You don't have to be a heat freak to love chile peppers. In fact, even if you’re heat-averse, you probably have chilies in your kitchen in one form or another—a jar of cayenne pepper on your spice rack or maybe a bottle of Tabasco in the back of your pantry. Turns out there’s a pepper to suit just about any taste, and making them a regular part of your diet can lower your risk of heart disease, boost your immune system, and even help you burn calories.
Long prized throughout its native Mexico and South America—and also in east India, southeast Asia, and parts of the Mediterranean—the chile pepper has been a staple of Latin and Asian markets here in the U.S. for years. But it’s seen a huge surge in popularity over the past decade. These days it’s not unusual to see supermarket shelves stocked with everything from the mild Anaheim chile to the moderately hot—and wildly popular—jalapeño, not to mention the searing habanero and scorching little Thai bird. These pungent pods have found their way into every nook of American cuisine, adorning not just Mexican and south Asian dishes but also burgers, scrambled eggs, pizza, and even desserts.
"Chile peppers are packed with vitamins and antioxidants," says Miami-based dietitian Ximena Jimenez, M.S., R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, who recommends chilies as a part of a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables. Some of the health benefits of eating peppers include:
VITAMIN C For their size, chilies boast an impressive amount of vitamin C, a key antioxidant that helps your body absorb iron, build strong connective tissue, and resist infection. For just four calories, a single jalapeño delivers 10 percent of your daily C. Eat a larger (and milder) variety like a Hungarian wax chile and you’ll reap 42 percent of your RDA in just eight calories (more vitamin C than an orange, calorie for calorie).
ANTIMICROBIAL PROPERTIES The natural compounds that help protect chilies from microbial attack in nature are also used by humans to preserve food, a strategy especially prevalent in tropical climates. “That’s one of the reasons the use of chile peppers as a spice has spread to most cultures within 20 degrees of the equator,” says Doug Levey, a researcher at the University of Florida. Putting out the fire If a chile sets you mouth aflame, don’t guzzle water. Instead, sip milk. Dairy products contain a protein known as casein, which short-circuits a chile’s heat. That’s why Latin and Southwestern dishes containing chilies are often served with a dollop of cool sour cream.
CAPSAICIN But it’s the chemical compound capsaicin (cap-SAY-sin), which is concentrated in chilies’ membranes and makes them hot, that has been getting attention lately. Emerging research has linked capsaicin with boosting heart health and overall immunity, lowering diabetes risk, fighting cancer, and speeding up the metabolism. Capsaicin has also been credited with reducing pain and inflammation when it’s applied topically.
Spice of life
The variety of chile peppers is seemingly infinite, and one of the reasons they’re so popular with chefs and home cooks is that you can find a size, flavor, and heat level to suit your palate. Here, some tips on cooking with chile peppers:
HEAT RATINGS Chilies’ heat is measured in Scoville units. A mild Anaheim has 1,000 to 1,500 Scovilles; a habanero has up to 500,000. The blistering Indian Bhut or Naga jolokia, or ghost chile, which isn’t yet available in the U.S., boasts more than 1 million Scovilles. (The relatively mild Japanese shishito pepper, on the other hand, is increasingly popular stateside.)
DRIED CHILIES The chipotle (dried, smoked jalapeño) is most familiar dried chile. They have a deep, rich flavor and are ground into powders, which can be combined with other spices to create complex blends.
CONDIMENTS Try experimenting with tasty chile-based condiments like Thai sriracha sauce (made from sun-ripened chilies), Indonesian sambal oelek (a blend of chilies, brown sugar, and salt), or chile-infused oil. Start with a little splash to make sure you don’t overdo these potent potions.
How to pick a chile pepper
There are hundreds of varieties of chile peppers, and many can be used interchangeably. Remember this rule of thumb: The smaller the chile, the hotter it is.
ANAHEIM Use these long, green, mild fresh chilies in place of green bell peppers, as we do in White Bean Chicken Chili. You also can stuff them with a mixture of lean ground meat and rice, or just toss them on the grill.
POBLANO Shorter and a bit hotter than Anaheims, these chilies are also good to split lengthwise and stuff. These peppers are usually used to make traditional chilies rellenos. Dried poblanos are known as ancho chilies.
JALAPEÑO Perhaps the most familiar and widely used hot chile pepper, jalapeños range from hot to very hot. Fresh jalapeños are often chopped and added to a basic tomato salsa. You’ll also find jalapeños canned, pickled, or dried (known as chipotles).
SERRANO These chilies are smaller and hotter than jalapeños, for which they may be substituted when you want to step up the heat. Chop up one or two to add to a marinade for flank steak.
THAI BIRD These tiny, scorching pods are often used to spice up Asian fare, like hot Thai-style green curries.
HABANERO This little round chile, along with its close cousin the Scotch bonnet, is among the world’s hottest. Pierce a habanero and add it to a soup or chili during cooking to infuse the final product with pleasant heat. Scotch bonnets are commonly used in Caribbean fare.