“Chile pepper” is a term that encompasses a wide variety of fresh and dried chilies that range in everything from color to heat levels to taste.
The spelling of this word is one thing that lots of people use interchangeably. You will see it as chile or chili depending on where you are in the world.
For my purposes here, chili will refer to a dish that you top with cheese, sour cream, and all the fixings. Chile, with an “e”, will refer to the green, red, orange, and yellow items you find in the produce section, the powders you find in the spice aisle, and the dried, leathery versions you can buy in bags.
Chile peppers give you everything from vegetal flavor to searing heat when used in cooking. Many think of them as a vegetable but they are actually the fruit of the plants in the Capsicum genus which is a part of the nightshade family.
These peppers are used in cuisines world over and come in thousands of varieties. No joke, it is estimated that there are 50,000+ types of them in the world.
Peppers are rated on something called the Scoville scale. This measures the heat units each particular pepper has. Some are neutral like the bell pepper and measure in at 0 Scoville heat units (SHU) and some have been bred to melt faces.
The Carolina Reaper has a whopping 2.2 million SHU. For reference, that’s 200 times hotter than your average jalapeno.
How Are Chile Peppers Sold?
Chiles can be found fresh in the produce aisle. They can be dried and packaged whole, while some are dried and smoked for added layers of flavor while others are ground and sold as a powder.
Whatever way you purchase them, each one has its own distinct character and flavor. Keep in mind that no two peppers of the same kind will have the same heat levels. Shishito peppers are notoriously tame or spicy and eating a bunch of them is like playing a game of roulette.
Bell peppers are an example of chile pepper that is not spicy. Their Scoville rating is 0. They come in a variety of colors including the red, yellow, orange, and green types we often see along with white and purple and are generally considered larger than most.
This is a medium-sized chile pepper and ranges in heat level from 2,500 – 8,000 SHU depending on the particular pepper. This is considered mild to moderate. They come in various shades of green and red and taste very green and vegetal with some heat. Roasting or pickling them helps to sweeten and tame some of the flame.
This is a larger chile pepper from Puebla, Mexico. It is mild in terms of its heat levels and ranges from 1,000 – 1,500 SHU. The dried version and powdered version are referred to as “ancho.” These are popular for stuffing and are used in chile rellenos and their flavor, when cooked, is a bit sweet and sometimes a touch smoky.
These chile peppers tend to have more heat and are named after the Mexican mountain ridges where they originated. They are popular in Mexican cuisines as well as southeast Asian cuisine, and they have a bright flavor and range from 10,000 – 20,000 SHU.
Chile de Arbol Peppers
These small red chiles pack quite a punch. Sometimes referred to as the “bird’s beak” chile, they range from 15,000 – 30,000 SHU. They start green and turn red as they mature, and they have a sweet and nutty flavor and are the dried variety is very popular in making salsa with a kick.
These are another one that falls into the “hot” category. They start out green and mature into different shades of red, orange, and yellow. Each one is about an inch long and they range from 100,000 – 300,000 SHU. They are often used in salsas and sauces or as a pickled condiment.
Scotch Bonnet Peppers
These measure in at about an inch and a half and pack quite the mouth wallop. Their SHU rating is anywhere from 100,000 – 350,000 and they are often seen in West African and Caribbean cuisines.
Here are some amazing recipes using chile peppers:
- Cheesy Chile Cornbread Casserole
- Chile Relleno Monte Cristo
- Pork Chile Verde
- Bacon Wrapped BBQ Chicken Stuffed Chile Peppers
- Red Beef Chili
What makes chile peppers hot?
Capsaicin is the active chemical compound found in chile peppers that gives them their spicy kick.
How do you prepare chile peppers?
I recommend buying disposable kitchen gloves and using a separate cutting board when working with chiles that are spicy. The oils in them contain capsaicin, the element that makes your mouth feel the heating or burning sensation. This can sneakily find it’s way on to bare fingers and anything else you touch with said bare fingers. Think counters, eyes, knife handles, and more.
Best to keep a barrier between your skin and the pepper and to wash everything with lots of soap.