All about peppers: flavor profiles, storage tips, cooking ideas, and a wee bit of history
by Kara Elder
August 28, 2020
Today we're talking peppers of the Capsicum variety, a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family. Peppers are an old, old, old plant. As Maricel E. Presilla writes in her book Peppers of the Americas, "the first ancestral wild capsicums appeared between 15,000 BP and 20,000 BP somewhere in central Bolivia — more precisely, the piedmont region between Bolivian Amazonia and the eastern slopes of the Andes." (BP = Before Present, a scale for dating used by archaeologists and the like, determined in the 1950s when radiocarbon dating made accurate marking of time possible. Count 15,000 to 20,000 years back from 1950, and that's when the first wild pepper plants are from. !!!)
These small, wild pepper ancestors would've seemed very attractive for hungry animals, but their spice made it too painful for most mammals to eat — except birds, which would eat as many peppers as they could. A bird's digestive system wouldn't break down the seeds, though, so as they flew around being birds and pooping everywhere, so too did the pepper seeds travel. At some point humans ate them and discovered it didn't kill them to do so; the cultivation of peppers then followed, with people planting and saving seeds, using their farming skills to create different flavors, colors, and spice levels over thousands of years. Pre-1492, peppers had already spread throughout much of South America, to the Caribbean islands, and into every part of Mesoamerica, even reaching parts of what is now Arizona and New Mexico. Through hundreds more years of turmoil, genocide, enslavement, trade, and cultures meshing and mixing, peppers traveled the world, becoming an important flavor in cuisines all over. To read much, much more on these aspects of pepper travels get a copy of Peppers of the Americas. It offers a crash course in ancient civilizations and colonialism through the lens of pepper plants, backed up by years of research, archaeological records, and fun science facts.
So what's a pepper?
Technically a pepper is a fruit — a berry — but they're eaten as vegetables (or condiments). Whether you spell it chile, chili, or chilli is probably a matter of where you're from. "Chile pepper" is redundant, though :).
The source of a pepper's spice (a compound called capsaicin*) is the pepper's placenta (also known as the pith), or the white-ish, slightly porous part on which the seeds attach. Peppers don't create uniform amounts of capsaicin based on pepper variety — plants respond to variables like altitude, sunlight, temperature, water (or lack of), and other stressors. Pepper growing on a commercial scale, meaning one which demands some level of product consistency and output, requires a ton of knowledge and skill. Climate and soil play big roles in flavor, too, like any agricultural product.
There are five domesticated species: Capsicum annum, Capsicum baccatum, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum frutescens, and Capsicum pubescens. As Presilla writes in Peppers of the Americas, each "has its own intricate story, bound up with particular ecological or cultural contexts." Annums are the ones that spread the most throughout the world, and include poblanos, serranos, bird peppers, and Italian frying peppers. Baccatums tend to be quite balanced in spice, sweetness, and fruitiness; ají amarillos are a good example of that! Chinenses on the other hand are often spicy — like habaneros and Scotch bonnets — though not always, as the heatless ají dulce proves. Frutascens are narrow and pointy, with a vinegar-like flavor; if you've had Tabasco hot sauce, then you've tasted frutascen peppers. Pubescens are super popular in the Andes; in Peru they're called rocoto, and in Bolivia, locoto.
*There are actually more than 20 related compounds that cause spice, collectively referred to as capsaicinoids; the five principal ones are capsaicin, dihydrocapsaicin, nordihydrocapsaicin, homodihydrocapsaicin, and homocapsaicin. Each creates different sensations of spice, which is why you'll taste one type of pepper and feel it sting the tip of your tongue and then quickly dissipate, or you'll taste another pepper and feel it in the back of your throat before it takes over your entire mouth and lingers for several minutes. Fun!
