The Skinny on Peppers

For spicy variety and healthy living, nothing beats a peck of piquant peppers.
Published July 13, 2016

They’ve been cultivated for more than 6,000 years. They’re crucial to cuisines throughout Latin America, Asia, Africa and the American Southwest. They offer a surprisingly wide range of health benefits. And some of them are so hot they’ll knock your socks off. That’s right, we’re talking about chili peppers.

Fresh peppers, especially the red ones, are an excellent source of Vitamins C and A. Studies have shown that capsaicin, the compound that provides both fresh and dried chilies with their fiery kick, may be effective in fighting such diseases as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Use this guide to shop for, store and cook with these dietary dynamos.

A note about heat: In general, the smaller and narrower the pepper, the more incendiary it becomes. The Scoville Scale, named for the scientist who first measured chilies’ blazing effect, ranks peppers by their firepower. But it’s not absolute — because seed lineage, climate and soil can all affect capsaicin content, a jalapeno you purchase this week may be hotter than one you buy next week. Our visual guide lays them out in ascending Scoville order. (Mouth on fire? Try a spoonful of full-fat dairy products like sour cream or yogurt — they’re most effective at dissolving the capsaicin. Counterintuitive as it may seem, water will only feed the flames.)

Buy Look for peppers that are firm and glossy, with no wrinkles or soft spots.
Store Refrigerate unwashed in a plastic bag for up to a week
Use Cutting into a chili releases capsaicin-filled oils, so be extremely careful not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth — even after washing your hands, since soap won’t remove all the residue. In fact, we recommend wearing gloves. To temper some of the pepper’s heat, remove the seeds and the fibrous white ribs, which have the highest concentration of capsaicin.

Buy Flexible, relatively soft peppers are freshest and pack the most punch. Look for even coloring with no brown spots.
Store Bugs love dried chilies, so store for up to a year in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.
Use Dried chilies’ oils can irritate skin, so take the same handling precautions as you would with fresh. Toasting brings out the flavor: Heat in a dry skillet, over medium heat, for about three minutes — just until softened and slightly darkened in color. Then rehydrate in a bowl of hot water for 20 minutes to an hour, remove and discard stems and seeds, and proceed with recipe.
Look for peppers that are firm and glossy, with no wrinkles or soft spots.

Buy     Look for bright, fresh color and purchase from a store with a fast turnover — ground spices lose their impact with time.
Store      Keep in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, for up to six months.


A Visual Buying Guide

Have a look, get the lowdown, and learn to use your Anaheims, Scotch Bonnets and more. Check out fresh, dried and powdered peppers, listed in that order, from the mildest to the most fiery.

Bell Peppers
Though they’re related, these aren’t chili peppers at all, since they contain no capsaicin. Boxy and large, they’re available in a rainbow of colors, all of which are green before maturity. As the pepper ripens, sugars develop and the color changes. This is why green peppers have a sharp, slightly bitter flavor and also why they cost less — they’re picked and sent to market sooner. Bell peppers work equally well raw or cooked, and are especially tasty when roasted: Cut in half, leaving stems intact, and place cut-side down on a baking sheet. Broil until skins turn black (check every few minutes; rotate as necessary), then place in a bowl and cover until cool enough to handle. Slip off skins, remove stems and seeds and voilà! Roasted peppers.

Also called California chilies. Among the mildest of the chilies, these are pale-to-medium green, long and narrow, with a tough skin — roast and remove the skin before use. Anaheims are often used in salsa, and are commonly the base for chiles rellenos.

Called pasilla in some areas. Heart-shaped and large, with a bit more kick than Anaheims, poblanos are a very dark green — so dark they almost appear black. The darkest ones have a richer, sweeter flavor. These beauties have thick walls, making them ideal for stuffing. When dried, they’re known as ancho chilies.

If you’ve ever eaten salsa, odds are you’ve eaten jalapeños. About three inches long, dark green and with a nice warm burn, they’re eaten raw or cooked, in guacamole, pickled, stuffed and even made into jelly. Jalapeño poppers, a popular appetizer, are peppers that have been stuffed with cheese, breaded and deep-fried — definitely not low-calorie. Smoked, dried jalapeños are called chipotle peppers.

While they look a lot like jalapenos and are used in similar ways, these small, pointed specimens are considerably hotter. Colors range from bright green to red or even yellow.

Also called bird’s eye. The diminutive, downright adorable appearance of these chilies is deceiving — they’re extremely hot. Bite into one without warning and you’ll be sorry. Use whole or chopped in Asian recipes, marinades, soups and sauces.

Along with Scotch Bonnets, Habaneros are among the hottest chili peppers. Generally used in Latin American recipes and hot sauce, Habaneros are small and triangular, and usually red or orange with thin and waxy walls.

Scotch Bonnet
One of the hottest chili peppers. Scotch Bonnets have thin, waxy walls and similar flavors and Scoville ranges as Habanero peppers. Small and most often red or orange, the squat-shaped Scotch bonnet is popular in Caribbean cooking — they’re what give jerk sauce its trademark wallop.

A dried poblano, it’s mildly hot with hints of sweetness. Anchos are almost always cooked — they’re a staple of mole seasoning, chili and tamales, and are occasionally served stuffed.

Also called chilenegro. Long, narrow, with black, wrinkled skin, the name is inspired by their appearance — pasilla is Spanish for “little raisin.” They’re used in mole and other Mexican sauces and stews.

Around four inches long and tapered, these smooth-skinned chilies range in color from cherry red to dark, purplish brown. They’re medium-hot, with a deep, almost nutty flavor, and are often used in salsas, cooked dishes and sauces.

A ripe jalapeño that’s been dried via a long, slow smoking process, chipotles are prized for their complexity of flavor. They’re widely available canned in adobo sauce — purée a pepper or two along with some sauce to liven up burgers or meat loaf.

Chile de Arbol
These are long, thin and quite hot, with a smooth, brick-red skin. Toss a few whole pods into soups, stews or stir-fries to up the heat factor, or crumble on top of pizza.

Available in sweet and hot varieties, paprika is a staple of European cooking, especially Hungarian dishes. No surprise, then: Hungarian paprika is considered the world’s finest. Use to add warm flavor during cooking and rich color after — sprinkle on deviled eggs, hummus or baked potatoes. In Spain, smoked paprika (also called Spanish paprika or pimentón) is used in almost every savory dish, even scrambled eggs. It comes in sweet, medium-hot and hot varieties. For a full, rounded flavor, combine it with regular sweet or hot paprika. Pimentón’s smoky depth lends a sophisticated, complex flavor to basic dishes — dust plain fish or chicken before cooking, or stir it into soups and stews.

Cayenne Pepper
Also called red pepper. Usually made from several varieties of dried chilies, cayenne is 20 times hotter than paprika. Bear in mind: It tastes hotter the longer it cooks. If all you’re looking for is a quick flavor boost, add a pinch to a favorite recipe near the end of cooking.