Red pepper flakes are hot, dried bits of pepper and seeds that are made from hot red peppers of varying kinds. They should not be confused with red bell peppers, which are sweet and have very little heat to them. Many people are familiar with these spicy flakes as a topping for pizzas, and many a pizza restaurant has glass shaker jars full of them for people who love extra spice with their slice. They are also available for sale in just about any grocery store.
Many people associate red pepper flakes with Italian food, but they can be used to give a kick to a variety of cuisines. Chinese food that a cook would like to make sweet and spicy can be given a shake or two of flakes. Cajun or Caribbean food, virtually any Asian cuisine, and of course most recipes from Latin and South America benefit from these potent peppers.
Some brands are hotter than others, depending upon the peppers used, so cooks who haven't used them before or who are trying out a new type should be cautious when adding them to a dish. It's always possible to add more if a dish isn’t spicy enough, but it’s harder to reduce the heat of a dish if the cook has been overgenerous when you first sprinkled.
Chefs who are not satisfied with store offerings can make their own red pepper flakes, though it requires some time. Essentially, it's necessary to dry whole peppers in the oven at its lowest heat setting for about eight hours (overnight is best). When the peppers are completely brittle and cool, the cook can use a rolling pin to crush them, grinding them into small flaky bits. The choice of peppers is really up to the cook, and people can make blends of mild, moderate, and spicy peppers to add some different tastes, or make fairly mild ones for kids or people with sensitive palates, and five alarm mixtures for adventurous folks.
It is important for cooks who decide to make their own — or anyone who touches the flakes with their hands — to not rub their eyes during the rolling out process. In fact, it’s best to wear gloves, and to place the hot peppers in a plastic bag prior to rolling to avoid any pepper-to-skin contact. Even store bought flakes can cause irritation if rubbed in the eyes, so if someone is eating a pizza covered with dried peppers, he should be sure to keep his hands off his face.