To measure how spicy a pepper is, you'll often see a string of numbers and SHU, which stands for Scoville Heat Units. This is a pepper heat scale created in 1912 by a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville. It's useful if you already have a context for what those numbers mean, but if you're not familiar with SHU, then descriptors like "medium" and "burn your face off" will probably be more practical. Both are included below. :)
Pepper packs + storage tips
Casey from The Farm at Sunnyside loves to grow peppers — the number of varieties changes every year, but this year they're growing around 30 types. "I trial some new varieties each year and see how well they grow and how they taste and then if we like them, I grow more the next season," he says. "Some of my favorites are chilhuacle negro because it is such a unique and beautiful pepper and has a smokey taste, which makes an amazing pot of beans, and aji dulce which takes awhile to get going but is super productive and has the most amazing fruity aroma and flavor." The Pickle Van is delivering a variety of these fresh peppers from now until the first frost (probably sometime in October).
Once you get your peppers, store them for up to a few days at room temperature, or put them in a loosely sealed paper bag (or perforated plastic bag) in the refrigerator, where they'll keep for at least a week and often up to two. Don't seal them too tightly, or they'll trap moisture and spoil more quickly. Casey suggests freezing them whole to save them to use throughout the year, too.
I've included a few eating suggestions for most pepper varieties, but if you have thoughts or tried and true methods for using them, please share. The world of peppers is vast and there are always new techniques to learn. :)
Anaheim: Originated in New Mexico, but taken to California in 1894 by Emilio Ortega (as in Ortega the company), who marketed them as Anaheim peppers. Typically harvested fully grown but unripe (aka green). Notes of green bell pepper, but a little grassier. Mild, excellent all-purpose cooking pepper. Mild; 500-2,500 SHU.
---> Excellent for pickling and roasting, ideal for stuffing with cheese. Try them as an alternative to jalapeños for poppers.
Poblano: From the state of Puebla, Mexico, thus the name "poblano," which literally means "from Puebla." Perfect for roasting and stuffing, thanks to its heart-shape and thick flesh. Typically mild, though you may get the occasional spicy one; there are several poblano cultivars which ripen to varying shades of red or brown. Dried poblano = ancho pepper. Mild to medium; 500-3,000 SHU.
---> Stuff them: make chiles en nogada or chiles rellenos sin capear, for starters. Roast, peel, and tear into strips, then use these rajas in quesadillas, stir-fries, tacos, mac and cheese, etc. Make Espaghetti Verde.
Jalapeño: Probably the most widely available pepper in the US (and the world?). Thick flesh with notes of green bell pepper, typically mild to medium in spice, although there are many varieties with their own heat levels. (One type, TAM Mild Jalapeño, was developed by Dr. Villano at Texas A&M; it's crossbred with bell peppers to make it milder.) If you get jalapeños with lines on them, that's not a bad thing: known as corking, it's actually a sought-after trait and sign of quality (it's basically a stretch mark from a sudden growth spurt). Originating in Xalapa, Mexico, the capital of Veracruz. Ripe (sometimes red) jalapeños, which are then dried and smoked = chipotles. Mild to medium; 2,500-10,000 SHU.
Serrano: The spiciest of the green pepper pack, with a thin skin and thick flesh. Excellent for eating raw in salsas, though they are also great roasted or grilled and then chopped up (no need to peel). Originating in the Sierras of Mexico, hence the name serrano (sierra = "mountain" in Spanish, serrano = the adjective form, meaning "of the mountain"). Medium; 10,000-30,000 SHU.
---> How to use: Make salsas! Try a salsa verde with jalapeños and serranos.
All of these are great for hot sauces, stir fries, infused oils, and stews. Also try: salsa roja! True to the name of this pack, these are all in the medium spice range.
Cayenne: Many pepper varieties go by the name cayenne, but they all share a similar long, thin shape with slightly curved tips and moderate spice. Cayenne peppers are from South America, though sources differ on where they got their name: Peppers of the Americas and 101 Chilies to Try Before You Die say the pepper is named for the capital of French Guiana; Wikipedia cites sources that say the city was named for the pepper. A mystery. 15,000-50,000 SHU; spice builds the more you eat, eventually hitting the throat the most.
Fresno: Developed in California by Clarence Brown Hamlin, who released the cultivar for commercial production in 1952. Not quite as thick or juicy as a red jalapeño, though similarly spicy, with a slightly fruitier flavor and acidic backbone. (It's more complex!) 2,500-10,000 SHU; spice hits on the back of the tongue.
---> Add slices to pizza + flat breads.
