Vol.1, No.9

When to cook with fresh chilis and when to use dried

There is a whole world of peppers out there and a range of ways to use them.

Fresh chilis vs dry peppers
Spicy heat is a big trend in food these days, and there is no better way to get spicy heat into your food than using chili peppers. From jalapeno to habenero, Serrano to Anaheim, there are a wide variety of hot peppers out there that can season all sorts of food for you, from Mexican to Thai, chili to burgers.

The world of peppers can be confusing to the uninitiated. There are tons of different varieties, and peppers often have different names when they are fresh than they do when they are dried or smoked. For instance, a smoked jalapeno is known as a chipotle pepper and poblanos, which are green, become anchos, which are red, when left on the plant to mature.

Without some practice (and probably a little experimentation) it is hard to know which the really hot peppers are and which are less pungent. The range of heat in peppers is called to Scoville scale, and peppers range from bell peppers at zero to habeneros at 300,000 units and up. A good rule of thumb that does not always hold is that the smaller the peppers are and the brighter the color, the hotter they will be. Thus a cayenne pepper is hotter than an ancho, and a red jalapeno is hotter than a green one. This rule by no means works all the time, but the hottest peppers on earth are small and orange.

If you’re not used to working with and eating hot peppers, you should probably stay on the moderate end of the scale, with such peppers as jalapenos, paprikas, ancho/poblano and banana peppers.

Just because these peppers are less hot does not mean they are not hot or that you don’t need to take precautions when working with them. The capsaicin oil present in all hot peppers is very potent stuff; if you get it in your eyes you will be really unhappy. The milder peppers have this oil as well (my worst pepper oil episode ever happened with hot banana peppers, and I grow habeneros). So put on a pair of surgical gloves (available at drug stores, hardware stores and most grocery stores) before you cut these peppers, and wash your hands and all equipment that touched the peppers before moving on to chop other veggies.

Peppers are a great way to add spice to a myriad of dishes because they are so versatile. Not only do they offer a range of heat but also a range of flavors, depending on whether you use the pepper raw, sautéed, roasted or dried (or dried and ground). You can add heat by adding more peppers, and put in less heat by taking out the seeds and the white membranes from the inside of the pepper, as this is where the heat of the pepper is.

Sometimes it’s hard to know which way is the best way to prepare chilies, so this guide will give you some ideas of when you can use peppers each way.

Fresh raw peppers are best in applications where the other ingredients are also raw, such as just about any kind of pepper in salsa and banana peppers in salads or on sandwiches. For salsas, a small dice is best so that the pepper flavor goes throughout the dish and so no one gets a huge piece of pepper in a bite. If you want to add pepper to a burger, cut it into small pieces and mix into the meat. Peppers in salads and sandwiches and best cut into rings.

Cooked peppers, whether sautéed or roasted, are great in cooked dishes as well as in salsas or on sandwiches. A great salsa for winter involves a roasted red pepper and hot pepper, roasted corn, black beans, red onion and a small amount of tomato (a Roma tomato or a can of good-quality tomatoes, drained and diced). To roast peppers, heat the oven to 500 degrees and cook until the peppers are black all over, or use a gas burner or your grill to char the peppers. Put them in a paper bag, close the top and let them sit about 15 minutes, or until they are cool enough to handle. The steam should make it easy to peel the peppers, then you can chop them into small pieces and mix with the other ingredients. Season with salt, garlic and dried pepper powder if it needs more heat.

Dried peppers can be purchased whole or dried yourself by hanging them in a cool, dry, dark place for several weeks. Dried peppers can be used whole, and are especially popular for use in Thai and Indian dishes. The peppers are put in at the beginning of the cooking process and fried a little in the oil to infuse the pepper flavor in the oil. The peppers are then removed and the cooking process can continue. Dried peppers are not easy to eat so you won’t want to leave them in.

Dried peppers can also be reconstituted by letting them sit in hot water for about 15 minutes before using. Then you can cut them up and use them much like you would use fresh peppers.

Another use for dried peppers is making your own chili powder. Chili powder that you buy in the store is a mix of ground dried peppers and sometimes other spices. If you make your own it will be much more flavorful because it will be fresher, not contain any salt or other extras, and you can make it out of any kind of pepper you like.

Before grinding peppers, you need to remove the stem end and any seeds that might still be inside. You can just snip the end off with a pair of kitchen scissors and shake the pepper or trim it down the side and scrape all the seeds out.

Then you can grind the peppers in a coffee grinder and store the resulting powder in an airtight tin or dark-colored glass jar kept in a cool, dark place. This powder can be used in chili and tacos, or added to your favorite hot chocolate mix for a little extra delicious spice.

Once you invite chilies and all their different uses into your life, you will never run out of ways to use them. You don’t have to be a heat-freak to enjoy the many different ways hot peppers, whether fresh or dry, can spice up your meals without adding much in terms of calories or fat (most peppers contain about 20 calories). So experiment and enjoy!