Eat More Chiles! - August 5, 2015
Jeff Schalau, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County

Hot chiles and the products created from them are staple foods at my house. I love Sriracha, but sometimes the vinegar tang of Louisiana-style hot sauces is pleasant to the palate. Pickled jalapenos are just right for sandwiches. I also have habanero and chiltepin sauces friends have brought back from Central America.

Even though the words are somewhat interchangeable, “peppers” tend to be sweet and “chiles” tend to be hot. Most hot chiles are of the genus Capsicum. There are twenty to thirty species depending on which botanist you ask. The heat scale most commonly used is measured in Scoville Units. Wilbur L. Scoville was a pharmacologist with Parke Davis: a drug company that used the compound capsaisin (the hot stuff in chiles) in its muscle salve called "Heet". In 1912, Scoville developed a test that used five human heat samplers that tested the heat by taste of exact dilutions by weight of various chile extracts. Today, we use high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC), to designate a chile’s hotness, but Mr. Scoville has been immortalized. The amount of capsaisin is still measured in Scoville Units (abbreviated SU).

New Mexico chiles, such as NuMex Big Jim, Anaheim, Sandia, and New Mexico 6-4, range from 500-2,500 SU. These are the chiles roasted green, skinned and used in green chile recipes. The ancestors of these chiles were first grown in the 1600's and were introduced to North America by Spanish explorers. New Mexico State University has worked to develop many of the commercial varieties available today. These chiles turn red as they ripen and, when dried, are the chiles used to make ristras. This chile is the New Mexico state vegetable. Keep an eye on local markets – they often sell large quantities and roast green chiles on-site during August and September.

Pasilla chiles have dark brown pods and are sometimes called chile negro. Pasilla means "little raisin". These chiles range from 1,000-1,500 SU. Pasillas are thought to be the immediate predecessors of the New Mexico type. They are grown in Mexico and used to make mole sauces.

Jalapeno chiles range from green to purple in color and range from 2,500-5,000 SU. They are used in fresh salsa, pickled and canned or bottled, and smoked to produce chipotle. Jalapenos have a unique balance of flavor and heat that make them popular in many mainstream American foods such as poppers and nachos.

Serrano chiles are dark green and narrower than jalapenos. They often ripen to red, orange, or yellow and range from 10,000-23,000 SU. Serranos are popular in Mexico and gaining popularity in the United States. They are commonly used in fresh salsas and are sometimes pickled with carrot and onions. I grow jalepeno and serrano chiles every year.

Tabasco chiles are probably one of the best known chiles in the United States. They range from 30,000-50,000 SU. Maunsell White, a banker, introduced the seeds from Tabasco, Mexico. A friend, Edmund McIIhenny, began growing them on Avery Island off the Louisiana coast. The plants survived the Civil War and Mr. McIlhenny began marketing the now famous sauce in 1869. These chiles grow best in the subtropics (i.e., Avery Island and Mexico).

Chiltepin chiles are wild ancestors of today's commercial varieties. They start at 70,000 Scoville Units and go upward from there. They are small, round, red fruit that bear profusely. The Tarahumara Indians of Sonora believe that these chiles protect them from sorcerers. I have seen these growing in southern Arizona as a perennial shrub.

Habanero chiles are one of the hotter chiles and have 200,000-300,000 SU. They are of South American origin and seeds have been found in Peru that dated from 6500 B.C. They are available in markets and I have grown them successfully many times.

Finally, the ghost pepper (also called Bhut jolokia) was designated by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's hottest chile pepper in 2007 and has over 1,000,000 SU.

Be sure to wear rubber gloves when handling hot chiles and think before you rub your eyes and other tender places. I have also included additional information below.

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Additional Resources

Chiles for the Home Garden
Colorado State University Extension

Some Like It Hotter: UC Cooperative Extension tries to Grow a Spicier Jalapeño
University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources

The Weird Biology of Chili Peppers, and Why They Really Are Good for You
Huffington Post

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: July 30, 2015
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