Aleppo: Named for Aleppo, Syria; it's also known as Halaby pepper (ﺣﻠﺐ, or Halab, is the Arabic name of the city). You've probably encountered this pepper (or a similar style, because climate change) in its dried form. Now you can try it fresh! 8,000-12,000 SHU; spice hits the front of the tongue.
Espelette: Introduced to the Basque area of France in the early 1500s. Has a vegetal flavor, rather than fruity sweet. You may have seen this in its dried form in fancy stores or specialty spice shops, where it will fetch a pretty penny due to its protected origin status (which curiously does not apply to plants or seeds). 3,000-6,000 SHU; spice hits the back of the throat.
The name of this pack explains it all: these are the spicy ones. Spice doesn't mean lack of flavor, though, and each has their own unique tasting notes underneath the burn. ~If you are sensitive to capsaicin, wear gloves when handling these peppers.~
Scotch bonnet: Closely related to Habanero varieties, but with a sweeter flavor. 100,000-350,000 SHU. Ideal for Jamaican rice and peas, curries, and jerk.
Jamaican hot chocolate: Featuring smoky undertones and notes of dark chocolate. 425,000-577,000 SHU.
Habanero: Aromatic and herbal, with a spicy punch. 100,000-350,000 SHU.
Carolina reaper: Sweet and fruity followed in quick succession by SPICY SPICY SPICY. This one was bred for heat, so tread lightly. 1,400,000–2,200,000 SHU.
Featuring tropical, fruity flavors and aromas that seem like they are going to be very spicy but are actually quite mild — so mild that adding SHUs would be a little silly. Any of them would be lovely grilled or charred on a skillet, sprinkled with salt (aka cooked like shishitos often are), or in salsas, ceviches, or stews.
Habanada: Flavors of the habanero but without any of the punch. This one's a relatively new variety.
Trinidad perfume: Crunchy with a lingering floral scent.
Peachy mama: The faintest of spice!
Aji dulce: A little smoky; different varieties found throughout Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
These range from medium to medium spicy.
Aji mango: Sweet, fruity, with tropical mango notes. Eat them raw or fry them in a skillet with a little oil. 30,000-50,000 SHU.
Fish: A light heat that lingers, with herby bell pepper notes. 5,000–30,000 SHU. These have a Mid-Atlantic story! Per Peppers of the Americas:
The artist Horace Pippin gave seeds to culinary historian and heirloom vegetable garden William Woys Weaver's grandfather "in the glory days of the Philadelphia-Baltimore fish houses, oyster houses, and other popular eateries specializing in seafood. ... Pippin believed that fish pepper had first been grown around Baltimore and had been adopted by chefs in this class of restaurants. (It is possible that the plants' forebears originally reached the area from the Caribbean, via the slave trade.) ... The story goes that restaurant chefs used to order fish peppers at the unripe green-and-white stage, either fresh or dried, in order to use them in white sauces that had to be kept white."
Lemon drop: A Brazilian baccatum. A little acidic, with a spice that hits the throat immediately, then spreads throughout top of mouth and front of tongue. (My tasting notes say "Lingers!!! Spicy everywhere!!!!!!") 15,000–30,000 SHU, but the one I tasted seemed hotter than an habanero, so take that rating with a grain of salt?
Thai hot: There are many peppers that go by this name; they can be a little fruity, and are a medium to medium-high spice. 50,000–100,000 SHU
Chilhuacle negro: A Oaxacan chile with deep, smoky notes and a hint of tobacco. Key ingredient for mole negro. Not finding SHU sources that agree with one another, so let's call this moderate in spice!
Sugar rush peach: Developed in Wales, with a spice close to the habanero. Sweet at first, with a spicy kick at the end that doesn't linger.
Sources and recommended further reading:
Peppers of the Americas by Maricel E. Presilla
101 Chilies to Try Before You Die by David Floyd
Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots along the Pepper Trail by Gary Paul Nabhan, Kraig Kraft, and Kurt Michael Friese
Like water for chocolate : a novel in monthly installments, with recipes, romances, and home remedies by Laura Esquivel (translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen); included mostly for the chiles en nogada scenes.