Chili Peppers

Sunday, 1 February 2009 | Tags: , ,

Chili peppers add an intense burst of spicy heat to any dish. But to avoid overwhelming your taste buds, here's a little more info you should know about cooking with these deceptively powerful fruits (yes, fruits!)

The Basics

  • Chili peppers belong to the same family as sweet bell peppers. There are many different species, though only a few are popularly used, including cayenne, habañero, serraño, jalapeño, Anaheim and ancho.

  • What makes chili peppers hot is a substance called capsaicin, which is concentrated around the white flesh surrounding the seeds. Remove the seeds and white-ish inner membrane to reduce the heat of a chili (but be very careful not to touch your eyes with your fingers until you wash them thoroughly)

  • The “heat” of hot peppers is measured in Scoville units (SHU). Bell peppers are 0 SHU, jalapeños are 2,500–8,000 SHU, and habañeros are 350,000 SHU.

Serraño peppers

  • Are used in Mexican cooking, are very small but have a very hot flavour – about 3 times hotter than a jalapeño.

  • They are usually 1 to 1-1/2 inches long and about 3/8 inch wide with a pointed end.

  • They range in colour from green to orange or red, depending on maturity when picked.

Jalapeño peppers

  • Are also used in Mexican cuisine, are small, dark green, 2 to 3 inches long, about 3/4 inches wide, with a blunt or slightly tapered end.

  • They vary from hot to very hot.

  • Ripe jalapeños are green, but turn red the longer they mature.

  • Red jalapeños are used to make smoked chipotle peppers.

  • Select chilis that are firm, smooth and glossy. Wrinkled means it’s old.

  • Store fresh jalapeños in a paper bag in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

  • Dried chilis can be stored in an airtight container, away from light and heat, for up to six months.

  • Canned jalapeños keep at room temperature for a year, unopened. Once opened, refrigerate and use within a week, or freeze for up to six months.

  • Jalapeño powder is available, but only adds heat to food, not flavour.

Jalapeño chili powder

  • Jalapeño chile powder is made from grinding whole dried jalapeños – both pods and seeds.

  • Depending on the peppers used, jalapeño powder ranges from medium to hot.

  • It’s good in recipes to add heat but not interfere with the flavour of the other foods.

  • Store jalapeño chile powder in an airtight container away from light and heat for up to six months.

Scotch bonnet peppers 

  • Are an essential ingredient in Jamaican cooking.

  • They are 1 1/2 inches long and range from yellow-green to orange-red in colour, with a slightly squashed or wrinkled appearance.

  • They look almost identical to the habañero pepper, used in Mexican cuisine. They can be substituted for each other, although they do have their own unique taste.

  • The heat of the Scotch Bonnet pepper is in the seeds and membrane, which can be discarded for a milder dish. You can also get the flavour without any heat by adding the whole (uncut) pepper to the dish, then removing it gently after cooking, without breaking the skin.

Poblano chili peppers

  • Poblanos are a deep green chile with a long, tapered shape.

  • Their heat is generally mild, though can be quite hot. The membranes and seeds are where most of the heat is found, so remove these if you prefer a milder dish.

  • Fresh poblanos are slightly wrinkled. Choose ones that are as smooth as possible and firm to the touch. If a chile is too wrinkled, it has lost its crisp texture and fresh flavour.

  • Use them as soon after purchasing as possible. Store them for up to two weeks wrapped in a dry terry-cloth towel inside a paper bag in the refrigerator or a cool dark place.

  • Don’t freeze poblano chiles.

  • When dried, poblano chiles are called ancho or mulato chiles.

Shopping Tips

  • Choose fresh chili peppers with vivid, deep colors and glossy, firm skins. If wrinkled, it has started to loose its crisp taste and flavour.

  • For milder chilies, choose ones with broad shoulders and blunt tips.

  • For hotter chilies, look for ones with narrow shoulders and pointed tips.

  • Smaller chilies have proportionally more seeds (remember that the flesh that surrounds the seeds contains the highest concentrations of capsaicin) than large ones and so are usually hotter.

  • For dried chilies, select ones with vivid colour and that don’t look dusty. Loss of colour means loss of flavour. They should be slightly flexible but not overly dry, which also means a loss of flavour.

  • For the best flavour, use fresh chili peppers within a few days of buying. 

  • To keep them longer, store in the refrigerator in a sealed plastic baglined with paper towels to help absorb moisture.

Be Aware

  • To tame the heat of a chili pepper you’ve eaten, drink some milk or eatany dairy product, which helps disrupt the burning sensation.

  • Always wear gloves when working with hot chili peppers. The capsaicin sticks to everything, including fingers and skin.

    • If you accidentally touch your eyes, rinse repeatedly with water.

    • To get it off your skin, rub the area with alcohol, and then soak it with milk or yogurt.


We conducted a taste test for a Mexican meal at a chili farm and found out that raw chilis are definitely hot!

Taste Test

In the kitchen, we made two versions of a guacamole recipe:

  • one with serraño chilis (as called for)
  • the other with milder jalapeño chilis

Then we invited a local Mexican chef, Claudia Ibarrondo to taste test. For authentic Mexican guacamole, she preferred the serrano chilis for their fuller flavour. She also uses them in her own guacamole recipe.


This is one taste test that knocked our socks off. It’s really up to you to choose the amount of heat you can stand and the flavour you’re looking for in a chili. Start with the type of chili called for in the recipe you’re making, but don’t be afraid to experiment. Just make sure you have a glass of milk on stand by.

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