Chili peppers tend to scare people. Their heat, full-on, can hurt. A pinch too much and a dish is ruined.
But used in good measure, added at just the right moment, chili pepper lends a note of excitement, an extra dimension, to many dishes. Roasted Portuguese peppers, dressed with vinegar and salt, are sublime. Piment d’Espelette, dried and ground to powder, offers just a tiny kick to the silky dishes from the Basque region of southern France, where it originates. And what would salsa be without a fiery dose of jalapeno?
At Montreal’s Jean Talon Market the other day, Giancarlo Bono was stringing bright red super chilies, small and pointy and packing a serious punch, onto thread with a needle, ready to hang to dry at Chez Michel, the vegetable stall at the southwest corner of the market owned by his father and his brother.
In his family, which hails from Calabria in southern Italy, hot peppers, or peperoncini, as they are known in Italian, find their way into everything from pasta sauce to braised meat and antipasto plates.
Bono says the stall’s Italian, Indian, Latino and Asian customers have never flinched when buying hot peppers. But other cooks are warming to them, too, he says. Often, though, they have only a basic knowledge about the varieties and how to use them.
So, for beginners, a hot pepper primer:
Which to choose?
Fresh chilies are mostly red or green, sometimes orange. Green chilies eventually ripen to red on the vine. Don’t look to colour as an indicator of heat. Usually, though, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is.
Heat levels vary dramatically, going from 1 to 10 on the scale known as the Scoville Heat Scale. It measures a chili pepper’s spicy heat, which derives from capsaicin concentrated in its seeds and inner membrane.
Sweet bell peppers, for instance, register at 0, while jalapenos and poblanos are 4 or 5. Tiny green or red Thai chili peppers are 7 or 8, and habaneros and Scotch bonnets, those pretty, multi-coloured lantern-shaped chilies beloved by Caribbean cooks, are at the top of the scale, at fire-alarm 9 or 10.
Chili peppers aren’t just about heat. Some have smoky undercurrents; others taste fruity. Buy a few and play around.
Look for peppers that are bright in colour, glossy-skinned and without wrinkles or brown spots.
Start mild, perhaps with the large, elongated red peppers known as Portuguese or Spanish peppers. Their bite is benign and their flavour sweet. They are nice roasted in the oven or grilled on the barbecue. Peel the charred skin away and dress them with a light vinaigrette. Round, red cherry peppers, also known as cherry bombs , are good for novices, too. Core and seed them, and stuff with good-quality canned tuna or soft feta cheese, then preserve them in oil-filled jars in the fridge. Then advance to jalapenos, green with rounded tips, which add medium heat to salsas and Mexican dishes.
Graduate with Thai chilies , tiny but potent, often added whole to curries and sauces. Use habaneros or Scotch bonnets with caution. They are achingly hot, and best very finely chopped and in small amounts.
Working with fresh chilies
If you want to reduce their heat, cut them in half and remove the seeds and white membranes, which are the hottest parts of the chili. A quick rinse under cold water dilutes the heat even further.
When handling large amounts, or if you are especially sensitive to the volatile oils in chili peppers, wear latex gloves. Be sure not to touch your face, nose or eyes.
Wash cutting boards thoroughly after use.
Many chili peppers’ flavour is enhanced when dried. Dried chili peppers will last up to six months in a dry, airtight container, kept out of direct sunlight. After that, they lose their bright colour and optimal flavour.
The best for drying are super chilies and cayenne peppers . Piment d’Espelettes are also nice; they reveal a smoky sweetness that is imperceptible when raw. (Not to mention that drying your own Espelettes is a major bargain. A tiny jar of dried, store-bought piment d’Espelette sells for $14 at specialty stores, but a whole bushel of fresh Espelettes goes for $5 at the market at this time of year and makes four or five times that.)
To dry peppers, buy them fresh. Dry in a single layer on a sunny windowsill. Better still, string them using needle and thread and hang in a window, in indirect sunlight, for a minimum of two to three weeks. Before storing, remove the last traces of moisture from the dried chilies by placing them in a warm oven overnight. Preheat the oven to 350 F, then turn off the heat and place dried chili peppers in the oven on a large baking sheet, being careful not to crowd the pan.
In the morning, transfer the cooled peppers, whole, to airtight jars. Or grind them using a mortar and pestle or electric spice grinder and then store in airtight jars.
The impatient might want to invest in a food dehydrator, which will dry a batch of peppers overnight.
Make hot pepper oil
Spicy chili pepper-infused oil is lovely on pizzas and pastas or added to stir-fries. It lasts for many months when stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.
Dry chilies for two or three weeks (super chilies are best), then add to well-washed and dried bottles and fill with good-quality extra-virgin olive oil. Cork bottles tightly and allow to steep for several weeks. When making oil, don’t use fresh chili peppers, which tend to spoil.
Cooking with chilies
For starters, don’t overdo it. Start small and add more gradually, according to taste. If you mess up and add too much, coconut milk, cream or plain yogurt might help mitigate the extra heat, suggests John Gregory-Smith in The Mighty Spice Cookbook (Duncan Baird, 2011).
The heat from chili peppers builds in a dish as it cooks. Don’t add chili pepper to a long-simmering sauce right from the start, or its heat will overpower the dish. Add it only toward the end of cooking, in the last 10 or 15 minutes.
When using dried chilies, go for a whole chili pepper for the brightest flavour. Break it up using your fingers or a mortar and pestle, just before using. For gentler flavour, leave it whole and then remove it before serving. Avoid buying crushed chili peppers. You never know how long they have been languishing on the store shelf.
Add piment d’Espelette to finished dishes at serving time. This keeps its mild, intricate flavours distinct from the other ingredients in a dish.
Roasting hot peppers
Larger poblanos and Portuguese peppers are great for roasting, which brings out their sweetness. Roasted peppers are great preserved in oil or frozen in plastic freezer bags, to be dressed just before serving. It’s the same method as for sweet peppers. The key is to blacken the skins well enough to loosen them, making peeling easier.
A charcoal fire will impart a nice smoky flavour, but a gas grill is fine, too. You can even roast peppers over the flame of a gas stove.
Set the peppers on the grill about four inches above the coals. Turn frequently so that the skin is thoroughly blistered and blackened on all sides. When the skins are blackened and loose, remove from the heat and place in a roasting pan with a tight-fitting lid.
When cool enough to handle, peel the peppers by pulling away the charred skin. Use a paring knife to help remove the small bits that cling to the flesh, or rinse them away in a bowl of cool water. Scrape away some but not all of the seeds, as this is where the heat is concentrated.
Refrigerate until ready to use, preserve in olive oil for longer storage, or freeze in plastic freezer bags.
Here are a few recipes that make the most of the hot-pepper harvest:
Pickled Jalapeno Peppers