I was all set to write about a soup that I made for dinner the other night: Corn Soup with Roasted Poblanos and Zucchini. Sweet corn at its pure essence with a bit of a Mexican kick from the roasted poblanos and the Serrano that was cooked into the soup – yummy. It was delicious (for the first bite). Then, the second bite was a little spicy. The third bite, very spicy. Ouch, it was really hard to finish the bowl full. Good thing we had bread with butter to calm down the spice, otherwise… just ouch is all I can come up with. And, I’m not a big wimp when it comes to spice. So, scratch the idea of giving everyone the recipe for the corn soup, as I think that without the Serrano Chile the soup would be a bit bland. But, I usually use two Serranos in my salsa, and it isn’t too hot. So, why?
As we talked about the soup and chilies, we came up with a few questions. I know that some chilies are hotter than others, and I know that even if you buy the same type of chilies, some will be hotter than others. Why? But, what if they all come from my garden, from the same plant will they all be the same intensity? Why are some of the same types of chilies hotter than others? These and many more questions came up, so I thought it was time to do a little research
Here are my results, you may already know some of these facts (or all of them), but I thought I’d present a bit of an overview…
The ferocity (or heat) of a chile lies in its capsicum content. Capsicum is an odorless flavorless chemical compound; it’s the active part of chile peppers, an irritant for mammals (an interesting fact comes of this that I’ll discuss later), and produces a sensation of burning in any tissue (including eyes, skin, and taste buds) with which it comes into contact. The membranes of the chile are where the capsicum is stored. The seeds are not as hot, but since they are a part of the membrane they have a bit more heat than the skin and flesh of the chili pepper, so remove the membranes and seeds if you don’t want your dish to be too fiery.
Chilies burn with capsicum because the plant wants to disperse its seeds in the most efficient way. Birds, unlike mammals, can’t feel heat from capsicum. The seeds pass through a bird’s digestive tract very quickly, and are dispersed, unharmed by digestive juices. A mammal, however, is quite different; the seeds hardly ever make it out whole and unscathed, because of the powerfully acidic gastric juices needed to break food down during digestion. Chilies are trying to stop mammals from eating them by producing capsicum as a natural repellent. (Wow, who knew!)
Try to avoid handling chilies too much; as stated, the capsicum is intended to burn tissue. Wear gloves if possible, and be sure not to touch your face or eyes during preparation.
All peppers are gauged for heat on the Scoville Scale (named after its creator, Wilbur Scoville, who developed the test in 1912). The number of Scoville heat units (SHU) indicates the amount of capsicum present; the more capsicum the pepper has, the hotter the chile: 0 for a sweet bell pepper, and up to 15 or 16 million for pure capsicum.
The Scoville scale cannot take into account the outside factors affecting the heat of the chile, such as a dry growing season, which will make a chile hotter, or pickling, which can make the chile milder. Soil, weather, and many other factors make it difficult to produce a standard chile. Poor soil and dry conditions make a plant fight to survive, sprouting chilies that are smaller but hotter (In general, the smaller the chile the hotter it will be) than those found on a plant grown from the same batch of seed in more pampered conditions. Even two jalapenos picked from the same plant can have different heat levels just because of the growth conditions.
In addition, chilies change color as they ripen. They often grow from green to yellow and then to red. When the chili is red it’s ripe, and loaded with the most sugar that it will have. (Green bell peppers would ripen to red bell peppers if left unharvested, and this is why red bells are sweeter than green bells, and why red bells are more expensive at the store- they take longer to produce than green bells.)
In general, red chilies are two or three times hotter than green fruits, and dried pods are up to ten times hotter than fresh pods.
Here is a short table showing the heat levels of different chilies…
|Scoville rating||Type of pepper|
|5,000,000–5,300,000||Law Enforcement Grade pepper spray|
|855,000–1,075,000||Bhut Jolokia (Naga Jolokia)|
|350,000–580,000||Red Savina habanero|
|100,000–350,000||Guntur Chilli, Habanero chili, Scotch Bonnet Pepper, Jamaican Hot Pepper|
|50,000–100,000||Bird’s eye chili, Thai Pepper, Indian Pepper|
|30,000–50,000||Cayenne Pepper, Tabasco pepper|
|2,500–8,000||Jalapeño Pepper, New Mexican varieties of Anaheim pepper, Paprika (Hungarian wax pepper), Tabasco Sauce|
|500–2,500||Anaheim pepper, Poblano Pepper, Pasilla|
|0||No significant heat, Bell pepper|