 million Scoville units. The substances that give peppers their heat are called capsaicin, while the related compounds are known as capsaicinoids.
Most of these fruits have been in existence since 7,500 BC. As a matter of fact, they are one of the oldest crops in the United States, especially in Central and South America. The Mexico-origin varieties trace back to about 60 centuries ago.
Family: Solanaceae (Nightshade)
Genus: Capsicum (Pepper)
Binomial Name: Varied
Chile Pepper Trivia
- Explorer Christopher Columbus, along with his troops, were the first Europeans to encounter the genus. They call them “peppers” in reference to the spicy Piper genus that we commonly know as peppercorns.
- The Portuguese traders were the ones who introduced the genus in Asia. They promoted its commerce in the routes of the Asian spice trade.
- Some chile peppers have different names when they’re processed. For example, a dried jalapeño pepper is called chipotle while dried poblano pepper is called ancho chile.
Chile Pepper Buying Guide
Chile peppers come in numerous varieties that offer a wide range of sizes, colors, and flavors. Thus, it could be quite confusing to know which ones are best to buy. Below is a general buying guide to help you get started:
- The color of chile peppers can be from light to dark green, yellow to bright orange, and red to purple or dark brown. Most peppers start as green on the plant, and they turn to their various colors as they mature. Ripe or matured peppers are sweeter but they’re also spicier.
- The size of chile peppers can be as short as a quarter inch and as long as 12 inches. Generally speaking, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. Still, it varies depending on the variety. But, a common way to test the pepper’s heat is to cut off a small part of the tip and taste it. Peppers get hotter as they get closer to the stem.
- Most of the pepper’s heat can be determined through its seeds and white membranes. When you see the interior of the chile pepper, you can then decide and control the heat by including or removing these seeds and membranes.
- When handling hot peppers, especially the interior, avoid touching your eyes. Wearing rubber gloves is also recommended as some of these peppers can bring you to the hospital for burns.
- When buying hot peppers, it is important to choose the ones that have a firm and glossy skin. Avoid the ones that have soft spots.
- If possible, buy organic chile peppers. Organic ones might not be as perfectly shaped as the conventional or GMO ones, but they’re sweeter and more nutritious. Not to mention that they’re kinder to the planet too.
- As always, peppers from farmers’ markets are better than the ones in stores. Here, the products are usually organic and you might be able to get a free taste before you buy them.
Meanwhile, chile peppers also come in many forms. You can purchase them pickled, roasted, smoked, dried, ground, and more. Thus, the following information will give you an idea on the best ways to use them:
- Pickled chile peppers – these peppers are soaked in brine to retain their texture, prolong their shelf life, and add some tangy flavor. Chopped, sliced, or whole pickled peppers are widely available. They are great to put on sandwiches, burgers, salads, salsas, and more.
- Smoked chile peppers – these peppers boast a smoky-peppery flavor. They are commonly packaged in cans, and they can easily add depth to sauces and stews.
- Dried chile peppers – these peppers also boast a smoky-peppery flavor. They can easily give complexity and earthy flavor to any dish.
- Ground chile peppers – these peppers are dried and pulverized to create a ground chile or chile powder that conveniently adds heat to any dish.
- Large, fresh chile peppers – these are peppers that are not only big in size, but they also have a sturdy wall that can hold its shape even after cooking. Thus, these peppers are great for stuffing. They also have a relatively mild heat. Examples of these are poblanos and Anaheim peppers.
Now that you have a grasp on what color, type, or form you want to purchase, it’s time to choose peppers based on heat. There’s this thing called Scoville Heat Units, which determines how much heat a chile pepper can provide. But, we’ll get on that in a few. For now, let’s categorize chile peppers in groups that are easier to remember:
- Fairly mild chile peppers – these include poblano, Anaheim, Hungarian wax, and ancho chile peppers. They’re great to be used on tacos, chowders, Rellenos, and more.
- Moderately hot chile peppers – these include jalapeños, chipotle, pasilla, chilaca, and Cascabel chile peppers. They’re great to be baked or to be added on pizzas, burritos, and more.
- Hot peppers – these include Serrano, Thai chile, Pequin, and cayenne. They’re commonly used on chilis and enchiladas.
