Cruising in Mexico I encountered all sorts of chili peppers that I’d never seen before. Actually, that’s not too surprising, since I come from the US Midwest — not exactly a hot spot for growing or cooking with chiles. Basically, I could identify bell peppers, jalopenos, and cayennes — Dave’s favorite. But what were all these others and, more importantly — how hot were they?
I quickly learned that Spanish-speakers don’t refer to chiles as “hot” (caliente) but rather as “spicy” (picante). And I also learned that what Dave and I thought were spicy — according to our friends back home, we liked “really hot” foods — were fairly mild to Mexicans.
I never felt confident buying chiles in the supermarket or farmer’s market, and often ended up with something much milder than what I wanted or much hotter.
What I needed was a chart with pictures of various chiles and their relative heat that was designed to be downloaded and printed (better yet, save it to your smart phone and it’ll always be with you). And I finally found one — a PDF from Chow.com:
- Know Your Peppers (PDF, 335 KB): prints on 4 pages, showing 19 varieties. Click on the link to see the PDF, or right-click and “Save File As” to just download it.
A few more bits of general information about peppers:
- In general, smaller peppers tend to be hotter than larger ones.
- Most varieties become hotter as they ripen, and still hotter if they are dried. Do NOT substitute dried peppers 1-for-1 for fresh!
- The heat is concentrated in the seeds and membrane, so remove these to tone done the spiciness. NOTE: the flesh of some varieties can still be plenty spicy even with the seeds and membrane removed!
- It’s best to wear rubber gloves when working with peppers. If you don’t have rubber gloves, coat your hands with cooking oil.
- NEVER rub your eyes when working with peppers — and if you wear contacts, it’s smart to take them out first so there’s no chance of contaminating them.
- I’m trying to put this delicately . . . but be careful going to the bathroom if you have touched peppers with your bare hands.
- If your mouth is burning from a chile, don’t drink water — that will just spread the oils. Drink milk or have a bit of yogurt instead — it will cut the heat.
If you’re heading south from Mexico, stock up on dried chiles before leaving Mexico — chiles can be hard to find in Central America. And after you’ve gotten used to cooking with them in Mexico, you’ll miss them!