Chili peppers have a reputation for “kicking things up a notch,” as chef Emeril Lagasse would say. But not all of them are mouth burners, and they have some meaningful health benefits—in particular, they are an excellent source of vitamin C, provitamin A and vitamin B6—so it might be time to give them another look as a way to spice up your cooking.
The key to using chilies is to know that the heat is not derived from the flesh or seeds, but from the white, pithy membranes to which the seeds attach inside the peppers. Any part of the chili in proximity to these white membranes has the potential to pack a wallop, depending on the type of chili. However, if you cut away the membranes and discard the seeds, most chilies—even the five-alarm habanero—are edible and can transform the flavor profiles in your everyday recipes.
Why is the pith so hot? It contains the highest concentration of capsaicinoids. Capsaicinoids are flavorless, odorless substances that act on pain receptors in the mouth and throat, or on the skin (always wear tight rubber gloves when working with chilies, and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling). Capsaicin is the primary capsaicinoid. While the pith is the hottest part of the vegetable, capsaicinoids do occur unevenly throughout the flesh of chili peppers, so one part of a pepper may be hot while another part of the same pepper may be quite mild.
There are several varieties of chili peppers, and each differs in flavor and heat intensity. Typically, larger chilies are milder because they contain fewer seeds and white membranes in proportion to their size. Most varieties can be found dried, canned or fresh. Here are seven commonly used varieties:
Anaheim (California Green Chili or Long Green Chili). Among the most commonly used, especially for stuffed chili dishes, Anaheim peppers are long, slender and lobed, green or red in color and mildly hot. They can be eaten when green or when red, which signifies maturity.
Ancho. Anchos are dried or fresh poblano peppers. Dried anchos are flat, wrinkled and heart shaped. They range in color from very dark red to almost black. Anchos are mild to moderately hot and often soaked and ground for use in sauces.
Cayenne (Long Hot). Red when fully mature, long (6–10 inches), thin and either straight or curled at the tips, cayenne peppers are very hot. They can be found dried and ground into a powder that is sold as generic “red pepper” in the spice aisle.
Habanero (Scotch Bonnet). Typically yellow-orange but sometimes green, red or orange, these peppers are lantern shaped and usually about 2 inches long. The hottest peppers grown commercially, they have a unique floral flavor and an intense, fiery heat that affects the nasal passages.
Jalapeño. Most often green when mature but sometimes red, these peppers are about 2 inches long with cracks around their stems. They are very hot, with an immediate bite. Jalapeños are sold canned, sliced and pickled and are added to many products—including salsa, sausage, cheese and jelly—during processing.
Poblano. Poblano peppers are green ancho peppers. They look like small bell peppers and are mild to hot in taste. They are often roasted and peeled prior to being used in soups, sauces and casseroles or even stuffed with meat and cheese for a dish called chilies rellenos.
Serrano. Sold red or mature green, serrrano chilies are about 1-4 inches in length. Moderate to very hot with an intense bite, they are often used in Thai cooking and are also quite popular in Mexico and the southwestern United States.