Every chili pepper has a personality, from the unassuming jalapeño that teases with its delicate heat to the dare-you-to-try-me scorch of the fierce habanero. Whether your cooking style is adventurous or simply curious, you can count on the right chili pepper to lend its unique, complex attributes to a dish with incomparable results.
Think of how boring the culinary world would be without chili peppers. Hot peppers come in hundreds of varieties and are used to flavor popular ethnic dishes from India, Vietnam, Thailand, and Mexico, just to name a few.
All peppers contain a chemical called Capsaicin which makes them hot and spicy. Most of the heat in chili peppers is located along the white "ribs" running down the length of the pepper next to the seeds which are also pretty hot. You can alter the heat of a chili when cooking if you remove these parts before adding to your recipe. I suggest you wear gloves when handling a hot chili. I learned this the hard way, believe me.
Chili peppers offer more than just heat. Chilies contain underlying flavors that can be sweet, fruity and citrus-like, adding a subtle complexity to dishes ranging from soups and stews to stir fries and salads. There are certain things you should look for when purchasing fresh chili peppers. Look for glossy, shiny, smooth skin. Cracks and crevices, wrinkles and soft spots are a sign of age. Fresh chilies are available all year round.
Once you get your fresh chilies home for cooking, don't wash them. Keep fresh chilies dry and store them in a paper bag in your refrigerator until ready to cook with them. They can keep for up to a week. If you see any soft spots or darkened areas, try and use that pepper immediately. Any excess moisture tends to make chili peppers decay.
Here's a Chili Pepper Primer for some common varieties:
Anaheim - A long and rather thin chili with a fairly mild flavor. They can be found in green and red versions. The red ones are many times dried and strung on cords called ristras, which can be found throughout the South West. They are one of the chilies used for chiles rellenos or stuffed chilies.
Ancho - Technically are dried poblano peppers, but sometimes marketed fresh and appear like flattened, little patty pan squash. These are also fairly mild with a fruity flavor. Great in Mexican or Southwest cooking.
Cayenne - Most of us are familiar with ground cayenne pepper made from this spicy chili. They are long, slender with pointy tips. These are pretty hot and make a great fiery marinara sauce.
Habanero - Also called Scotch bonnets. These chilies are really, really, really spicy and should be used with care. They're shaped like little hats or slightly flattened lanterns and come in yellow, orange, red and green colors. Great for Caribbean or Latin American dishes.
Jalapeno - One of the most common chili peppers which range from green to red in color. They are medium spicy on the chili scale and are about 2 inches in length. You can find them fresh, pickled, canned and in many processed foods. Although they can be quite hot, they are a kinder, gentler chili. These are great in Mexican, Southern and Southwest cuisine.
Serrano - Popular in the Southwest, these small pointed chilies are quite spicy. Mostly available green, they can sometimes be found in the less pungent ripe, red stage. Great for salsas and sauces.
Poblano - Almost looking like a pointed green pepper, these are Ancho chilies in the fresh green stage. This chili is a hit and miss regarding spiciness. Sometimes they're really hot, sometimes mild. You never know by looking. Just have a little spoon of sugar ready in case. Great for stuffing, making chiles rellenos or simply roasted and peeled as a sandwich, salad or pizza topping.
Red Savina - A newer entry into the exotic chili head arena and a member of the Habanero family. Supposedly these are laboratory tested and certified at over 570,000 Scoville units, making them the spiciest pepper on earth. I guess they are suitable for any real macho dish.