I recently tucked into a Vietnamese bahn mi sandwich that was so filled with spicy chile peppers that I thought I was going to pass out. As my consciousness was ebbing, I pondered some deeply philosophical questions: what is it about the chile pepper that keeps us coming back for more, despite the (sometimes unbearable) pain? Why are some pepper varieties sweet, while others can literally cause physical damage to the eater? Why does the burn of certain chiles linger, hovering on the tongue like a smoldering fire, while other varieties deliver a sizzling one-two punch and then depart? And perhaps most importantly: Dear God, how do I make the pain stop?
Reader, my inner food nerd is pleased to report that the pepper may be the geekiest of fruits (yes, fruit). In finding answers to the important questions posed above, I've delved into history, physiology, biology and chemistry. Read on for answers.
A Brief History
Probably indigenous to western South America, the chile pepper eventually made its way to Mexico, where evidence of its cultivation dates from at least 3500 BCE. Columbus was likely responsible for bringing the pepper to Europe. The Spanish and the Portuguese then spread the fruit to formerly chile-deprived areas (like India and Southeast Asia) in the early 16th century.
In 1912, Wilbur Scoville developed what would become the Scoville scale, a measure of chile pepper “hotness.” The scale basically measures the amount of capsaicin, a chemical compound found in peppers that stimulates nerve endings, especially in the mucous membranes (read: your mouth). The Scoville scale ranges from 0 (e.g., sweet bell peppers) to 16 billion (e.g., a capsaicin-like toxin found in a Moroccan shrub). Tabasco sauce falls at between 3,500 and 8,000 on the Scoville scale.
- There is some evidence that the ancient Mayans used the chile as a remedy for various bacterial infections. Modern laboratory studies have backed up these ancient claims – chile-derived compounds do, indeed, exhibit anti-bacterial properties.
- As of February 2012, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper usurped the Naga Bhut Jolokia pepper (a.k.a., ghost pepper) as the world’s hottest, clocking in at up to 2 million on the Scoville scale. To put that number in perspective, most police-grade pepper spray rates about the same on the Scoville scale.
- New Mexico State University has a Chile Pepper Institute, where research on chiles and other peppers is conducted.
- The chile pepper’s heat developed as an evolutionary method to discourage mammals from ingesting the fruit – pepper seeds are destroyed in the mammalian digestive tract. Birds, on the other hand, cannot feel the chile burn, plus the seeds of the fruit pass through their digestive system whole, making our avian friends effective chile pepper distributors.
- Red, orange and yellow bell peppers are actually ripened (mature) green bell peppers.
Botanically considered a fruit, the pepper is in the Capsicum genus and is a member of the illustrious Solanaceae (nightshade) family that counts tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes as their compatriots. All peppers grown today, including sweet and hot types, are varietals of only five closely related species. China leads the world by a mile in pepper production, followed by Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia and the US. In the US, California, Florida and New Mexico are pepper cultivation leaders.
Pepper growing has, shall we say, issues. The Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce lists sweet bell peppers at number three and hot peppers at number fifteen on their list of 45 fruits and vegetables with high amounts of pesticide residue (the lower the number, the more pesticide residue). Peppers are also frequently monocropped. If you are concerned about pesticide residue and the environmental problems caused by monocropping, talk to your local pepper grower about his/her growing methods. (*And see our vegetable rule of thumb, below.)
Peppers are generally a warm-weather crop, with the season peaking in most parts of the US in August and September. Although the fruit is available year-round, be aware that peppers spotted in the grocery store in winter usually come from far-flung locales.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
In general, peppers are very high in vitamin C and vitamin A and are good sources of folate, vitamin B6, vitamin E and fiber. Sweet peppers (like bell peppers) are far more nutritious when ripe (i.e., when allowed to turn from green to red, yellow or orange). (Green bell peppers are commercially popular because they are easier to transport and store, primarily because they are unripe.) Colorful peppers are also high in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that may help diminish the risk of certain cancers.
The chemical compound capsaicin, found in most chile peppers (even the most mild of chiles), has a bunch of positive effects on the body. There is some speculation that chiles cause a mild euphoria due to the endorphins released from the pain of the chile’s burn – which may be why us chile-eaters come back for more. Capsaicin also seems to increase the body’s metabolism, helping us store less fat and burn more energy.
