A few years ago, I catered a Mexican food dinner for 150 people, and some of the guys came to me and asked me to make a hot habanero salsa. They said they wanted it really hot, so I had them stand by me as I threw a dozen habaneros in for a quart of salsa. After a few more, they were happy.
In the buffet line, I clearly marked the salsas mild and “extremely hot! Eat with caution.” Later, I watched this lady swear she loved spicy foods, so I gave her a verbal warning about its severe heat. A minute later, she’s fanning her mouth and looking for something cold to drink.
Chiles are what make food hot or mild, as well as flavorful. I make salsa so that it’s tasty and with a little heat, but not so that it knocks you over.
So what’s the difference from one chile to the next? In general, the smaller the chile, the more heat it packs. Chiles are members of the Capsicum genus and their heat levels are measured in Scoville units, so named for the chemist who developed the scale in 1912 while working for a pharmaceutical company.
Sweet peppers are on the lowest end of the scale at zero, whereas the hottest ever measured is the Red Savino habanero at 350,000 to 577,000 units. Poblanos (1,000-2,000) and Anaheims (500-1,000) are on the milder end, whereas serranos (8,000-22,000) and jalapeños (2,500-8,000) are on the hotter side. I find the heat and flavor in serranos to be more consistent than jalapeños.
The heat comes from the membrane and the seeds, which contain 80 percent of a chile’s capsaicin. Remove those, and you’ll get a milder chile flavor in foods.
Chiles can also be transformed to create different flavors, too. An Anaheim becomes a New Mexico when it’s dried, and a pasilla becomes an ancho. The chile flakes you put on pizza come from dried chiles, and chile powder is ground, dried chiles. You can pickle jalapeños for a milder flavor, or roast jalapeños and make chipotles, which have a smoky flavor.
A chile’s heat is long-lasting, as opposed to black pepper. To cool down a hot spell, drink milk, not water or any other cold beverage. Milk contains casein, a lipophilic, a fat-loving substance. It surrounds and washes away the fatty capsaicin molecules. It’s similar to how soap works with grease.
Capsaicin also produces endorphins, bringing about a sense of well-being. That’s why spicy food can be addictive. And the more spicy food you eat, the more your body can tolerate the heat.
So eat more chiles and be happy.
Next post: Making salsa fresca, the easy way