- Extremely hot peppers – these peppers include Carolina reaper, Trinidad scorpion, habanero, and Scotch Bonnet. They’re commonly used on hot sauces, dips, extremely hot salsas, and chilis. Be careful about eating these peppers as they can get you a trip to the Emergency Room.
Furthermore, you can also shop based on the pepper’s variety. However, chile peppers have more than 4,000 varieties. And while we cannot discuss all of that in one page, we’ve compiled the top ten world’s hottest chile peppers. As mentioned above, chile peppers have a designated way to measure their level of spiciness. It is called the Scoville Heat Unit, abbreviated as SHU. The higher the number, the hotter the pepper is.
- Carolina Reaper (2,200,000 SHU) – This pepper is best to be described as “200x hotter than jalapeños.” Despite of, it offers fruity notes.
- Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (2,009,231 SHU) – Also known as Moruga Scorpion. This pepper is recently discovered from the islands of Trinidad and Tobago in South America.
- 7 Pot Douglah (1,853,936 SHU) – Also known as Chocolate 7 Pod, 7 Pod Douglah, and 7 Pot Brown; these names relate to the pepper’s brown color. It is the hottest pepper that is not red in color. Don’t be fooled!
- Dorset Naga (1,500,000 SHU) – This pepper is also a relative of ghost pepper or Bhut Jolokia; however, it is native to the shire county of Dorset in England.
- Naga Morich (1,500,000 SHU) – Also a relative of ghost pepper or Bhut Jolokia; however, this one native to Bangladesh and Northeast India.
- 7 Pot Primo (1,473,480 SHU) – This horticulture pepper looks like a Carolina Reaper but it’s milder.
- Trinidad Scorpion Butch T (1,463,700 SHU) – Named after Butch Taylor, the scorpion stinger found at the top end of the pepper. This Australian native once became the previous holder of the “World’s Hottest Pepper”; it’s as hot as eating a thousand burning coals.
- Naga Viper (1,349,000 SHU) – This extremely rare pepper native to the UK is a hybrid of several different peppers that took years of cross-pollination.
- Ghost Pepper (1,041,427 SHU) – This pepper was misled by the thought of being the World’s hottest pepper because it was the first pepper that rated more than a million Scoville units. Ghost pepper has gained its popularity over the Internet; many people took the challenge of eating this pepper.
- 7 Pot Barrackpore and 7 Pot Red Giant (1,000,000 SHU) – These peppers are also from the islands of Trinidad and Tobago in South America. They provide fruity and nutty flavor notes. Other varieties of 7 Pot Giant include Yellow and Jonah.
Chile Pepper Production & Farming in Texas
Chile peppers are heat-loving or warm-season crops that thrive in most Texas areas. However, growing them in Central Texas can be quite a challenge. If you plant them too early, they can be susceptible to cold damage. If you plant them late, there’s a higher chance that you’ll miss the best production time. Thus, it’ll be best to choose pepper varieties that have a short maturity time. These include shishito, bell tower, Big Bertha, California Wonder, Gypsy, Jupiter, Yolo Wonder, Hidalgo Serrano, Hungarian Wax, jalapeño, and long red cayenne.
Moreover, nearly all pepper plants produce high yields even with a little effort. But, some chile peppers are temperamental when it comes to setting their fruits. Night temperatures outside the range of 60 to 75ºF and day temperatures above 90ºF can reduce the set of pods. Nonetheless, they can withstand hot summer months and some can even tolerate mild frost. If you have access to a greenhouse or are able to sow the seeds indoors while it’s still cold, you may start growing them ahead of time. But, they’re usually planted from mid-March through mid-July, when the soil temperature is at least 70ºF. They also thrive in loamy, sandy, heavy, and well-drained soil. They also need at least 6 hours of sunlight each day.
Nevertheless, you don’t have to worry much about the harvesting time as you can harvest chile peppers at any stage. What’s more important is to harvest them continuously for the plant to reproduce. Use a sharp shear when cutting branches and harvesting peppers as hand-picking can easily damage the plants.
