Sure, chile peppers can be spicy hot, but while Americans have developed a greater appreciation for them over the last 25 years or so we still tend to go for the “burn your face off” thrill seeking aspect. This is not how chile peppers are appreciated in Mexico, India or the Middle East where their love of chiles has been carefully crafted over hundreds and even thousands of years. In the case of India, since 1510, in the Middle East, since the mid 1500s, and for Mexico, evidence of wild chile pepper harvesting dates back about 8,000 years ago. These regions are using dried chiles to add flavor to their signature dishes with the heat being used as a component of the dish not the signature feature. The use of chile peppers is well thought out, in some dishes they are used more for flavor and in others their spicy heat is used to balance sweet, sour, bitter, and/ or salty flavors.
We are serious chileheads (also known as chile heads) at SpicesInc and are constantly on the lookout to add to our growing selection of whole dried chiles, chile flakes, and chile powders. We know that dedicated chile lovers are always searching for those hard-to-find chile cultivars that they have heard of or read about, and live for the creating a spectacular dish where flavorful chile peppers are the star of the show. A true chilehead has developed a sophisticated palate just as a wine connoisseur has developed theirs. These chile experts have fine-tuned their taste buds to pick up the flavor nuances of chile peppers from the subtle to the complex.
Chile Pepper Flavor Profiles
Chiles are more than just heat. Chiles have a variety of flavors, we have identified 20, with some of the most common being spicy, fruity, sweet, smoky, earthy, pungent, and grassy. Chile peppers do not typically have just a single flavor with most having two to three and some with as many as five. For example, the Nora chile is both sweet and earthy. Chiles are very dynamic and one chile can taste subtly different from another chile even from the same plant let alone from a neighbor plant or from one on the other side of the field or region. This goes for the heat levels of each chile too. If your tongue is experienced enough the flavors of any individual chile will occur either before the heat appears, or just after, that depends on the individual chile. When chiles have had their pith and placenta scooped out, the most intense heat sensations have been removed and what remains is the maximum amount of flavor.
This list is not all inclusive, but it does give you an idea of some of the different flavors you may encounter with dried chiles, and where you can get started.
- Spicy – this flavor characteristic possess some heat and bite. Some of the chiles that have this are Aji Amarillo, Chiltepin, Costeno, Kashmiri, Pasilla de Oaxaca, and Serrano.
- Fruity – describes flavors that range from berry, coconut, mango, and passion fruit to papaya, plum, and raisin. Some of the chiles that share this flavor characteristic include Aji Amarillo, Ancho, Cascabel, Guajillo Chiles, Habanero and Wiri Wiri.
- Sweet – this characteristic tends to appear in milder chiles and some chiles that fit this bill are Anaheim, Guajillo, Hatch New Mexico, Paprika, Nora, and Sandia.
- Smoky – these chiles are either smoked over a variety of woods to get their signature flavor or have some subtle natural smoky flavor. The chiles that are smoked over wood fires include Chipotle Meco, Chipotle Morita, Pasilla do Oaxaca, Smokled Paprika, and Smoked Serrano. Some of the chiles that just have a subtle smoky flavor include Chiltepin, Guajillo, Mulato, and Urfa Biber.
- Earthy – chiles that have this characteristic are rich and minerally and this flavor originates from an organic compound called geosmin that is present in the soil and can impact foods grown in it. Chiles that are considered earthy include Aleppo, Ancho, Cascabel, Hatch New Mexico, Malagueta, Maras, and Nora.
- Pungent – pungent chiles have a strong, sharp taste and smell. Chiles with this characteristic include Anaheim, Chilaca, Pasilla Negro, and Sandia.
- Grassy – these chiles tend to be aromatic with a subtle smell of freshly mowed grass. These chiles include Chipotle Meco, De Arbol, and Jalapeno.
- Acidic – acidic chiles have a slight sour or sharp taste. Chiles with this characteristic include De Arbol, Habanero, and Maras.
Anatomy of a Chile Pepper
Chile peppers are the fruits of the particular pepper plant they come from and they come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, flavors, and levels of heat. But each chile pepper, no matter the size, has the same general anatomy. The flavor of chile peppers comes from the Mesocarp which is the fleshy tissue of the chile between the Exocarp (the outer wall) and the Endocarp (the inner wall).
