We've all done it once: Popped a pepper into our mouth, only to discover soon after that it wasn't an ordinary pepper, but a particularly spicy variety that made it feel like we might not survive the experience.
This is likely what happened to Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacist. In 1912, he created the eponymous Scoville Scale, a tool people have been using for more than 100 years to measure just how spicy peppers are based on their quantities of capsaicin — the ingredient that gives peppers their incredible kick.
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Now a common ingredient in foods from Mexico to India and places in between, spicy peppers have become something of a cult obsession. “The spicy pepper is a common thread among cuisines from across the globe. From the relatively mild jalapeno in Mexican food, to super-hot Thai chilies, to mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns, the pepper is there, just manifested in different ways, reflective of local ingredients and styles,” explains Freya Bellin Levow, a food columnist for Frontier Psychiatrist.
Hultquist cites poblano peppers as some of the most popular in cooking. For centuries, they have been used in stuffed pepper dishes. “Poblanos have very little heat, but some people can detect the mild spiciness in them," Hultquist says.
Then there is the jalapeno, which he calls “arguably the most popular spicy pepper in the U.S.”
Hultquist adds, “You’ll find them all over now, served up stuffed with cream cheese, wrapped in bacon, or in the ubiquitous jalapeno popper. However, jalapenos are finding their way into other restaurant dishes, no longer relegated to typical appetizer crowd-pleasers. It's a sign of the times that hotter and hotter chili peppers are working their ways into American palates.”
Cara Eisenpress, founder of Big Girls, Small Kitchen, an acclaimed cooking blog, and the co-author of In the Small Kitchen: 100 Recipes from Our Year of Cooking in the Real World, calls canned chipotles in adobo sauce one of her secret weapons in the kitchen. "I toss them into salad dressing, hummus and, of course, chili," she adds. "They impart a smoky, slightly mysterious flavor that tends to impress whomever I'm cooking for.”
A single spicy pepper has the ability to change the composition of an entire dish. “What's surprising — and delightful — is that the right chile can transform a globally inspired meal into something authentic," Eisenpress notes. "Adding a serrano to homemade chana bateta instantly makes the dish taste Indian. Fresh red chiles give a Thai red curry real zing.”
She recommends adding spicy peppers into what you're already cooking. For instance, try adding a halved pepper to simmering tomato sauce for an extra kick, or toss chile slices into your stir-fry.
"Experiment with the familiar," Eisenpress advises. "If you're worried about over-spicing everyday classics, remove the seeds to subdue the heat."
Dr. Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the effects of chili peppers for years. “There is a lot of folklore about chili peppers," he says. "Most of it, so far as I know, is unsubstantiated, including the claim that they are antibacterial. It may be true. They do increase salivation, cause sweating in the upper part of the body, and increase stomach acid secretion.”
He adds, “For the most part, people eat them because they like the burn.”
Hultquist talks up the health benefits of chili peppers, noting that the typical chili pepper has more vitamin C than an orange. "A single jalapeno has about 10 percent of your daily vitamin C needs," he continued. "Chili peppers are known to help lower blood pressure, fight inflammation, burn fat, help lose weight, and combat cancer. They can even warm your feet and improve your love life when used creatively.”
The burn Rozin speaks of, combined with the release of capsaicin, may contribute to the belief that spicy peppers are aphrodisiacs, because they open nerve endings and may increase heart rates.
In a world where people are always striving to do things bigger and better, it's no surprise that many are trying to cultivate hotter and hotter peppers. While a jalapeno pepper measures around 5,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), a habanero may average around 300,000 SHU.
This explains the growth of what has been termed the “superhots.”
“Habaneros once topped the chili pepper heat scales, but after that came the Bhut Jolokia, aka the Ghost Pepper. The Bhut Jolokia topped 1 million SHU and took the public for an exciting ride which has only begun,” says Hultquist.
Hultquist adds, “The chili pepper community is abuzz with one question: How much hotter can we get?”