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 V.13 No.34 | August 19 - 25, 2004 

Chewing the Fat

Chile Pepper Primer

The Chile Pepper Institute answers your most frequently asked questions

Before refrigeration, green chiles were a seasonal treat.
Singeli Agnew
Before refrigeration, green chiles were a seasonal treat.

Are fish able to feel the heat from chiles?

No, fish do not have the pain receptors (like birds), that mammals have allowing them to feel the heat. Many species of fish, like koi and other colorful fish, are feed food with chile in it to keep their colors bright.

What is a "New Mexico Green Chile?"

Around 1888 Fabian Garcia, a horticulturist at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (NMSU today) began his first experiments on breeding a more standardized New Mexican chile. In 1896, Emilio Ortega (then sheriff of Ventura County, Calif.), after visiting southern New Mexico, brought back chile seeds and planted them near Anaheim. There they adapted well to the soil and climate and this New Mexican chile adopted the name Anaheim. This name has stuck with this particular pod type for many, many years. In 1907 Fabian Garcia was finally able to release his first standardized New Mexican pod type. After experimenting with many strains of pasilla, Colorado and negro chiles, he released New Mexico No. 9. This, the granddaddy of all future standard New Mexico pod types, became the standard New Mexican chile up until 1950 after other chile breeding. In 1987, Anaheim became a variety under the New Mexican pod type category.

How do you get the burning sensation to stop after consuming chile peppers?

The best way to ease the burning sensation is to drink milk, eat yogurt or any dairy product. A substance found in dairy products known as casein, helps to disrupt the reaction. This substance acts like a detergent and literally strips capsaicin from its receptor binding site. If you get the oil on your skin, you may want to rub it with rubbing alcohol first then soak in milk, this seems to alleviate the burning. If you get it in your eyes the only thing you can do is repeatedly rinse with water or saline. Be very careful when handling hot chiles, especially species like chinense (habanero is one); there are reports of these chiles actually blistering the skin. Gloves are recommended when handling or peeling any types of hot chile.

What is a Scoville Heat Unit, or HPLC test?

The Scoville Organoleptic Test is a refined, systematic approach to rating heat levels of chiles. Using this method, human subjects taste a chile sample and record its heat level. Samples are then diluted until heat can no longer be detected by the taster, this dilution is called the Scoville Heat Unit, named for the man who invented it, Wilbur Scoville. A more technologically advanced test is an HPLC test, or High Performance Liquid Chromatography. An HPLC detects the heat compounds and records the amount in parts per million (ppm). A quick conversion from HPLC to Scoville is to multiply the ppm by 15 to get the Scoville Heat Unit.

Are ornamental varieties of chiles poisonous?

There are absolutely no varieties of peppers that are poisonous, all capsicum species are edible. Some of the ornamental varieties just don't taste very good, while others are extremely hot or pungent which may lead to this misconception. There is one ornamental plant called a False Jerusalem Cherry, (Solanum Capsicastrum) that is poisonous and not intended for consumption; it is not a chile plant, only a relative.

How do I know when to pick green chiles?

As chiles ripen the pods become more firm. A gentle squeeze of the pod is the best method to test for readiness. If the pod is firm with a slight crackling sound when you squeeze, then it should be quite close.

What is the best method to use for drying chiles?

It really depends on which variety you want to dry. New Mexican varieties dry well in the form of ristras that are hung in the sun or laid out in the sun. Other thick walled pods of different varieties, like jalapeño, are smoked to preserve them; the thick walls hold much more moisture and are very hard to sun dry or even dry with dehydrators.

I heard that some chile pepper plants are perennials, are they, and if so which ones?

All pepper plants are perennials if the conditions are favorable (no frost or freezing temperatures). Southern California and Florida are probably the only places in the continental United States where you can grow peppers as perennials.

What does capsaicin do for the chile plant? Or in other words, why did evolution produce hot peppers?

We believe that chiles evolved pungency to protect the fruits from being eaten by mammals. Capsaicinoids, the compounds that cause the burning sensation, are the only alkaloid chile produces. Birds, the natural dispersal agent of chiles, can not feel the heat and thus disseminate the seeds. However, when mammals eat chiles the seeds are destroyed in the digestive tract.

Where does the heat reside in the chile pepper? Many claim it is all in the seeds. I have also heard that the capsaicinoids are stored in the membranes of the chile.

Capsaicinoids are located on the membranes of chile or in the placental tissue which holds the seeds. Although many people believe the seeds to be the hottest part of the plant, seeds do not produce any capsaicin. They do absorb some from the placental tissues during processing but absorb hardly any in fresh pods.

We have harvested a large amount of green chile from our small garden this year and would like to save them for the winter. Is it possible to freeze them?

Yes, after roasting you will be able to freeze them in air tight containers for up to six months.

I have a small chile garden and have noticed that many of the jalapeño chiles get black or dark areas on them as they near maturity. Other than these spots, the chiles seem fine. Can you explain what these are? Is there anything I can do to prevent?

This purpling or blackening is due to direct sunlight, and can be avoided by producing a bushier canopy that shades the pods.

How do you preserve a large amount of harvested chiles?

There are a few different methods, drying, freezing, canning or smoking. Large, thick fleshed fruits are best canned or smoked (jalapeños). New Mexican pod types can be dried, roasted, frozen or canned. Habañeros are best dried, canned or smoked.

If a person eats many, many peppers over a lifetime, will he or she develop a tolerance for capsaicin?

There has been a correlation between eating hot chiles over long periods of time and building a sort of resistance to the heat. We've noticed that chile fans can often eat hotter and hotter chiles over time.

Are there any products containing capsicum sold as a pain reliever for arthritis related conditions?

Yes, there are many, Capsaicin D and Heat are just a couple of them.

What is a chipotle?

Usually a smoked jalapeño, or other thick meated variety of chile that has been smoked to preserve it.

Used with permission frrom the Chile Pepper Institute, the world's leading research-based resource center for chile.


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