THE BASICS OF CHILES AND PEPPERS

One of the most frequently used ingredients in this chapter is the chile in all forms— dried, fresh, chopped, whole, with seeds, without, processed, in paste. No wonder. Capsaicin, the thing that gives peppers their heat, releases “feel good” endorphins in the brain and chiles are high in vitamin C and contain some antioxidants. But really, the taste is what we love.

All chiles and peppers are in the same botanical family, capsicum. There are thousands of varieties, ranging from fingernail size to foot-long, from sunset orange to purplish green. They vary in terms of heat (some, like bell peppers, are not hot at all) and complexity of flavor, sometimes as much from individual pepper to pepper as from variety to variety. That variability can make things a bit unpredictable. Before I cook with chiles, I slice a tiny piece out of one and taste. Then I decide how much to use. Unless you like the thrill of chile roulette, you’ve got to have a nibble.

Choosing and Substituting Chiles

Sometimes I’m looking for a little background heat, in which case red chile flakes or ground cayenne are the easiest options. Sometimes, though, I want the full range of the sweet, fruity, and spicy flavors fresh or dried chiles can deliver, and I pay more attention.

My recipes call for a specific variety only when it really matters to a dish; usually the ingredient lists suggest a style and offer some suggestions. The following charts include substitutions. And you can always substitute dried chiles for fresh, and usually vice versa. The bottom line, though, is this: Use what you like, what you can find, and as much as you think tastes good.

The chile and pepper lexicon that follows includes both fresh and dried, mild and sweet, in alphabetical order.

Buying and Storing Chiles

Look for firm, smooth fresh chiles with shiny skins and fresh-looking stems. Keep them in the fridge for a week to two, maybe even longer. For years I’ve been keeping small Thai chiles in the freezer; by the time I’ve finished chopping them, they’ve thawed.

Dried chiles that are still pliable are ideal— there’s no need for them to be bone-dry— and they should never be dusty, dank, or moldy. When you get them home, put them in an airtight container and tuck them away in a dark corner of your pantry or spice shelf. Soak, grind, or crumble as needed.

For the sake of measurements, here are two general rules. Every square inch of chile flesh— not including seeds, pith, or the core— will yield about 1 tablespoon when chopped. One medium bell pepper— cored, seeded,

Working with Fresh Chiles

Unless they’re stuffed , fresh chiles are almost always cut up before using, the hotter ones chopped or minced as small as you can manage; the size of the medium and mild ones (like poblanos or bell peppers) matters less. After handling any parts of hot chiles, wash your hands thoroughly to prevent burning your eyes later on.

Cook them with aromatic vegetables like onions, garlic, and ginger before adding them to other ingredients (or adding other ingredients to the aromatics), use them raw as a last-minute garnish, or add them anywhere in between.

Working with Dried Chiles

The simplest way to use dried chiles is to add them whole. The only problem with this is that you have no idea what kind of heat level they will contribute to the dish. I’ve gotten some intense surprises this way.

Making Chile Powder Next easiest is to remove the stem— and the seeds and veins too if you want less heat— then toss them into a spice grinder and pulse until you get the desired texture. (Be careful when you open the lid; you don’t want to inhale a lungful of chile.) Store as you would any other spice.

Toasting Dried Chiles Toasting dried chiles in a dry skillet over medium heat before using them is the best way to bring out their smoky flavor. It takes only a couple of minutes on each side. I usually bother with it only when the chile will be featured prominently.

Soaking Dried Chiles Especially for use in soups and stews, dried chiles are often soaked. Cover the chiles with boiling water and soak until they’re soft and pliable, which may take as little as 15 minutes or as much as 30, depending on the age of the chiles. Then remove the seeds and veins. The flesh of some of the larger chiles will separate from the tough skins, so remove the skins too. Strain and save the soaking water (which can be very potent) if you want. Chop and use the chiles or purée them, and proceed with the recipe.

Working with Mild or Sweet Peppers

Chiles are actually fruit, so maybe it’s not surprising that some of the milder ones— referred to as peppers— can be quite sweet. Chopped or sliced, they are versatile both cooked and raw. The only thing you don’t want to do is simmer them in liquid for too long; they’ll turn bitter.

The Heat Factor

Scoville units are the most common way to measure the heat of chiles, but there are others. I don’t find any of them useful since there is so much variation between peppers. There are, however, a few generalizations that are useful to know about: Small peppers tend to be hotter than large ones (with a few notable exceptions), while mature (red or orange) peppers pack a bigger wallop than green ones. And since the seeds and veins (the pith) are the hottest parts of the chile, any chile can be tamed (relatively) by removing them. Include some or all of these parts if you want to pump up the heat.

Please remember that chiles can burn, literally. If your hands are chapped or cut, chiles will irritate them. If you’ve got disposable gloves, use them. If not, every time you touch a chile, wash your hands with warm soapy water— twice is better than once— and be careful not to touch your eyes or any other tender area for a while.

And if your mouth is on fire, reach for something soothing and mild like milk, yogurt, plain bread, or crackers. It won’t be an instant cure, but it should ease your suffering.

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