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The Truth Behind Chili

In two of my classic English Cook books, (including one by Robert Carrier) the point is made about the difference between chili (one 'l') and chilli (two 'l's'). Too often chili is simply hot and it's difficult to understand the fuss about chili - probably because it's not chili at all but chilli. In England, Chilli with two l's Is simply cayenne pepper, which is very hot but has little or no flavoring and thus can add nothing worthwhile to a dish unless accompanied by other flavorings. Chili with one 'l' is actually a mix of spices often sold as chili compound or seasoning and will include cumin and garlic at the very least, and oregano and other seasonings as well.

What to buy?

It's easy to check what you are buying by reading the label. If only chili pepper (In America any chili pepper seems to be spelt with only one 'l') is listed in the ingredients, then the packet is just heat and needs other spices for flavoring. Choose a reputable brand that you will know will be consistent each time you buy. Also don't confuse different types of peppers that are vegetables with black, white or green peppercorns - they're something else entirely.

How hot is hot?

Back in 1912, Wilbur Scoville developed a way to rate the heat of hot peppers. This system is now known as the 'Scoville Scale'. The numbers below are given as a range because hot weather and moisture stress make hot peppers hotter. Most of these numbers came from the 'Penzey' catalogue and other resources quote some different numbers. Cool, stress-free growing conditions produce peppers on the milder side of the scale. The higher the number the hotter the pepper.

All in the family

Chili peppers are capsicums, in the same family as bell peppers and paprika pods, and with a very wide variety of types. This can be confusing because their level of flavor or heat (i.e. mild or wild) can often only be identified by tasting - by which stage you could be suffering from second degree burns to your mouth. They range in flavor from rich and sweet to fiery hot. A combination of both sweet (ancho chili) and hot (arbol, piquin, chipotle and jalapeño) chili peppers are used in Mexican cooking for full-flavored spicy chili and other dishes. The important thing to remember is to combine the heat of the chili pepper with other spices so the finished dish will have a full-bodied taste.

Respect is due

Treat any fresh or dried, whole chilies with respect. To reduce the heat factor, just use the flesh and discard the inner seeds. Tabasco or more chili powder can be added at the end of cooking time to increase the heat judiciously, but there is little that can be done to reduce a five alarm chili to more manageable levels. Whenever you handle any peppers, make sure you either use thin vinyl gloves or really wash your hands well before you touch any part of your face, other mucus membranes or touch anyone. The seeds alone can burn.

Regional choices

Which pepper you choose to use will depend on you and what is available locally. Obviously there are far more choices available in the South West than we have available in New England, even though the choice is increasing. One easy way of helping yourself to choose an unfamiliar pepper is that usually the smaller the pepper in size, the hotter it will be. Check out different supermarkets. I have found that some stores only sell packaged peppers when all you want is one pepper. Also be aware that various ethnic food markets have quite a selection (even Asian), will sell singly and also (even more importantly) can tell you what to do with them.

Comparing your choices

Chili Pepper Comparison
Habanero aka
Scotch bonnet peppers
100,000 - 350,000
So called because they look like old fashioned tam o' shanter berets from Scotland and I understand they are meant to be lethal.
Cayenne 30,000 - 50,000
Cayenne has the power to make any dish fiery hot, but it also has a subtle flavor-enhancing quality. In early American cookbooks, a dash of cayenne was often added to a dish, not so much for heat, but rather to improve the overall flavor. A dash of cayenne boosts the flavor of low-salt or low-fat dishes and can be used in place of whole chili peppers in barbecue sauce, chili and other hot dishes.
Jalapeño 55,000
Jalapeño has become quite popular over the last few years. The flavor differs from hot red pepper in the same way sweet red and green bell peppers differ. The heat level is also different. Jalapeño pepper powder is hotter than cayenne, but the heat leaves your mouth sooner. The heat of jalapeño pepper is extremely temperature sensitive, dissipating faster than the heat of other red peppers, so add toward the end of cooking and store in the refrigerator.
Crushed red pepper 20,000 - 40,000
Hot chili peppers are used whole in many Asian countries. The crushed California peppers are those found on the tables of Italian restaurants and pizzerias. Great for pizza, tacos, spaghetti, omelets and beans. The Pakistani peppers are used the same way, but are twice as hot.
Ancho 1,000 - 3,000
Large, juicy, dark purple New Mexican pods. Ancho chili peppers are the most commonly used pepper in Mexico and are the backbone of dishes such as the traditional red chili and tamales. They are not hot, just richly flavorful with a beautiful purple color.
Sweet bell pepper 0 - 100
Available in 5 colors: red, green, yellow, white and purple. The least three are weaker in flavor. Green pepper ripens to red which is why red peppers are more expensive and have a sweeter flavor.

Oonagh Williams is a qualified chef and instructor, teaches a variety of international cooking classes, as well as offering a Personal Chef service. She can be reached on 603-424-6412.

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Last modified: January 27, 2000
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