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They say that in New England we have 2 seasons: winter, and one week in August. But the true indicators of warmer weather here are the piles of fresh chiles that show up at the farmers’ markets. So many to choose from: huge and tiny, and in every color – red, orange, yellow, and green.
Now there’s long been an assumption by some that all chiles are hot. That’s nowhere near the truth (it’s kind of like saying that all fruit taste like bananas.) Fresh chiles have a huge range of heat and flavor – knowing and using this info can make your dishes a success, or a taste-bud-blowing nightmare.
The Pain Scale
Most people have heard of the Scoville scale – used to measure the amount of capsaicin (the “heat” compound) found inside chiles. Scoville amounts are given in units ranging from the hundreds and into the millions. You can read all about Scoville units online, but when you’re shopping for chiles, you might want something more practical than “Hmmm, was a jalapeño rated at 10 or 10,000,000 Scoville units?”
In the test kitchen we prefer to use a much more sophisticated scale. Called the “How hot is it on a scale of 1 to 4” scale. I know, I know – it’s pretty impressive. So keeping in mind that 1 is the lowest amount of heat, and that each individual chile will vary in heat, here’s how we rate a few of the most common supermarket fresh chiles:
This chile may be big in size, but it’s as mild as they get. Still, these peppers are prized for their fresh, crisp pepper flavor.
Pain Scale: 1
It’s a long, skinny chile, and could almost be mistaken for a Hungarian wax pepper. That is until you bite it. The heat is subtle but there.
Pain Scale: 2
Definitely the most used fresh chile in the test kitchen. This pepper has great fresh flavor to match its medium heat.
Pain Scale: 2
Looks like a jalapeño that shrunk in size – but definitely didn’t shrink in terms of heat. This chile will wake you up with its tart flavor.
Pain scale: 3
Thai Bird’s Eye
I love these tiny, little red chiles. Use them for their sweet flavor, but be aware that one of these goes a long way.
Pain Scale: 3 ½
In terms of heat, this is the king of the supermarket chiles. It’s as if the bright orange or red color serves as a warning of the heat inside. But few chiles can match the deep fruit flavor that these offer. Be judicious with this one, but don’t be afraid.
Pain Scale: 4
Chiles: Fact and Fiction
Now, we’ve come across a lot of chile info, advice, and “wisdom.” Of course we tested it all (what else would we do all day?) Here are few of my favorites.
The bigger the chile, the bigger the heat.
Fiction. You could be staring at two jalapeños – one nearly twice the size of the other – and not be able to predict which one is hotter. The only way to know is to cut off a sliver and taste it.
Drinking milk after eating a chile will soften the heat.
Fact. This one is incredibly useful to know if you have people with varying tolerances for heat enjoying the same dish. Basically the milk prevents the capsaicin from getting to the pain receptors on your tongue. Got milk? Then you’ve got relief.
Ah, then soaking chiles in milk would work too.
Fiction. Not so fast. We tested this and found the milk did diddly-squat to diffuse the heat. The capsaicin was still there when it reached the taster’s tongues. Yow!
All the heat is in the seeds.
Fact (sort of). Not all the capsaicin is in the seeds – some of it is found in the ribs of the chile too. So if you want to lower the heat level, just remove the seeds and ribs from your chile before using. A great idea is to chop the ribs and seeds to sprinkle over food and adjust the heat right before serving. Everybody’s happy!
You need gloves to work with chiles.
Depends. Are you a “rubber”? Will you need to take out contacts at some point during the day, or rub your eyes before it’s time for bed? Then get a pair of disposable gloves, and wear them when prepping chiles. Capsaicin has a way of sticking to hands and getting under fingernails – even after a thorough scrubbing.
So go grab some chiles from your garden or your market and start spicing up your food. Our recipe for White Chicken Chili – found in the Ultimate Chilis lesson – is a great place to experience a jalapeño, poblano, and Anaheim trifecta. Be sure to let me know how hot it’s getting where you are.
See the original version of this blog post, as well as other posts, on the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Instructor Blog.