There are thousands of varieties of chillies to be found, in a wide range of colours, shapes and sizes and with varying heats, from very mild to scorchingly hot. Originally from south and central America, chillies can be found just as happily growing in polytunnels in the UK these days.
There are five species of domesticated chilli, all with slightly different characteristics:
1 Capsicum annuum is the most common form of chilli – examples include sweet peppers, jalapeños and paprika.
2 Capsicum chinense is a very hot variety of chilli – think habanero and scotch bonnet as well as the hottest chilli in the world, the carolina reaper.
3 Capsicum baccatum includes the aji family of chillies, popular in Peruvian-style cuisine.
4 Capsicum fruitescens – see tabasco and Thai-style chillies.
5 Capsicum pubescens (rocoto chillies) are hot, and have distinctive black seeds.
The heat in chillies comes from a chemical called capsaicin, but it isn’t contained in the seeds, rather in the placenta, which is the fleshy strip inside the fruit to which the seeds are attached. The cells which contain the capsaicin have a high internal pressure so that when the chilli is broken or sliced open they burst, spraying the chemical over the inside of the pod.
Capsaicin activates the same sensors that are used to detect heat in the body. As a reaction to the heat/burning sensation, the body then releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins have a feel-good factor, which promotes a sense of wellbeing and could well be the reason that chillies can become quite addictive.
The Scoville scale
Heat is traditionally measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), a measure devised in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville. The principle was that the chilli was blended into sugar water and then diluted until it was no longer detectable by taste. This is a bit of a hit-and-miss process, so these days Scoville tests are done using liquid chromatography and then translated back into Scoville heat units.
Hot to combat the burn
The best antidote to chilli heat is either patience (just sit it out), or a dairy product such as milk or yogurt. Try to hold the yogurt in your mouth for as long as possible before swallowing. Drinking water or beer does not help as they wash the heat further into your taste buds.
Uses and preparation
As well as the difference in heat, there is a wide variation in the flavour of different chillies. The same chilli even has a different flavour when fresh to when it’s dried; for example a fresh aji limon chilli tastes lemony but a dried aji limon can have hints of banana. Chillies have a range of uses depending on their size, colour, fleshiness and flavour. Thinner-skinned chillies are easier to dry; thicker-fleshed chillies are good for stuffing and baking; small chillies are good to use whole; long chillies are easy to chop.
When in season, there are some lovely chillies to be found with mild/medium heat and fresh, sparky flavours. Medium-heat chilli varieties such as cherry bomb or sante fe grande can be stuffed with cheese and roasted in the oven. Mild padron chillies can be pan-fried in a little oil and sea salt and eaten whole. Hotter varieties can be chopped small and be used to spice up any dish and are particularly good in summer to make fresh salsas and dips.
When chillies are dried they maintain their characteristic flavours and heat and also often develop a sweeter flavour with hints of dried fruit. Several dried chillies have smoky flavours too and are very popular in Mexican cuisine for making moles. Dried chillies can be reconstituted by covering them in boiling water and leaving to stand for 20 minutes
or so. They can then be mixed into a dish as they are or blended before adding. Some (like ancho mulato chillies) have quite thick skins, so may need pushing through a sieve after blending.
For more info on South Devon Chilli Farm or to order fresh chillies that are picked to order and dispatched the same day, as well as dried chillies and other chilli products, visit sdcf.co.uk. Listen to our podcast for more fun chilli facts and recipes.
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