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The Flavors of Chiles
Chiles are a food enjoyed across the world for either flavor or thrill seeking, but either can be an adventure. If you have never tried a chile before, you're not alone. They seem a little daunting at first. You will often see bright red chiles depicted with flames on packaged foods screaming about their heat. For some people, ketchup is too spicy. That's okay, everyone has personal preferences.

Eating a chile though, that is a real thrill. On the other side of the spectrum, directly across from people who have never tried a chile before are people who eat chiles every day. These are the people that study chiles extensively, scour the internet for the hottest cultivars, and live for the next hottest thing. These people are chileheads


There are chiles that are hot and then there are chiles that are out of this world, want to physically rip out your tongue to remove the pain hot. No amount of milk will cool down your mouth fast enough if you eat one of these chiles. Chileheads are people who have dedicated their lives to the most exclusive kind of club- eating and loving chiles. These people will do anything to have the thrill that can only be found in the bite of a super spicy chile. 

Chileheads may not be crazy though, there is some evidence that supports the idea that people who eat chiles daily live a little longer, roughly 13% longer, than those who do not eat chiles. Chiles help reduce inflammation and help boost the metabolism, along with a handful of other health benefits. 

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Scorned

Except, maybe the heat of a chile. And what makes a chile hot, exactly? Well that would be the capsaicin inside of a chile. All chiles have this 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 growing conditions. 

Chiles produced under stressful conditions are often hotter than those with perfect growing conditions. A chile with the right amount of water will be milder than a chile who had to struggle for resources. No one is sure exactly why this is the case, except that this is perhaps a defense mechanism of the plant to ensure that the best chiles are consumed and those that are not ideal are rejected by the consumers. The catch here, and a kink in that theory, is that chiles are widely thought to be a food that evolved for birds to eat. Birds can't taste capsaicin and so they are unaffected by the heat of the chiles, meaning they would spread the seeds of any of the chiles they ate anyway, regardless of how spicy the chile would be to people. 

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 new diverse flavors and not necessarily the bragging rights that come with eating hotter chiles. 

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.  

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 and gets used to specific types of burning. You may be able to eat a jalapeno straight faced, but that's just because you're a tough cookie, not because your body became conditioned to the heat of a jalapeno. 

Flavor of Chiles

Chiles are more than just heat. No, really. Chiles have a variety of flavors that range from sweet to smoky, depending on what is going on with them depending on when and where they grow. Chiles are very dynamic and one chile can taste very different from another chile off the same plant. This goes for heat level of each chile, too. There are a variety of flavor profiles that chiles can fall under the umbrella of. These are the flavors you will taste either before the heat onslaught, or after, if your tongue can detect them. When chiles have had their pith and seeds scooped out, most of the heat is gone and what is left behind is the flavor. 

This list is not all inclusive, but it does give you an idea of some of the different flavors you may encounter with chiles, and where you can get started. 

  • Smoky-  Chiltepin and Korean chiles have a smoky taste to them.

  • Nutty- The Costeno Rojo chile is a nutty chile. People who eat it may also be a little nutty.

  • Citrusy- These chiles remind the person eating them of something like an orange or a lemon. The Serrano chile has some citrus undertones to it.

  • Raisin- The Aji Amarillo, the Aleppo chile, the Ancho, and the Chilaca chile all have some rasiny flavor to them.

  • Fruity- These chiles are those that remind one of fruit. They are chiles like the habanero, which tastes vaguely of coconut and papaya. Some have even mentioned cantaloupe when talking about the flavor of these chiles.

  • Spicy- Few chiles are just spicy, but one of those is the Kashmiri chile.

  • Earthy- Hatch chiles are often described as being earthy, but there are many cultivars that fall under the name Hatch.

  • Sweet- The Anaheim chile is thought to be sweet, even without the pith removed. This is a mild chile.

  • Tobaccoy- Smokers especially will enjoy these chiles. Urfa Biber and Pasilla de Oaxaca chiles are described in this way.

These are all flavors that chiles may have, though they are not limited to just one. For example, the Nora chile is both sweet and earthy. This is usually the case. Much like most ponies are not one-trick, chiles are not just one flavor.

When Will Chiles Have the Best Flavor?

Chiles have different flavors depending on where they are in their growing stage. Once it has reached full maturity, a chile will have a more complex aroma, more nutritional value, and a different flavor from its green starting point. The flavor compounds become more concentrated as the chile ripens, so the flavor will be stronger 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. The capsaicin in a green chile is heightened by the lack of sugar. 

There is a lot of joy that can be garnered from watching someone try a chile for the first time. This kind of joy comes too, with discovering your favorite chile. You may surprise yourself and discover that your favorite chile is actually a mild one with a strong flavor versus the scorching hot one you liked before because it could scald your mouth with very little effort.  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. Just don't forget to remove the pith if you can't stand the heat! 

Read More

What Makes a Chile a "Chipotle"?
How Well Do You Know Your Chiles?
How to Rehydrate Dried Chiles and Peppers
Chiles You Haven't Heard of but Soon Will

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