Hot Stuff: Cooking with Heat
Cooking with Chili Peppers and Hot Sauces
There are two ways you can add heat to your cooking. You can buy a hot sauce or you can directly add chili peppers.
Peppers are both a vegetable and a spice. Many of us cook often with sweet bell peppers, from the genus capsicum. These are the green, yellow, orange or red bell peppers that we add to salads or stuff with seasoned rice, or sauté with Italian sausages. But when it comes to flavor and heat, we want the peppers that are treated as a spice: chili peppers.
Wilbur Scoville's Warning System
The heat and piquancy of fresh and dried chili peppers are measured using the Scoville Scale which ranks the amount of capsaicin, a chemical that stimulates the membranes in our skin. Especially the mucous and tear membranes. The higher the Scoville number -- and generally the smaller the chili -- the greater the heat.
American chemist Wilbur Scoville invented his scale in 1912 and his metrics still hold, even as some botanists continue to create chili pepper with ever increasing power. I couldn't find any details about whether or not Mr. Scoville was a fan of any heated cuisines, but his ratings are still the standard for culinary fire power:
|Scoville Rating (units)*||Type of Pepper|
|100,000 - 350,000||Habanero Chili or Scotch Bonnet|
|100,000 - 200,000||Rocoto Pepper, Jamaican Hot Pepper, African Birdseye|
|50,000 - 100,000||Thai Pepper, Malagueta Pepper, Pequin Pepper|
|30,000 - 50,000||Cayenne Pepper, Tabasco Sauce|
|10,000 - 30,000||Serrano Pepper|
|5,000 - 10,000||Wax Pepper|
|4,500 - 5,000||New Mexican Anaheim Pepper|
|2,500 - 8,000||Jalapeño Pepper (Chipotles are smoked Jalapeños)|
|1,500 - 2,500||Rocotillo Pepper, Sriracha (a southeast Asian hot sauce)|
|1,000 - 1,500||Poblano Pepper|
|500 - 1,000||Anaheim Pepper|
|100 - 500||Pimento Pepper|
*Many Scoville charts use slightly different ranges but the ranking and position of each type of pepper is the same.
These ratings are only approximates since there can be a big range in peppers depending upon where the peppers were grown, the size of seeds, and other inexact aspects of nature. To help put this into perspective, U.S. grade pepper spray, a dangerous weapon, is ranked by Scoville to have 2 million to 5.3 million units.
Two final tips for working with fresh chili peppers: One, if you're going to cut, slice, or seed anything hotter than a jalapeno, it's wise to wear latex gloves; some suggest simply oiling your hands but I'm not an advocate of handling a sharp knife with oily fingers. If you touch a habanero and ten minutes later you rub your eye or the tip of your nose -- even if you've washed your hands -- you'll feel excruciating pain from the residue still on your fingers. Handling a cut habanero or other potent chili can also burn your fingers, another reason to wear gloves.
Two, there's more heat in the seeds and inner fibers than the outside flesh of a pepper. You can reduce its punch while keep its flavor by using a paring knife to cut out and discard a pepper's seeds and inner white ribs. This is commonly done when cooking with a jalapeño pepper.
XXX Hot Sauces
If instead of fresh chili peppers you prefer to use hot sauce, be conservative until you're very practiced with individual brands and know what you're working with. That's because there's no industry standard like the Scoville Scale to give you any advance warning for what you're getting in each bottle.
Nearly every food market offers at least a basic selection of hot sauces. Tabasco is the best known. It's red, pungent and fiery. When I was in culinary school we were taught to use Tabasco in place of freshly ground pepper in any dish where you didn't want to see those little flecks of black. Yes, I know you can use white pepper, but white peppercorns have had their flavorful black exteriors removed, so you'll get a diminished pepper taste. A few drops of Tabasco invisibly adds defined pepper flavor and heat. Think of this the next time you're making something white, like mayonnaise or a béchamel sauce or vichyssoise, and instead of reaching for a pepper grinder, add a few drops of red Tabasco.
After visiting New Orleans where hot sauce sits on every kitchen and restaurant table as we northerners keep a salt shaker, I've become a fan of Crystal Hot Sauce, a mass market brand made in Louisiana. I love its soft heat and tangy flavor. I use both Crystal Hot Sauce and Tabasco when making the exceptionally delicious BBQ Sauce made by Larry Eustis, a scion of a great New Orleans family. He puts it on just about anything that resembles meat or fish. It's become my favorite glaze for my Classic Meat Loaf . See our recipes.
There are scores of other bottled hot sauces to choose from, many of them artisanal and produced in small quantities, and the only way you can know which you'll like is to try a few. Be prepared for brands with names like "Mega Death," "Psycho Bitch," "Pain is Good," or "Delicious Suffering." There are also others with names that I won't repeat here given our G-Rating. Many bottled hot sauces will tell you which pepper is its core ingredient, plus there's often a tip-off as to its intensity.
Hot sauces are available in grocery stores, specialty ethnic markets, and at web sites dedicated entirely to the art of adding fire to food such as TearsOfJoySauces.com .
Once you sign on to use a hot pepper sauce, the only way you can moderate or modulate it is to control how much you use. Start with one drop. Taste. And add more if you want, but keep at the same pace. And remember that while you can always add, if there's too much you risk ruining a dish because you can't take it back..