Peppers can be split into two groups: sweet and hot. The second group may also be referred to as chiles or chili peppers. They are a New World food, first noted by Europeans during Columbus’ voyage to the West Indies. Peppers were also found in abundance across South America, Central America, and Mexico.
Of the sweet peppers, the bell pepper is most easily recognized. These may be green or red, and newer variants can be yellow or multi-colored. Pimentos are familiar to people as a stuffing for green olives. They can also be found in a pickled form. Banana and Cubanelle are somewhat less familiar to those in the US, though they grow well in the South and in the southern parts of California.
Hot peppers are generally classed by their degree of heat. In 1912, Wilbur Scoville created a rating system for the heat of peppers. Sweet varieties rate zero on the Scoville Heat Unit scale, while most hot ones rate in the thousands and top out at about 60,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Some are only slightly hot, while others are considered “5 alarm” peppers.
Mildly hot peppers include the Anaheim or Paprika, with about 1,000 to 8,000 Scoville Heat Units. Also considered mild is the Poblano, with a 5,000 or less SHU rating. Both Anaheims and Poblanos are excellent in mild salsas. Another good choice is the Hot Cherry variety, which resembles a tomato more than the oblong shape associated with most hot peppers. Removing the seeds can reduce some of the heat, but much of the spicyness is in the white membrane that attaches the seeds to the inside.
Santa Fe Grandes can be mild to hot, depending upon whether the seeds are used. Their SHU rating varies from 5,000-60,000. Serranos exhibit the same range. Jalapeños have a similar rating, and fall in the medium heat class.
The hottest peppers are Asian and Habaneros. If one doesn’t like heat, these are a waste of time, as they are very hot and should be used sparingly. When peppers were first imported to Europe, they also were imported to Asia, where they became a popular addition to dishes.
In Chinese restaurants, it is quite common to find a number of dishes spiced with whole Asian peppers. Entrees such as Mongolian Beef and Kung Pao Chicken can pack quite a punch if one accidentally eats a whole one. Believe the menu when it claims a dish to be spicy, and beware the tiny Asian pepper.
In generally, the smaller the pepper, the more likely it is to be hot. Ornamental varieties tend to have high Scoville Heat Unit ratings. Poblanos are a good deal larger than their very hot cousins. They are frequently stuffed and served, as in Chile Rellenos.
All peppers are thought to have health benefits. They are high in vitamins C and A and are considered to have antioxidant properties. Care should be taken when handling and cutting hot ones, and wearing gloves is highly recommended. If one doesn’t wash the hands thoroughly after handling them, touching the eyes or face can lead to extreme skin and eye irritation.