Paradise Garden

Gardening Articles written by Experts


Chili, Chilli or Chile

by Mark Rowland

These pages have now been superceded by the new Chilli Guru website.

Background

There is an ever growing appetite in the UK for spicy Thai or Mexican food, and ever more people eager to try their hand at cooking it. This has led to an interest in growing the chilli peppers which are essential in obtaining the authentic flavours. The naming is confusing and inconsistent. The fresh fruits can be called chilis, chillis, chillies or chiles, with the latter usual in the USA. A dish of meat and chillies is usually referred to as chili, even where the fruit is called a chile.

Uses of chillies

Although often thought of as merely adding pungency to cooking, chilli peppers are remarkably versatile. Salsa, moles, chipotl, chili con carne - the list of Mexican food in which chillies are essential is but a start. Soups, stews, sauces, chutney, curry - all can be improved by the addition of either fresh chillies or chilli powder.

Chillies can be dried, bottled, pickled or frozen, although not all types are suitable for all purposes. Neither drying, cooking nor freezing causes chillies to loose their pungency. Chilli peppers are also used for ornament - either the plant with ripe fruit, or the dried ripe chillies threaded on a string to make a ristra.

Types of chilli

There are many species of Capsicum which yield pungent fruits, and most are used in cooking somewhere in the world. The ones listed below are the most important, and have distinctive qualities which recommend them to the keen cook.

Capsicum annuum

The commonest and most important species of chilli. Everything from sweet bell peppers to fiery hot chillies in a wide range of shapes and colours are found in this group. They generally have a rather sour flavour which is essential for many Mexican and Indian recipes. Jalapeno, Serrano and Cayenne peppers belong here.

Capsicum baccatum

Medium hot chillies often with a pronounced fruity flavour which enhances their culinary value. Capsicum baccatum varieties keep in good condition for a remarkable length of time, either on or off the plant, effectively extending the fresh chilli season by 6 or 8 weeks. They also freeze extremely well.

Capsicum chinense

This is the species that produces the searingly hot Habanero and Scotch Bonnet chillies. There are also much milder varieties, and most, hot or mild, share a distinctive fruity flavour. They tend to need a long growing season and plenty of warmth. Widely grown in the Caribbean, each island seems to have its own varieties selected to suit local taste.

Capsicum frutescens

The importance of this species lies with its most famous variety - Tabasco. Revered for its hot smokey flavour, it is the basis of the chilli sauce of same name. It needs a long growing season and so is something of a challenge in areas which do not enjoy long hot summers. If suitable overwintering facilities are available, Tabasco can be autumn sown.

Capsicum pubescens

One of the less important Capsicum species, but of interest as it performs well in cool summers. The vigorous plants are distinctive with furry stems and purple flowers. The thick walled juicy chillies have black seeds and tend to be of medium heat. Best grown outdoors, even in temperate regions.

Chilli cultivation

Chilli seed should be germinated at around 25 to 30°C, at which temperature seedlings of most varieties will appear in about 7 to 10 days. They also need warm temperatures for growing on - certainly higher than those required by tomato plants. If the temperature is too low, the leaves will be twisted and mottled with pale patches as if the plant were suffering from a virus. They will, however, recover from this when the weather improves and temperatures pick up. In the UK, the best crop will be obtained from plants grown in a glasshouse, but they can also succeed as patio plants or in a warm spot in the vegetable garden. Treat chilli plants like tomatoes, but remember that they like higher temperatures.

Pungency

The pungency, or hotness, of a chili is generally defined in Scovilles. This is a measure of the degree of dilution needed for the pungency of a chilli to be undetectable. At best an imprecise measurement it is also a subjective one, but still useful. As a guide, 10 grams of chillies with a rating of 100,000 Scoville units should be undetectable in one ton of food. It should, however, be remembered that the pungency of a chilli depends on its degree of ripeness and on the growing conditions. Chillies grown in the UK with its cool summers and low light intensities may be less pungent than those grown in the tropics.
The pungent element in chillies is a chemical called Capsaicin; pure Capsaicin has a Scoville rating of 16 million units. Eating hot chillies triggers the release of Endorphins within the body. These are natural pain killers and contribute to the feeling of well being associated with eating spicy food.

Selection

For the choicest varieties, it is necessary to go to a specialist seed supplier such as Owl's Acre Seeds. Bear in mind that the flavour is every bit as important as the pungency. The best Chili con carne is made with a lot of well flavoured mild or medium hot chillies not one searingly hot one! All chillies can be used in their ripe state, some are also excellent when green. Chillies which develop plenty of flavour in the unripe fruit offer an earlier crop as well as two products for the price of one! Growing one's own means a generous supply - so choose varieties which are the most versatile in the kitchen.
Some of the most popular are:

 

Images

Images of the following varieties together with brief notes based on personal observation, can be viewed by clicking on the links below. Particular attention has been paid to photographing the flowers, as these are often diagnostic in determining the species of Capsicum to which the variety belongs. It should, however, be remembered that with the exception of Capsicum pubescens, the different species cross fairly readily.


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