Spicy foods exist on a spectrum. For some, too much black pepper can be too spicy and, for others, blazing hot chiles might not make them flinch. We all have different tolerance levels when it comes to spice. Let’s start by taking a look at how “heat” is measured.
THE SCOVILLE SCALE
The Scoville scale was invented in 1912 by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, to measure the “spiciness” or “heat” of various chili peppers. The Scoville Scale uses Scoville Heat Units (SHU’s) to quantify how spicy food is by measuring how much capsaicin content can be diluted before the heat is no longer detectable to humans. Capsaicin is the chemical responsible for the spicy sensation within a pepper. In high concentrations, it will cause a burning effect on sensitive areas of skin and in the eyes so, for that reason, it is wise to wear gloves when working with chile peppers.
Capsaicin is the chemical responsible for the spicy sensation within a pepper.
Chile peppers have varying degrees of heat. A sweet bell pepper has 0 SHU’s, while Tabasco sauce rates 1200 plus. Common chile peppers used for culinary purposes, in order of ascending hotness, are, jalapeño, serrano, cayenne and habanero. The heat is concentrated in the seeds of a chile, so scrape those out, unless you love a burning tongue. If you do end up eating something too spicy, drinking milk, or eating yogurt will help to cool your mouth down. Contrary to popular belief, water will only make the sensation worse.
MORITA / JALAPENO
Considered a medium heat chile, the morita is actually just a smoked jalapeño. Translated to mean “little blackberry” in Spanish, the heady aroma of mesquite and chocolate make the morita a wonderful addition to both savory and sweet dishes. As with any dried chile, moritas can be rehydrated in water prior to cooking. Left dry and grounded up, they make an incredible chili powder. Be sure to remove the stems and seeds if you try this.
Jalapeños (morita’s fresh counterpart) are the most readily available fresh chile in Mexico and their heat level can vary from mild to moderately hot, depending on how they are cultivated and prepared. When ranked on the Scoville heat scale, however, they are considered mild. Small brown lines or ‘scars’ on the skin of jalapeños can indicate that they have a higher heat level. They are commonly pickled and served as a condiment on top of nachos and in quesadillas. A very versatile chile pepper, they can also be stuffed, grilled, and muddled into cocktails, such as margaritas.
If you do end up eating something too spicy, drinking milk, or eating yogurt will help to cool your mouth down.
POBLANO / ANCHO
Poblanos, also known as ancho chiles when dried, are a type of very mild chile, named after the state of Puebla, Mexico, where they originated. They can be eaten raw or cooked, but are frequently roasted. Roasting them mellows their taste and brings out their subtle fruity flavor. Poblanos taste best when they are peeled and seeded, which is much easier accomplished after they’ve been cooked. They are frequently split in half and stuffed with various fillings like cheeses, meats, and beans. This affordable chile can be found in many Mexican dishes such as mole, quesadillas, and salads. In North America, they are commonly labeled as pasilla peppers at grocery stores.
Ancho chiles (dried poblanos) make a great spice rub when grinded. Another great idea is to soak the dried pods in hot water, remove the seeds and stems, and then combine the reconstituted peppers with sour cream and purée until smooth.
Apart from chili peppers, a number of spices, including cinnamon, garlic and ginger can deliver a fiery punch and host many health benefits as well. Two such benefits are that they kill bacteria and boost metabolism.
Poblanos taste best when they are peeled and seeded, which is much easier accomplished after they’ve been cooked.
Another great spice, and one that you’ll be using this week, is paprika. Paprika is made from dried peppers that originated in central Mexico. There are two main types: Hungarian and Spanish. Hungarian paprika comes in different flavor profiles, ranging from mild and bright red to spicy and pale orange. Spanish paprika is traditionally made with smoked peppers and also ranges from sweet to hot. If you see a bottle labeled as just ‘paprika’ without distinction, you can bet that this will be a very mild version of the spice, intended to be used more for lending a dash of color to dishes like devilled eggs. It is important to note that while paprika is frequently added raw to foods as a garnish, the flavor is more pronounced after heating it in oil.
Paprika is made from dried peppers that originated in central Mexico.
We hope you’ve learned more about a few of the different types of spices that can be involved in cooking. Remember that not everyone has a stomach of steel so, if you’re new to eating spicy foods, ease your way into the heat. You’ll thank yourself later!