Not all chillies are equal!
Here in the UK, we have a severe lack of knowledge about chilli peppers. The limited options that we do have on supermarket shelves ultimately dictate the outcome of recipes for most people, depriving our taste buds of a much wider palette of effects and flavour.
Most of our options are not even labelled with the specific names of each chilli, instead referring to them as ‘green’ or ‘red’ chillies, or simply ‘dried chilli flakes’ or ‘hot chilli powder’. These descriptions fail to take into account the diversity of flavour and heat effects of a wide range of peppers, each of which imparts their own characteristics to a dish.
To switch from one type of chilli to another in a recipe will change the overall flavour of the dish. With over 200 varieties to choose from, and more being bred all the time, it is worth turning away from the supermarket shelves and experimenting outside the box a little.
Even as a chef I had spent many years with my chilli blinkers on, blindly accepting recipes that simply stated ‘chilli powder’ in the ingredients list, grabbing whatever was to hand off the supermarket shelf without giving it too much thought, often to the detriment of the dish produced.
I now find it difficult to understand how recipe developers can even determine the quantity required in a recipe without specifying the type of chilli used. 1 teaspoon of Ancho grande powder, for example, is a huge difference to 1 teaspoon of Cayenne pepper or standard chilli powder from the supermarket shelf – to use the wrong powder could ruin an otherwise perfect dish. For these reasons, I have decided that I will always specify the variety of chilli I use in each of my recipes, or at the very least I will allude to the type of heat and flavour used so that the reader can find the closest match.
Here, I will go over the basics of choosing a few faithful varieties to keep in stock, that will cover all of your culinary bases. I will introduce you to my trusted choices that appear in most of my recipes. Then it’s over to you to research and explore on your own before settling on your favourites.
HOT OR NOT? THE SCOVILLE SCALE.
The most common mistake with chilli use is assuming we have used too much in a dish if it is overpowering, rather than realising it could be down to the type of pepper used. A good way to prevent this happening is to become aware of the Scoville Scale and then choose and use your peppers wisely.
In a nutshell, the Scoville scale is a measurement of the heat in chilli peppers, measured in Scoville heat units (SHU). Capsaicin is a compound that produces the spicy heat in peppers, and it is this, along with other heat-producing compounds, that are measured to determine the Scoville score of each pepper.
Below is a chart to highlight how the heat units are graded. I have added a few examples of chilli breeds.
Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
|0 – 100||Sweet – No heat (0/10)||Bell peppers|
|100 – 1,000||No Heat (1/10)
|1,000 – 10,000||Mild heat (2/10)
“Mmmmm nice warm tingly flavour!”
|10,000 – 100,000||Medium hot (4/10)
“Ooh – nice kick, Yeehaa!”
|100,000 – 350,000||Hot – Go steady! (7/10)
“Phew – slightly uncomfortable, a bit too hot but I’ll survive – must use less next time instead of the whole bloody chilli, oops!”
|350,000 – 600,000||Very hot (8/10)
“Why the F*#k did I even use that – help meeeeee!”
|Caribbean Red Hot
|0.6 – 3.2million||Extreme (10/10)
“OH MY FU*#ING HELL!!! These should be illegal! S*#T, I think I need an ambulance – I’m going to actually die. Please, God, make it stop, I’m never eating chillies again!!!”
|Police Pepper Spray!
Naga Ghost Chilli
Dried chillies, flakes and powders.
Dried Chillies, flakes and powders produce a different flavour and heat effect than in their fresh state. For this reason, various stages of dried chillies are often named differently from their fresh state. Ancho, for example, is a dried Poblano chilli, whereas a fresh Chilaca chilli that has been dried is named as Pasilla.
Before cooking with dried chillies it is best to toast them briefly in a dry pan until they release their aroma, but being careful not to burn them. Then, leave them to soak in warm water for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Chilli flakes and powders can be used straight from the jar.
It is wise to stock up on dried chillies, flakes and powders so that you have them on hand for convenience. Dried peppers will keep for a very long time, so it’s worth getting online and ordering bulk quantities from dedicated websites that will offer a much wider selection than you will find in shops. These companies also provide great information and heat scales to help you choose. My favourite companies to buy from are Chilli Pepper Pete http://www.chillipepperpete.com and Chilli Britain http://www.chillibritain.co.uk.
Aim to Select breeds from each category; mild, medium & hot. I use the milder & medium varieties more often than any other so I keep a larger selection of these on hand, each offering different flavour notes. I work my way through them quite quickly so it’s worth buying larger sized bags of the milder varieties.
Extreme chillies are pointless in food!
Apologies in advance here to chilli sellers! This is just my opinion from personal experience, I don’t mean to be bad for business here…. but…..
Extreme chillies will always sell for the curiosity factor, but will unlikely have many people coming back for more unless they have an asbestos tongue or just enjoy torturing their friends for fun.
