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The Wonderful World of Peppers

If you’ve ever wandered down the produce aisle in a well-stocked grocery store, chances are you’ve seen a huge variety of peppers. Whereas we once only had a choice between red, yellow, or green bell peppers, there’s often now a host of other varieties, thanks in part to the growing popularity of ethnic foods including those from Mexico, India, Asia, and even the American Southwest.

Heat!

Peppers literally come in all shapes and sizes and all taste just a little bit different. They are usually distinguished by their “hotness” and are measured for this trait by something known as the Scoville Heat Scale. Red or yellow bell peppers, for example, would be at the bottom of the scale while habaneros would sit at the top.

The ingredient that makes peppers hot is capsaicin, a compound that is manufactured in the ribs of the pepper. Capsaicin works by stimulating the pain receptors in your mouth, hence that overwhelming feeling you get when you eat a really hot and spicy pepper. To cut down on the heat, you can merely remove the seeds and spongy ribs from inside the pepper or add a dollop of sour cream (not the low-fat variety) to each bite of pepper. It’ll neutralize the acid and cool down the fire.

And remember that the peppers won’t just burn your mouth but your skin as well. Never touch your eyes when you’re handling a hot pepper, and if the pepper is burning the skin on your hands, quickly dip them in a bowl of water that contains 1 part chlorine bleach and 5 parts water.

Types of Peppers

Some people like just a little spice in their food while others think the hottest peppers are the best. Thankfully, there’s a host of peppers from which to choose so there’s literally something for everyone. Consider these varieties when shopping for peppers at your grocery store or produce market. They’re arranged from mild to hot.

o Banana peppers – Just 500 on the Scoville Heat Scale, the mild-tasting banana pepper is usually long, yellow, and banana shaped and is very versatile. It’s often used on sandwiches or can be fried or sautéed.

o Cherry peppers – These tasty little peppers are about 2 inches in diameter. They are mild and slightly sweet.

o Poblano – Also known as the Ancho Chili Pepper in its dried version, the poblano is a heart-shaped, deep green pepper that generally measures about 4 inches long. It has a very thick skin so it’s often used for stuffing but can also be added to chili if a mild flavor is desired.

o Anaheim Chili – A little hotter than the poblano, the Anaheim chili is long, thin, and bright green. They are ideal for sauces and soups or for making chili rellenos.

o Fresno peppers – This chili pepper is conical in shape and generally about 2 inches long. It’s bright red in color and about twice as hot as the Anaheim chili. It’s a common ingredient in medium-grade salsas.

o Jalapeno peppers – One of the most popular varieties sold in the U.S., the jalapeno can be purchased fresh or canned. The canned variety is not as spicy as the fresh. They are often used in chili as well as a variety of other Mexican foods.

o Serrano peppers – At about 25,000 on the Scoville scale, this pepper is approaching the very hot category but not nearly as hot as the peppers at the top of the scale. They’re small and waxy green and generally used in the same manner as the jalapeno.

o Cayenne Pepper/Finger Chili – This shriveled red pepper (sometimes green) comes from South America’s French Guiana. It’s quite pungent, very hot, and is popular in Cajun dishes and salsa.

o Scotch Bonnet Chili – Grown largely in the Caribbean, this round-shaped pepper is usually orange or red and reaches about 325,000 on the Scoville scale. Get the fire extinguisher ready!

o Habanero – Situated at the very top of the scale, the hot, hot habanero often catches pepper novices off guard. Only the heartiest can stand its heat, even just a small amount.