Why Are Chilli Peppers Hot?

Chillies (or chillis or chilis or chiles) are widely used in cooking, especially in curries and other hot and spicy foods.

Technically, chilli peppers are in the Capsicum genus of the nightshade family of plants.

Chilli peppers were originally from Central and South America and today are used worldwide, primarily for cooking.

The main country for growing chillies is India, which produces around 100 million tons every year.

The “heat” in chilli peppers is contained in the component called capsaicin. Capsaicin is an active part of the chilli pepper and it irritates mammals, including people. It is widely accepted that capsaicin developed as a defence mechanism for the chilli peppers.

The capsaicin is found in the membrane of a chilli pepper, where the seeds are found. The seeds themselves do not produce any capsaicin. If you want to reduce the “heat” from a chilli pepper, slice the pepper open, cut away the membrane, and seeds, and then discard them. This reduces the “heat” from a chilli pepper to about 50% of what it would be if the whole chill1 were eaten.

You should take care when handling chilli peppers. Most cookery books recommend that you wear kitchen gloves. You should certainly be wary of handling chill peppers if you have any cuts or abrasions on your hands because the capsaicin can really make them sting, sometimes very painfully. You should never, ever, rub your eyes after handling chilli peppers because the pain can be excruciating.

The “heat” of chilli peppers is often measured on the Scoville Scale. The Scoville Rating is not an exact science and the ratings for a particular chilli pepper can vary from publication to publication. However, the relative “heat” of the chilli peppers can be understood.

There are lots of different types of chilli and the main ones are as follows. The Scoville Rating is shown with the letters SR (the bigger the number, the hotter the chilli pepper).

Bell (SR 0). This is a squarish pepper that has no heat with sides averaging about 4 inches (10cm). Comes in lots of colours with the main ones being green, red and yellow.

Paprika (SR 0 – 500). There are really two types of paprika chilli pepper. The sweet kind is used in the United States and has a 0 Scoville Rating. The hot kind is synonymous with Hungary and has a Scoville Rating of 100 – 500).

Anaheim (SR 500 – 2,500). This is a red narrow chilli that can be up to 6 inches (15cm) long. Also known as the Colorado.

Poblano (SR 1,000 – 5,000). This is a large, flat, green chilli pepper that can be up to 5 inches (12.5cm) long. It is very popular in Mexico. The Poblano is called an Ancho when it has been dried.

Jalapeno (SR 2,500 – 16000). This is a thin green chilli pepper that can be about 3 inches (7.5 cm) long. This chilli pepper is widely used in the United States.

Cayenne (SR 5,000 – 60,000). This a long, thin, chilli pepper that can be up to 5 inches (12.5 cm) long. This chilli pepper s usually green, but can be yellow or purple, and is often bought in powder form.

Serrano (SR 5,000 – 60,000). This is a small chilli (around 2 inches, or 5cm) that turns red (from green) when ripe. This chilli pepper is widely used in Mexico.

Tabasco (SR 30,000 – 50,000). This is a small, thin, chilli pepper of about 1.5 inches (4cm). It is a main component of Tabasco sauce.

Aji (SR 30,000 – 50,000). This is a roundish chilli pepper of about 3 inches (7.5cm). It is popular and widely used in Peru.

Habanero (SR 100,000 – 300,000). This is a small, lantern-shaped, chilli of around 2 inches (5cm). It may be small but it packs a big punch – check out its SR rating.

Scotch Bonnet (SR 150,000 – 325,000). This is also a small, roundish, chilli of about 2 inches (5cm). Like the Habanero, it packs a big punch. The Scotch Bonnet is a favourite in Caribbean cooking.

Chilli peppers are one of the most well known cooking additives.

There are numerous books written about chilli peppers if you want to read up more.

And the New Mexico State University even has a Chile Pepper Institute. You can find their website here.

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