2016 Herb of the Year – Capsicum

Spice Up Your Life with Capsicum


Although we call them peppers, chiles aren’t peppers at all. Oops! We’ve caught Columbus in another mistake. When he and his crew discovered the pungent flavor of chiles in food in the New World, they thought it was another form of black pepper, so they called it “red pepper,” and from there chile peppers have spread around the world.

Actually, chiles belong to the genus Capsicum and the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes the tomato, potato, eggplant, and petunia.  The chile is a vitamin powerhouse, containing more vitamin C than an orange. They also contain large amounts of potassium, beta carotene, and fiber. Research is continuing to determine how chiles may help in medicine to relieve pain, prevent cardiovascular disorders, certain forms of cancer, and cataracts. If you’ve ever eaten a “hot” chile, you know its power— salivation and sweating increase, the nose begins to run, the heart starts to beat rapidly, and the gastrointestinal tract goes into overdrive. The brain, in order to stop the pain, is triggered to secrete endorphins, the opiate-like substances that block pain.

So why do we keep flavoring our food with chiles?  That’s a good question. Maybe we really like pain, or could it be those endorphins? Whatever it is, chiles are now essential to the cuisines of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and even parts of Europe. It was in the Balkans that chiles were bred to reduce the pungency and for a shorter growing season, giving us paprika. Now we have many varieties of sweet chiles.

What makes chiles hot? It’s not the seeds. I learned this fact last year. Scientists discovered that the white membranes (the placenta) inside the chile contain small sacs that break easily when the fruit is cut. These sacs contain capsaicin, a chemical so potent that the average person can detect its pungency at a dilution of 10 parts per million. You can actually see the sacs as orange color on the white membranes. So the more orange you see, the hotter the chile.

In 1912 Wilbur L. Scoville invented a system for measuring the pungency of chiles. It’s called Scoville Heat Units (SHU). If you want to know how it works, go to the Internet; human tasters are involved. The short story is that the higher the number, the hotter the chile. For instance, a jalapeno may have 5,000 SHU while a Serrano may have 10,000 SHU, and habaneros can score up to 500,000 SHU. There are many factors that may contribute to the “hotness” of an individual chile:  its genetic makeup, the weather, growing conditions, and fruit age. For instance a green jalapeno would have lower SHU than a red jalapeno. Did you know that the red jalapeno is the recently popularized Sriacha chile? It isn’t quite as exotic as you may think. Jack (in the Box) didn’t have to go to the hinterlands to discover it.

What do you do if you eat a chile that’s hotter than you expected? “Chile-heads” do not agree on the best remedy. Some claim that plain water is best, while some advocate for sugar, beer, bread, citrus fruits, tomato juice, and/or oil. The latest scientific research says that consuming milk and milk-based products is best; they contain casein, a protein that unbinds the capsaicin from nerve receptors on the taste buds. Beans, nuts, and milk chocolate also contain casein, so they may also cool down your taste buds. An important reminder is always to wear gloves when handling hot chiles, and don’t touch your face. I speak from experience.

If you grow chiles, you know that they can be very abundant mid-to late-summer. There are many ways to preserve them. They can be kept up to a year in vinegar; in oil is also a good way to keep chiles. Drying red chiles works well. Green chiles dry so slowly that it’s best to roast and freeze them. Chiles can be prepared as a sweet or pungent jelly to serve year-round.

You may want to save seeds, but chiles can cross pollinate, so you may not produce the same chile you had the year before.

Some information from Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Chile Peppers, 1999.