First I got this email from reader Rodney:
As I read yet another awesome recipe on your blog today I realized that you frequently include different varieties of pepper. As someone coming from a lifetime of bland Midwest eating I wanted to suggest a future post on all things pepper. I have no idea of the degree of hotness, best or most common uses, or even where to get them. Chipotle, serrano, pasilla, jalapeno, …the list goes on. If I was more educated I could then substitute the appropriate pepper if your recipe included a variety that was too hot, too hard to find locally, or whatever. No need to reply, I just wanted to make a suggestion. Thanks again for the ongoing education!
And then this comment from reader Stacey :
What are “pasilla peppers”? If you don’t have easy access to those kinds of peppers, say if you live in Podunk, PA, what can you use as a substitute?
I guess living in Southern California has spoiled me. There’s a veritable bevy of pepper varieties available year round, and I hadn’t even considered the fact that some of the peppers we casually mention in our recipe posts  might be obscure or scarce elsewhere. Let me make it up to you with a visual guide to peppers.
Peppers are amazing things, for many reasons. They can be hot, sweet, spicy, bitter. Aesthetically, their vibrant colors explode onto the visual palate. Entire cuisines revolve around their use. The word “pepper” is both a noun and a verb, and word has it that consumption of especially spicy peppers can inflame lustful passion.
Peppers are healthy, too, with good amounts of vitamin C and carotene (especially in red, riper chiles). They’re also good sources of B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Researchers are even looking into possible medicinal benefits of hot peppers – the capsaicin might be an effective anti-inflammatory (you know I love the sound of that), all the more reason to work spicy food into your diet.
Finally, a person’s sense of masculinity can hinge on his ability to eat one. Now, wouldn’t you love to learn more about this amazing little vegetable?
To most people, a pepper is only as good as its Scoville unit rating. The Scoville index measures how “hot” a pepper is; the heat comes from an alkaloid compound called capsaicin. Mild, sweet bell peppers register quite low on the Scoville scale, while chart-topping habanero peppers almost break it. Of course, there are dozens of varieties located somewhere in between the two extremes – somewhere out there a pepper exists with your name on it (no matter your heat tolerance). With any luck, this visual guide will help you find it.
Oh, and remember: to minimize heat, you can remove the seeds and inner white membrane from your peppers (or leave them in and be a man! Kidding…).
(Note: The pepper photos are not to scale.)
The jalapeño is a popular one and should be available pretty much everywhere in the US. It features prominently in Mexican cuisine, and its rich flavor and moderate spiciness makes the jalapeño pepper a good choice for the amateur. It’s hottest when raw. 5,000 Scoville units.
Big dark green pepper, about 7-10 inches long. These are commonly found in the dried, wrinkled form (especially in Latin food stores or a similar section in the normal grocer), but if you can find a fresh pasilla (sometimes called chilaca), go for that. My experience tells me that a pasilla pepper can be about as hot as a jalapeño, or much milder, so take care before you start cutting. Up to 5,000 Scoville units.
Although it’s technically a form of jalapeño, I figured the chipotle deserved its own section. These are totally unavailable fresh, even here in California, because a chipotle – by definition – is a smoked jalapeño, providing considerably more spiciness. They either come dried or in cans (my personal favorite) doused in tasty, spicy adobo sauce. Any major grocer or Latin food store should carry canned, if not dried, chipotle. 8,000 Scoville units.
Ranging from red, brown, orange, to yellow, the serrano chile is a fairly small, fairly meaty pepper. It’s also quite spicy, and frying or sautéing one seems to enhance the heat (whereas with most peppers – the jalapeño, for example – cooking smooths the heat out). These go quite well in guacamole, finely diced. The smaller the serrano, the hotter. 10,000 – 20,000 Scoville units.
Another big dark green pepper, but much milder and wider than the pasilla, the poblano chile is perfect for stuffing. And although it’s mild, it has a rich flavor that goes well in chili . Dried poblanos are often sold in the form of ancho chile powder, which has a more chocolate-chili flavor than the fresh poblano. 2,000 Scoville units.
Anyone who’s ever enjoyed the sear of Thailand on their tongue has probably tasted the thai chile. They are small, thin peppers that range in color from red to green when fully mature. Though usually found in Thai curries or other Asian dishes, the thai chile’s heat doesn’t discriminate; you can experiment with them in any dish that calls for heat. They’ll often come dried – perfect for sprinkling on some lemongrass chicken salad. If your town has a sizeable Asian population with a corresponding market, you’ll probably be able to find these guys. 150,000 Scoville units.
Feared by many, loved by some, and misunderstood by more, the habanero chile pepper is the hottest pepper available on the market (barring some freak of nature concocted in a chile nut’s backyard nursery). But don’t let the intense heat scare you off from these small orange-red peppers. Used intelligently (for most, that means seeded, cored, and in tiny amounts), the habanero has a wonderful smoky, almost sweet flavor to it that softens with cooking. I also like to buy a handful and dry them in my oven over super low heat overnight, then crush them and keep the powder on hand to add a bit of kick to dishes. If you can conquer this beast, you’ll have dominion over all peppers – and you’ll be able to enjoy them to their fullest potential. Closely related and almost identical in appearance (and just a bit milder) are the Scotch bonnet peppers, which are used frequently in Caribbean cooking. 325,000 to 570,000 Scoville units.
These are the most common mild peppers. Large, squat, and colorful (red, yellow, green, or orange), the bell pepper is sweet and crispy – and not at all spicy. They’re perfect for salads, vegetable arrangements, dips, or just sliced into strips and tossed with lime juice and salt. No Scoville unit rating, sorry.
No, this isn’t only used in pepper spray. Cayenne is actually a very viable food source. It’s most widely available in bright red powder form, but get the fresh if you can. The greener, the milder. Red peppers are the most mature and the spiciest. 60,000 Scoville units.
These Italian sweet peppers are usually only experienced in bottled, pickled form. I’ve never actually had a fresh one (if anyone has, I’d like to hear about it!), but they’re apparently quite tasty. I like the pickled pepperoncinis just fine, especially in salads. They aren’t quite spicy, but the vinegar definitely lends pungency. 0-500 Scoville units.
Seeing as how most cuisines that employ hot peppers come from the warm climates, it may follow that fresh versions of these chiles are difficult to get – as evidenced by the emails I received. If that’s the case, you can always use dried peppers. I also wouldn’t give up hope that some of the peppers in this guide are locally available. Spicy food is growing more and more popular across the country, and supply usually licks at the heels of demand. And hey, maybe you’ve been passing over the pasilla chiles all this time without even knowing it (if you think we’ve missed any prominenet peppers, let me know and we’ll try to get them in the guide too!).
Now that peppers are on your mind, we’ve got a pepper recipe post coming up this Friday, so bone up on your peppers and get ready!