Peppers are becoming increasingly popular, especially the hot varieties. Peppers are used in cooking all over the world, however, the popularity of southwestern food (Mexican) has brought hot peppers the fashionable status they enjoy today. There are over 20 known species of pepper. Most of the peppers grown in the United States belong to the species Capsicum annuum. Capsicum annuum is a small shrubby member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade family. Although it is perennial in tropical climates, it is cultivated as an annual in colder areas. The species is divided into various groups based on fruit shape, flavor, pungency, color, and culinary use. Chile pepper is a common name given to the pungent chile cultivars. However, chile actually means pepper regardless of whether the fruits are pungent or sweet. Other names given to this fruit are pepper, chili, chilli, aji, and paprika. Bell pepper usually refers to the nonpungent blocky chile types. Chile fruits are considered vegetables because of when we eat them during the meal, but botanically they are considered berries. Most peppers are used for the various flavors they possess. 'Ancho' has a sweetish flavor, 'Mulato' is chocolaty, 'Mirasol' is fruity, and 'Chipotle' is smoky. The way in which peppers are prepared produces different flavors as well. Pickling, grinding, roasting, drying, and freezing are methods that produce various flavors.
The pungency or heat of the pepper is a complex of seven closely related alkaloids or capsaicinoids. They often are called capsaicin, for the most prevalent compound. The capsaicinoids are produced in glands on the placenta (membranes that join the seed to the fruit). Seeds are not the source of capsaicin; however, they can absorb it because of their proximity to the placenta. Capsaicin is a stable alkaloid that can be detected by human taste buds in solutions of one part per million. A subjective measure of chile heat, the Scoville Organoleptic Test, was invented by W. L. Scoville in 1912 and relies on trained tasters. A more objective measure of the amount of capsaicinoids present in chiles is measured by high-performance liquid chromatography.
People vary in their reaction to hot peppers. The heat sensation from the capsaicinoids results from the irritation of pain receptors. People who repeatedly consume hot peppers build up a tolerance to the capsaicinoids and can eat very hot foods without a reaction.
What are some of the hottest peppers (for those of you with desensitized pain receptors)? 'Habanero' and 'Scotch Bonnet' are cultivars of Capsicum chinense. They measure between 100,000 and 300,000 Scovilles. 'Thai' measures between 50,000 and 100,000 Scovilles. 'Pequin', 'Cayenne', and 'Tabasco' measure between 30,000 and 50,000 Scovilles. 'De Arbol' measures between 15,000 and 30,000. 'Serrano' measures between 5,000 and 15,000. The popular 'Jalapeno' and 'Mirasol' measures between 2,500 and 5,000. 'Sandia' and 'Cascabel' measure between 1,500 and 2,500. 'Ancho', 'Chilaca', and 'Espanola' measure between 1,000 and 1,500. 'Big Jim' measures 500 to 1000. 'Mexi-bell' measures between 100 and 500 Scovilles. And for those of us with highly sensitive pain receptors, bell hybrids, 'Pimiento', and 'Sweet Banana' peppers have a 0 rating.
Peppers offer a wide variety for our enjoyment. They are colorful, flavorful, ornamental, easy to grow, and nutritious. A green New Mexican chile pod contains three times the vitamin C of a Valencia orange and provides the minimum daily requirement. As green pods turn red, vitamin A content increases until they contain twice the vitamin A of a carrot. Peppers can cause burning when not handled carefully. Wear rubber gloves when working with them to prevent fingers from burning. Also, be sure not to touch your face, eyes, mouth, etc. during preparation because the capsaicin is easily transferred and causes a burning sensation wherever you contact. The burning sensation can be relieved by using aloe vera gel. Dipping hands in a solution of 1 part chlorine bleach to 5 parts water will also reduce the burning sensation on hands. To remove the bleach odor from your hands, try a solution of 1 part vinegar to 10 parts water. If a hot pepper that is ingested causes discomfort, try eating something fatty like cheese or drinking milk. Eating bread and butter may also help absorb the capsaicin.
This article originally appeared in the January 13, 1995 issue, p. 5.