Conventional or organically grown, fruits and vegetables are essential components of a healthy diet. However, many of these contain potentially harmful pesticides, even after thorough washing, peeling, or scrubbing. Thus, what we can only do is to be aware of which items are the most or least contaminated.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an American group that focuses on the advocacy of agricultural subsidies, pollutants, and toxic chemicals. They have created the Dirty Dozen List, which is being updated each year to rank fruits and vegetables that contain the highest pesticide contamination based on the samples tested by the USDA and FDA. However, this list doesn’t rank peppers. But, since they tested positive on pesticides that are known to be toxic to the brain, they’ve created their Dirty Dozen Plus™ list instead and included these peppers.
Between the years 2010 and 2012, the USDA found oxamyl, acephate, and chlorpyrifos in peppers. These toxic pesticides are banned from use on some crops. However, they’re still permitted to be used on chile peppers. Thus, it is better to buy organic peppers to reduce your pesticide consumption. If they’re unavailable or too expensive, we suggest you cook the conventional ones instead before eating them as heating these peppers can reduce the levels of pesticides. Or better yet, consider growing your own peppers organically.
China remains to be the world’s largest producer of chile peppers, accounting for more than 70% of world production. Mexico and Indonesia rank next. Other major producers include Spain, Turkey, and the United States.
Fresh chile peppers are commonly sold and priced by weight, either by the pound or kilogram. But, if you’re planning to buy on wholesale, go to your nearest local producer, and you can get these peppers in bushels, cartons, and even crates. Meanwhile, you can also buy their byproducts, which are commonly packaged in glass jars, cans, bottles, pouches, or containers.
Enjoying Chile Peppers
Chile peppers can be eaten raw. Just be aware of the heat that it can bring as some chile peppers can be really hot. Roasted, blistered, pickled, or cooked, chile peppers make a great appetizer and/or side dishes. You can also slice them nicely and put them raw on salads, sandwiches, and more. Pickled chile peppers are also a good way to enjoy their natural crunch and flavor, along with a cool and tangy brine.
Raw chile peppers are best kept unwashed, in a sealable and airtight container lined with paper towels. They should be stored in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator, with a temperature that ranges between 40 and 45ºF. Properly stored, they will retain their freshness for a week or two. You may also marinate them in olive oil to extend its shelf life for up to 1 month. It’s also good to consider that peppers with thick skins last longer than the thin ones. And, whole peppers are more shelf-stable than the sliced ones. Meanwhile, you can also freeze them raw. Spread them evenly, on a single layer in a sheet tray, and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the peppers onto freezer-safe bags. Here, it’ll last for up to 6 months but take note that frozen peppers can only be used in cooking. It’s not meant to be eaten raw as it requires further heat to kill the bacteria. But, to further retain its crispness, you can half-cook the peppers in oil prior to freezing. Meanwhile, you can also check out specific storage tips and shelf life of each pepper variety here at our Texas Real Food Promptuary.
While chile peppers can be eaten raw, they are also popularly cooked. They can be stuffed with meat and/or cheese, which are then baked, fried, or grilled. They also add a good heat and flair on some salsas and relishes like chowchow. Plus, they can also be jellied or candied. Meanwhile, you can also smoke and/or dry chile peppers, which are very common practices in both Central and South America. Since drying removes the fruit’s moisture, they tend to be more flavorful and spicy. But, they provide sweetness and smokiness on top of it. You may choose to enjoy them like that, or you can grind, pulverize, or purée them, and turn it into hot sauces, salsas, chile powder, and more!
Surprisingly, chile peppers contain a lot of vitamin C. Some even provide a lot more than oranges! And although we don’t eat chile peppers in large quantities, they’re still a significant source of this vitamin. In addition, they’re also rich in vitamin A and red chile peppers are also full of beta-carotene.
Moreover, chile peppers contain the substance capsaicin, which gives these peppers their heat. Capsaicin has been proven to kill cancer cells efficiently. It also has positive effects on blood cholesterol and it boosts our immune system to help our bodies fight against inflammation. Furthermore, it also contributes to weight loss as it speeds up our metabolism.
Interestingly, the burning feeling on our mouths or tongues from consuming high amounts of capsaicin is perfectly safe. As a matter of fact, some scientists theorize that in response to this discomfort, our brain releases endorphins, a natural pleasure-generator, stress, and pain reliever.