I have had a selection of extremely hot chillies in the cupboard for about 5 years now. I won far too many in a competition and it hasn’t been easy working my way through them. One single, small, dried Trinidad Scorpion chilli actually lasted more than a year on its own! I only needed to slice off the tiniest slither possible, for it to provide ample heat for a large curry. So, if you do order the hotter varieties of dried chilli, go easy on the quantities, as a little goes a very long way. I have only used these extreme ones on the rare occasion that I have run out of other options.
Personally, from a culinary perspective, I feel there is little point in buying very hot and extreme chillies. They are so ridiculously spicy that they will likely ruin your meal and give you an unpleasant experience. It seems crazy to want to eat one!
My only exception here would be if you were making a hot sauce where you would only use a small number of drops to spice up a dinner plate, but even then I feel that a good hot sauce can be achieved using a less extreme chilli.
If you do feel the need to self-harm with food then please make sure you use precautions; wear gloves and goggles. I once forgot that I had an extreme chilli toasting in the oven, the gas that it produced burned my eyes, throat and lungs so much that I was considering calling an ambulance! So I would even go as far as wearing a mask if dealing with extreme chillies, seriously.
Below is a list of my favourite peppers that appear in my recipes. I am sure this list will change over time as I have yet to fully explore the world of chillies!
Aleppo is currently my most used chilli, in flaked form. It provides the perfect amount of heat for me and I can add a good dose of it to a dish for flavour without overpowering it. They come in at the higher end of mild/lower end of medium hot on the Scoville scale, around 10,000 SHU. The flakes are a beautiful vibrant red colour so they look great sprinkled on top of dishes. Aleppo peppers have a rich fruity berry-like flavour and are commonly used in both Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes.
The Holy Trinity
The Holy Trinity of Chillies refers to the 3 most commonly used peppers in Mexican cuisine, and are often used together;
Ancho is a dried Poblano chilli. It is a mild chilli (1000 – 1500 SHU) with a fruity berry-like flavour with earthy undertones of plum, raisin and tobacco. This is one of my most often used chillies which I have in both powder form and whole dried peppers. You can get away with adding too much of this without overheating your dish. I usually use this for flavour rather than spicy heat. If I want to add a bit of a kick to a dish, I will add a pinch of a hotter chilli to taste at the end of cooking.
Pasilla is a dried Chilaca Chilli. A mild heat (1000 – 2000 SHU) with a pungent, woody, earthy flavour and undertones of cherry and grape. I use these less often than Ancho and only keep whole dried chillies in stock.
Mulato is closely related to Ancho as it is a dried version of a different type of Poblano. Another mild one but often a bit spicier than the Ancho (can be up to 2500 SHU) the Mulato also differs in colour and flavour with strong hints of smoky coffee, liquorice, cherries and chocolate. It adds a deep colour to sauces & stews.
Cayenne is my go-to hot pepper! I rarely go hotter than this. The heat can vary between 30,000 and 190,000 SHU, so it’s worth becoming familiar with the heat from each new batch that you buy and adjust your doses accordingly. I find the best way to use cayenne powder is to add it in near the end of cooking to taste, being careful to start low with a pinch or no more than 1/8 tsp, then waiting a little while before adding more to see how the flavour develops. As much as I love Cayenne, I still manage to make mistakes and overpower a dish with it occasionally! I usually rely on milder chillies for flavour, then use the Cayenne to add the spicy kick at the end.
Obviously, fresh chillies don’t keep for very long so I usually buy them as and when a recipe calls for them. However, I do keep a small stock of the milder ‘red and green’ ones in the fridge for those unplanned recipes. These chillies are usually the Serrano variety of which the green is generally hotter than the red. Other fresh varieties that I use regularly are Jalapeno’s (mild-medium), Thai red chillies (Hot!) and occasionally a scotch bonnet or similar in a salsa or hot sauce (Very hot – use with caution!).
Nutritional and health benefits of hot peppers:
Chilli Peppers are not just for tastebuds… They have great nutritional value and are even used in medicine. Many peppers contain Vitamins C, B6, B2, A, E, fibre, Iron, Potassium & Magnesium.
Despite having the ability to cause great pain they are also great for pain relief in the form of Capsaicin creams applied directly to the painful area or simply ingesting the powder. The quantity needed to ingest for pain relief is much greater than we could tolerate in our food so adding it to empty capsules is the way forward here, I personally use Cayenne chilli powder in this way for nerve pain.
Ok, now its time for me to cool down a bit and link you up to a recipe….
Here is one of my hotter salsas, Salsa el Diablo (The Devil’s Sauce). This is one of the rare occasions that I use a hotter variety of chilli pepper so felt it appropriate to link to this article. Enjoy!