September 20, 2013

From Sweet to Heat

Summer may be coming to an end, but pepper season is heating up. Native to the Americas, the fruits of Capsicum annuum are in full force at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market from summer into early fall, where you can find more than 40 varieties in just about every color of the rainbow.

Low- to no-heat varieties like bells are generally called sweet peppers, while piquant varieties are commonly referred to as chiles. Pepper heat is based on the level of capsaicin, a chemical compound that creates a burning sensation on contact with mucous membranes, like the skin in our mouths. It is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), a scale developed by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. For a bit of perspective, bell peppers are 0 SHU, Tabasco sauce is 2,500–5,000 SHU, pepper spray is upwards of 2,000,000 SHU, and pure capsaicin is 16,000,000 SHU. Capsaicin is usually concentrated in the seeds and ribs of the chile, so those can be removed to soften the kick.

When picking fresh peppers, look for deep, rich colors and glossy skins, and avoid wrinkles and bruising. As they ripen, many peppers change color from green to other bright colors, and some get spicier. When working with hot chiles, avoid contact with your eyes and always wash your hands thoroughly with dish soap, or use gloves.

By no means a definitive list, here is a guide to some of the more popular peppers at the farmers market, along with a few exotic ones. Peppers are ordered from mild to spicy, with Scoville heat units noted in parentheses.

Sweet or Mild Heat

Bell (0): These sweet, mild peppers can be found in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, from the ubiquitous red, green, and gold to orange, purple, and even chocolate brown. Bell peppers do not contain any capsaicin, making them a delicious addition to salads, stir-fries, and other dishes.

Fryer (0–1,000): Sweet frying peppers are a broad category that includes long, thin-fleshed varieties, such as Cubanelle, Italianelle, gypsy, and Jimmy Nardello. Their flavor is enhanced when sautéed with a bit of oil.

Pimiento de Padrón (0–3,000): Generally harvested in their green, mild state, this small, flavorful fryer heats up with maturity. For a delicious appetizer that is popular in northern Spain, fry them in olive oil until they’re soft and the skins are slightly charred and blistered, then toss with sea salt and serve.

Shishito (50–1,000): This small, green Japanese pepper is named for its tip’s resemblance to a lion’s face. Similar to Padrón peppers, shishitos are picked when immature and sweet, and about one out of 10 peppers is spicy, so be prepared.

Pimiento (100–500): Named for the Spanish word for “pepper,” the squat, red pimiento is sweeter and juicier than your standard bell. It’s well known as that tiny bit of delicious red stuffing found in cured green olives.

Anaheim (500–2,500): Hailing from New Mexico, this large, long, light green pepper takes its name from the Southern California city where it was popularized. Sweet with a bit of spice, it is frequently used in salsas or stuffed.

Poblano (500–2,500): This mildly spicy dark green chile originating from Puebla, Mexico, is traditionally stuffed, breaded, and deep-fried for chile rellenos. When dried, it is known as an ancho, a common ingredient in the classic Oaxacan sauce mole poblano.

Chilaca (1,000–2,500): Green-black with a long, twisted shape and a rich flavor, the Chicaca is widely known for its dried form, the pasilla, which is used in mole negro. Fresh chilacas are a rare find outside of farmers markets.

Medium Heat

Jalapeño (2,500–8,000): Native to Veracruz, Mexico, the jalapeño is perhaps the most popular hot chile in the world. It is generally dark green when harvested but can also be found in a ripe, crimson red form, which is equally spicy. Thick-skinned and easily seeded, the jalapeño makes a perfect receptacle for cheese (wrapped in bacon, of course). When smoked and dried, it is called a chipotle.

Hungarian wax (3,500–8,000): Sometimes mistaken for the sweet and mild banana pepper, these long yellow to red peppers are considerably hotter than they look.

Serrano (10,000–23,000): Resembling but skinnier than the jalapeño, the fleshy serrano turns up the heat a few notches. It is often used raw in spicy salsas and guacamoles.

Extremely Hot

Cayenne (30,000–50,000): Usually found dried and ground as a spice, this long pepper packs a punch. The ripe, fresh version can be found at farmers markets in hues of red to yellow. It is often found in Asian dishes and hot sauces.

Aji rojo (30,000–50,000): This bright orange-red Peruvian powerhouse makes a sizzling addition to ceviche.

Thai chile (50,000–100,000): The Thai chile (also known as a bird chile, due to its resemblance to a bird’s beak) is a tiny scorcher, commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine.

Habanero (100,000–350,000): Native to South America but named after the city of Havana, the habanero is a fiery little lantern with fruity notes, making it a favorite ingredient in hot sauces. It is similar in shape and heat (but not to be confused with) the larger Scotch bonnet.

Bhut Jolokia (855,000–1,000,000): Nicknamed the “ghost pepper” for its reputation to cause people to “give up the ghost,” this wrinkly, red, supernaturally hot hybrid was once considered the hottest in the world (a title now held by the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, with 2,000,000 SHU). So, how hot is it? With roughly 400 times as much capsaicin as a jalapeño, it is used as elephant repellant in India. In short, proceed with extreme caution!

Look for peppers at Allstar Organics, Bruins Farms, Capay Organic, Catalán Family Farm, Chue’s Farm, Eatwell Farm, Everything Under the Sun, Happy Quail Farms, Heirloom Organic Gardens, Knoll Farms, Lucero Organic Farms, Madison Growers, Peach Farm, and Tierra Vegetables.

Can you take the heat? Learn more about peppers and sample some for yourself tomorrow at CUESA’s Pepper Celebration.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »