Although most chili peppers are indigenous to South America, they are used and grown around the world. Hot peppers are used in abundance in Mexican, South American, Indonesian, African and Oriental cooking, while the milder peppers are common in European and North American recipes.
What Are Peppers
The word “peppers” can bring to mind several images. On one end of the spectrum is the sweet bell pepper. On the other is the hottest of the hot peppers, the habanero chili pepper. One has virtually no heat while the other will melt the taste buds off your tongue. Yet these and all those in between are peppers. (By the way, that bit about the habanero melting your taste buds, I was just kidding . . . but it”s pretty near the truth!)
The one thing that all chili peppers share is the common name “capsicum” (pronounced KAP-sih-kuhm). Capsicum, from the Greek kapto meaning “to bite,” is the pepper genus. The five big species of chili peppers are:
- Capsicum annuum — including most of the common varieties like the jalapeno and bell peppers
- Capsicum baccatum — including the berry-like South American chili peppers, aji
- Capsicum chinense — including the fiery habanero
- Capsicum frutescens — including the bushy pepper plants like tabasco
- Capsicum pubescens — including the South American rocoto peppers.
Measuring the Heat of Hot Peppers
Chili pepper heat was first measured in Scoville Units. Developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912, Scoville Units measure chili pepper heat in multiples of 100, with the bell peppers at 0 and the habanero at over 300,000 Scoville Units.
The Scoville Unit rating of a pepper is determined by a dilution taste test. Pure ground chili peppers are blended with a sugar-water solution. A panel of testers sips the mixture in increasingly diluted concentrations until it no longer burns the mouth. The Scoville Unit number is based on how much the ground chili needs to be diluted before no heat is detected. (Nowadays, liquid chromatography, rather than Scoville”s dilution taste test, is used to evaluate the heat of chili peppers.)
The substance that makes a chili hot is called capsaicin, also known for its ability to improve one”s health by increasing blood circulation and metabolism. Pure capsaicin comes in at over 16 million Scoville Units! Capsaicin is found in its highest concentrations (about 80 percent of the total amount) in the ribs of the pepper, and the seeds are also highly concentrated. Removing the ribs and seeds will reduce the heat of the chili pepper. Capsaicin is also distributed in smaller amounts throughout the flesh of the chili pepper. Because the substance is distributed unevenly, it”s common for some areas of a pepper to be hotter than others.
Growing and Using Chili Peppers
On this site we”ve included information about the pepper varieties that you can grow in your garden, those that are commonly seen at your local grocer”s, and those that are typically used in chili sauces and spice mixtures. If you want to grow your own peppers, visit our growing peppers page to read about container and garden planting, and what kind of soil, moisture, temperature and amount of sunlight chili peppers like best. If you”re growing peppers or purchasing them fresh, we also provide some ideas on using peppers, from stuffing to salsa to pickling.