What to Look for
Peppers come in a very wide range of shapes, colors, sizes and heat intensity. The mildest, sweetest peppers are the fruit of the bell pepper plant, which are found in a rainbow of colors, ranging from green to red to purple-black. Chile peppers can be teeny tiny, like the diminutive (and colorfully named) mouse-dropping chile from Southeast Asia to the relatively large Cayenne pepper and also come in many colors, ranging from peachto bright red. All peppers should have very glossy, firm skin with no brown or mushy spots on the surface of the fruit. Dried whole peppers, used frequently in Mexican cooking, should also have glossy skin and should be free of brown or moldy-looking spots.
What To Do with It
Unwaxed, both sweet and hot peppers can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Make sure the pepper’s skin is totally dry before storing – moisture causes rapid deterioration. Many commercially grown peppers are coated in wax; this extends the storage life of the pepper (sometimes up to three weeks), but isn’t so great if you don’t want to eat wax.
Sweet and hot varieties of peppers are staple vegetables (um…fruits) in many diverse cuisines, including Mexican, Indian, South East Asian and Italian. Peppers can be used raw in salads and as toppings for various dishes (think: tacos). They equally lovely roasted, stewed, pureed, stuffed (jalapeño poppers!) and grilled. Peppers also pair well with their tomato, potato and eggplant cousins. Dried chiles, important in Mexican cuisine, have a depth of flavor very different from their fresh versions. (Dried chiles are usually toasted over a flame, and then soaked in water before using in a dish.) Various types of dried peppers are also ground into powder and used as a spice, the most common of which are paprika (usually made from milder chile varieties) and cayenne (usually made from hotter chile varieties).
To diminish the intensity of chiles' fiery burn in your dish, remove the ribs (a.k.a., the “placenta”) and the seeds of the pepper with a very sharp knife before cooking or eating raw. Wear gloves when working with hot peppers to avoid skin burns from the oils found in chiles. Be sure to wash cutting boards and knives that have come into contact with hot peppers with warm, soapy water to avoid a capsaicin-derived kitchen disaster.
How to Quench the Burn?
The capsaicin in hot peppers is actually made up of a number of different chemical components, each with its own special way to burn. That’s why some chiles' heat is long-lasting, while others go out in a quick-but-memorable blaze of glory. (When I think chiles, I think Bon Jovi.) Some swear that consuming dairy (like a glass of milk) can diminish a chile’s burn; others recommend a spoonful of sugar or something sweet. Rice and ice water are still other common remedies. Whatever you do, do not down a carbonated beverage to relieve the pain – the bubbles enhance the burning. Alcoholic beverages are also ineffective at quenching the fire.
Homemade Hot Sauce
This recipe from Bon Appetit is a great way to use up an abundance of chile peppers. (Plus, it’s dead simple.) Use one variety for color uniformity, or mix-and-match. The sauce can be kept in the refrigerator for up to four months.
1 pound stemmed fresh chiles (such as jalapeño, serrano, or habanero; use one variety or mix and match)
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar
1. Pulse chiles and kosher salt in a food processor until a coarse purée forms. Transfer to a 1-qt. glass jar, loosely screw on lid, and let stand at room temperature for 12 hours to ferment slightly.
2. Stir in vinegar and loosely screw on lid. Let chile mixture stand at room temperature for at least 1 day and up to 7 days. (Taste it daily; the longer it sits, the deeper the flavor becomes.)
3. Purée mixture in a food processor or blender until smooth, about 1 minute.
4. Place a fine-mesh sieve inside a funnel. Strain mixture through sieve into a clean glass bottle. (Hot sauce will become thinner and may separate after you strain it; shake vigorously before each use.)
Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Though Preservation
Peppers are easily preserved by freezing and, unlike most other vegetables, do not have to be blanched beforehand. Seed and de-rib the pepper, slice or dice it, and then place it on a cookie sheet in the freezer. When frozen, transfer to freezer-safe bags. Be aware that frozen peppers will lose their crisp texture, which is just fine for recipes that call for cooked peppers. Roasted red peppers freeze beautifully, too. Certain varieties of pepper, like cayenne and the Basque Espelette pepper, are easy to dry: I usually hang them by their stem in bunches in a cool, dry place until they are completely dry, then grind in a spice grinder to make my own chile flakes. Peppers also pickle something fierce.
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)