Pep Up Your Dishes
Sweet or spicy, roasted or pickled, there is no doubt that chili peppers are an ingredient trend that plans to stick around. Some are mild and some are scorching, but all of them are versatile additions to nearly any dish, at any time of day. Many have been around for ages, but hot (literally!) new hybrids are showing up. Both chefs and customers are always on the lookout for ways to utilize these small but mighty taste sensations.
With so many chili peppers to choose from, it can be daunting to know where to start. This guide introduces some chilis not everyone has heard about and discusses both their heat and how to use them.
Measuring the Heat
All peppers, from basic bell to the fiery Carolina Reaper, have a rating on a Scoville Scale. This scale measures the heat of peppers in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The measurements are based on concentrations of capsaicin. Determining SHUs used to rely on water dilution and human tasters, but the more modern way of doing things uses a method called high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). HPLC measurements allow food scientists to also rate peppers in pungency units, defined as one part capsaicin per million parts dried pepper mass, which then match up to SHUs. There are five pungency levels: non-pungent (0-700 SHU), mildly pungent (700 – 3000 SHU), moderately pungent (3000 – 25,000 SHU), highly pungent (25,000 – 70,000) and very highly pungent (over 70,000 SHU). Incredibly, there is no pungency level past very highly pungent, despite a number of chili peppers having SHUs of well over 1,000,000.
This Japanese pepper has been showing up in more and more places. Most of the time, they have a reasonable average SHU of 125. But every once in a while, a random shishito will turn up the heat to around that of a Jalapeno (avg. SHU 5250). Shishito peppers make excellent appetizers, especially when grilled and served with a little olive oil and salt. Consumers enjoy the occasional surprise heat, which adds a playfulness to ordering them. Shishitos are also great for stir-frying and deep-frying.
Sweet, a little spicy and with an amazing zing, these South African red peppers are perfect or snacking and stuffing. Correctly known as Peppadew Picante Peppers, they became so popular that the growers actually copyrighted the name Peppadew. Peppadews are not sold fresh. Instead, they are pickled and have their seeds removed before shipping and selling. They have reasonably low average SHU of 1150, and their sweetness makes them perfect for appetizer platters and salads. Peppadews can also be stuffed with cheese and meat, sliced for sandwich and pizza toppings, or added to salsas and sauces for a unique and tangy flavor.
This golden Peruvian beauty is a big jump in SHUs from the first two peppers. It averages 40,000 SHU, but with that heat comes bursts of fruity, summery flavor. It’s crisp and tropical, and it’s one of the key ingredients in regional Peruvian cuisine. Ranging in color from yellow to orange, it’s a striking ingredient with enough heat to satisfy those who want the burn but no so much that it will turn off less adventurous eaters. This is another pepper that benefits from simple presentation, whether added raw to salads and salsas, served with cheese (especially goat cheese) or fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.
African Bird’s Eye (Peri Peri)
This little red powerhouse originated in South America (like nearly all chili peppers) but now it is an African pepper. It’s got serious heat—75,000 avg. SHU—but also brings sweet smokiness and a richness that is almost peachy in flavor. It’s also versatile. Chop it fine and mix it with lemon, olive oil, garlic and salt, and it’s a great basting sauce. Dried and ground, it’s a perfect addition to give a dry rub a hearty kick. Toss it with raw tomatoes and onions for salsa, or cook down the trio for a rich and spicy tomato sauce.
It may be small, but its heat is huge—an average of 500,000 SHU. This was once considered the hottest chili in the world, and it’s generally the hottest used in restaurants that aren’t looking for customers who only eat on a dare. Keep in mind that the chocolate variation is double the heat of a regular habanero (avg. 225,000 SHU), so be smart and sparing with it when it comes to using it. The flavor is earthy and smoky, with the sweetness common to all habaneros. It’s perfect for Mexican mole sauce and it adds richness to salsas, especially fruit salsas. It can also be dried and added to meat rubs, but beware! The drying concentrates not just the flavor, but also the heat.
The Extreme Team
Most restaurants aren’t using the peppers at the far end of the Scoville scale, but since their names are becoming more known, here are the basics of the hottest ones out there. Please note that while it’s smart to handle almost all chili peppers with gloves, these should be handled with gloves while wearing goggles (some handlers wear full protective suits). This trio does not mess around.
Ghost Pepper: 948,000 avg. SHU; sweet beneath the extreme heat
Trinidad Scorpion: 1,600,000 avg. SHU; fruity undertones
Carolina Reaper: 1,800,000 avg SHU—the current record holder for hottest pepper in the world; the sweetest of the ultra-hots.
So don’t be afraid to experiment with chili peppers. A little pepper knowledge goes a long way toward creating innovative dishes that bring heat and flavor.
Dawn Ferchak has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. She received her BA in English Literature from William Paterson University and began her career straight out of college. Her areas of expertise include food, travel, hospitality, pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences, health and wellness, and the arts. She is a published poet and creative writer. In her spare time, she volunteers with animal rescue and rehabilitation organizations.