Understanding Hot Chilli Peppers - The Ultimate Guide to the Hardiest of Culinary Foes
The humble pepper, endlessly appealing in its vivacity and crunch, can be a much misunderstood little thing. For a start, a lot of British diners tend to think of peppers and chillies as being two different things, with peppers representing the much milder end of the flavour scale. However, as the name ‘chilli pepper’ suggests, even the hottest chillies are part of the pepper family – a family which ranges from the sweetest to the deadliest.
There is another common myth which says that colour dictates the spiciness of a pepper and that red varieties are always fierier than the green. This is also untrue, as the only thing which colour signifies is how ripe the fruit is (yes, it is a fruit). Although you will find that the riper the fruit, the more flavoursome the pepper.
It is time to dig a little deeper and get to know this ingredient a little better – after all, it forms the basis of so many wonderful Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi dishes.
Where does the heat in a pepper come from?
The heat in a chilli pepper (the part which causes the face to flush and the tongue to swell) is derived from a compound called capsaicin. Whilst capsaicin has no flavour of itself, it gets the pain receptors all in a whirl – this prompts the heart rate to quicken and the metabolism to go into overdrive. As anybody who has ever eaten a really hot curry will know, there tends to be a lot of sweating too.
The interesting things about capsaicin compounds is that they differ for each different kind of pepper. You have probably noticed this for yourself – the sensation of biting into a bell pepper is definitely not going to be the same as biting into a naga chilli. This is because the capsaicin compounds in peppers all have their own ‘personalities,’ if you will.
What is the best way to soften the heat of a hot pepper?
It seems like everybody has their own ideas about the best way to dampen the heat of a really hot chilli pepper. If you are the sort of thrill seeker who regularly chows down on the hottest that the fruit has to offer, you are going to need some ideas of your own as well. You should beware of anybody who tells you that water or beer are the best choice – this is not the case.
The age old idea that dairy is a good way to quell culinary heat is worth listening to, however, because capsaicin is fat soluble. This means that one of the quickest ways to get rid of that ‘my mouth is in a fiery torment’ feeling is to chug some full fat milk, eat some yoghurt, or dip into some sour cream or coconut milk. It is also true that a lot of the heat in peppers resides in the seeds, so leave these out of recipes if you want to exercise caution.
How is the heat in a pepper measured?
The heat in peppers is calculated using a measurement called the Scoville, which is named after a man called Wilbur Scoville. In 1912, he invented the measurement as a method for calculating and recording heat within peppers. The way that he did this was to dilute a pepper until he reached a point at which the heat could no longer be tasted.
So, for example, bell peppers are given a zero Scoville rating, because they do not produce any heat even when eaten raw. The habanero pepper is right at the other end of the scale with an impressive 200,000 Scoville rating. The big daddy of the plant though is the naga ghost chilli, which measures a remarkable one million Scoville units.