Pedicle: This is the stem, or a stalk structure, connects at the base of the flower (which becomes the fruit). This enables separation of the flower (fruit) from the main plant body.
Calyx: These are the green, leafy sepals that initially surround and protect the young flower blossoms. As the flower matures into the fruit, the calyx remains intact and becomes the leafy material at the top of the chile pepper.
Pericarp: This is the all-encompassing wall, or walls, of the chile pepper. The pericarp (ovary wall) is made up of the exocarp, mesocarp, and endocarp.
Exocarp: The outer wall of a mature chile pepper.
Mesocarp: The fleshy tissue of the chile pepper between the Exocarp and the Endocarp. This is where the flavor of the chile pepper resides.
Endocarp: The inner wall of a mature chile pepper.
Apex: The outer rounded tip of the fruit.
Placenta: This is where the seeds of the chile pepper are attached to the top of the fruit. It is also known as the pith and lies directly below the calyx. This is the part of the chile pepper where most of the capsaicin (the heat) in the chile pepper fruit resides.
Seeds: The reproductive part of the pepper plant.
Capsaicin Glands : The capsaicin glands are located between the placenta and the seeds.
Understanding the Heat of a Chile Pepper
The ‘heat’ of a chile pepper is most concentrated in the Placenta/ Pith with some ‘heat’ also residing in Capsaicin Glands, also called the pith or ribs of the fruit. The Placenta is the part of the fruit where most of the capsaicin compound resides (it contains 89% of the alkaloid capsaicin). All chiles have the capsaicin compound in varying degrees, except for the bell pepper which has a recessive gene that blocks capsaicin from forming. The level of capsaicin in an individual chile is determined by genetics and the growing conditions of that particular season.
There is a long-standing myth that removing the seeds of a chile will get rid of the heat, but this isn't entirely true. Sure, removing the seeds might help a little bit, but that's only if you are removing some of the pith with the seeds. The pith, also referred to as the placenta, is the white part on the inside of the chile that makes up the core. Capsaicin comes from the cells in the pith, it's not located in the flesh or the seeds. Capsaicin is an alkaloid that contains nothing but heat, meaning the flavor of the chile does not come from the capsaicin at all. If you want to remove the heat from the chile, scoop out the entire pith. This will leave you with all the flavor of the chile, perfect for those who are interested in maximizing diverse flavors and not in getting the most heat. Removing the seeds does remove some of the bitterness of the chile pepper thereby also increasing the flavor.
Scoville Heat Units
Do not forget about Scoville Heat Units. This system of measuring how hot chiles are comes from the scientist Wilbur Scoville. He perfected his scale in 1912, even though at best it is a subjective system. After all, he used human participants to decide how hot each chile was, and everyone's tongue is different, much like a fingerprint. Now while the same chile cultivars can vary a bit in heat levels and flavor a chile cultivar with a higher Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) will be hotter than one with a lower SHU.
Some people think that they can build up a tolerance to the burn of capsaicin, but the reality is that they are just able to handle it better. Your body never really adjusts its ability to process capsaicin, your brain just understands the onset of heat and gets used to specific types of burning.
When Will Chiles Have the Best Flavor
Chile Peppers have different flavors depending on where they are in their growing stage. Once they have reached full maturity, a chile will have a more complex flavor (often sweeter – relatively speaking) and a richer aroma than the same chile picked in its immature state (think red jalapenos vs green jalapenos). The flavor compounds become more concentrated as the chile ripens, so the flavor will be fuller after the chile has reached its most mature stage. If you are looking for the most flavorful chile, you will want a red one. The hottest chiles are usually green because as a chile gets redder, it has a higher sugar content and tastes a little sweeter which will mute the level of heat somewhat. The capsaicin in a green chile is heightened by the lack of sugar.
There is a lot of joy that can be had when you discover your favorite dried chile. Experimenting with new chiles and new flavors will help you understand what you like best, so look for your favorite sort of flavor and taste one. To maximize the flavor of a dried chile we recommend removing the pith and placenta (this is where the heat is concentrated) and the seeds (these tend to add bitterness to the flavor). This gives you the best chance of identifying the flavor of that particular chile cultivar.