Red chile peppers are any of several varieties of Capsicum plants that have a red or crimson color. Most varieties of red peppers are used as a spice or for seasoning, although some, like the red bell pepper, is consumed as a vegetable. Most red chile peppers are known for their hot and spicy taste, the intensity of which varies between different species of chile.
The heat and bite of chile peppers is measured by the ingenious Scoville scale, devised by American chemist William Scoville. By diluting an extract of the peppers in sugar water until the heat is no longer detectable, Scoville determined a fairly accurate measurement of chili pepper’s relative heat. Red peppers are often misidentified as being always hotter than green or yellow varieties, but it is true that, according to the Scoville scale, the four hottest varieties of known chilies are all red.
The hottest red chile in the world is grown in Bangladesh, and called the naga jolokia. With a Scoville rating of over one million units, the naga jolokia is more than 20 times hotter than the comparatively mild and more common cayenne pepper. Following the naga jolokia is the red savina pepper, a specially bred cultivar of habenero that has been created to provide greater heat and spice. Traditional habeneros are also near the top of the scale, having a Scoville score of 350,000, nearly identical to another red chile called the Scotch bonnet.
Red chile peppers are easy to grow in warm climates and make wonderful additions to a vegetable or herb garden. Choose a planting area that receives plenty of sunshine and keep evenly moist, watering lightly a few times a week. Peppers grow well in planters and pots, but should be set about 12 inches (30 cm) apart from one another. If the plants grow to be more than 12 inches (30 cm) tall, they should be tied to supports to help balance weight. Most red peppers will be green at first, but darken to orange and red as they ripen.
Red chile peppers are often dried and sold as spices, either whole or ground. The heat of the spice will depend on the type of chilies used. Most dried chile powder sold in America is made from mildly spicy ancho chilies and moderately hot cayenne peppers. You may also see chile powder available in stores, which is usually a blend of jalapeño or ancho chilies with onion, garlic, and other spices.
Using red chile peppers is a great way to add intensity and heat to any dish. They are traditional spices in many Central and South American dishes, as well as in Asian and Indian cuisine. Learning what level of heat that you prefer can be an exciting taste adventure. Be wise when testing out varieties of red chiles; if one is too hot, ignore the temptation to drink water to wash it away. Instead, try eating a small piece of bread or a few chips to absorb the heat.