Fiery Foods: Cooking With Chilies – Unusual Tips and Ideas
Now stop me if you’ve heard this before, but I’m a major chili head. I love heat, I love chilies and I absolutely adore spicy, fiery foods.
I’m also a geek, so I’m the kinda guy who takes my obsession perhaps one step further than most: I’m the kinda guy who not only grows his own chilies at home, but also does extensive research into the various strains of chilies, their individual characteristics and ways of caring for them. I do so not because urban or window sill gardens have become the trend to follow over the last few years, I do so for the very same reasons I’ve done it for the past five or six years now:
I do it because it’s fun, easy and sort of geeky, but mostly I do it for the sheer joy of being able to cook with something I produced from scratch, all by myself, from my own little window sill garden. I know of few feelings more rewarding than eating your own produce. Even if your own produce comes only in the shape of a few (or in my case a few hundred!) colorful, tasty chilies picked off of one of three scrawny plants grown in terra-cotta style pots in a south-facing second floor window. And, of course, I do it for the sheer love of the colorful, strange and curious fruit that is the chili and its thousands of surprisingly unique varieties.
Growing Chilies at home: the (extremely) simplified version
Growing chilies at home in an urban environment is fun and actually a lot easier than you would think. The trickiest part, really, is picking the right variety to grow. There are literally thousands of varieties of chili out there from mild Poblanos to scorching Ghost Chilies (or worse!). Some varieties want to grow large and produce enormous fruits, others remain small and bushy and produce an abundance of smaller fruit. While most varieties will adapt to an indoor environment and not grow larger than the pot in which they’re planted allows, you won’t get a large crop or a pretty plant from stunting the growth of a large variety by forcing it into a small pot. For indoor growing, you’ll want shorter, bushier, high yield varieties that produce fruits no more than a couple of inches long. Great and popular varieties include Jalapeño, Tabasco, Serrano, Cayenne, Cheyenne, Thai chilies, Habaneros and most super hots such as Ghost Chilies, Carolina Reaper and various Trinidad monstrosities (more on these later). It all depends on your mood, your tolerance and how suicidal you feel.
Once you’ve decided on one or more varieties, you either need to procure and germinate some seeds or find small plants for sale. Seeds can be easily found online and are not too difficult to germinate at home. Saplings and young plants can usually be found at farmer’s markets, florists or even supermarkets. Whichever way you start, once you have one or more healthy, young plant(s), place it in in a warm, sunny window in a pot large enough to accommodate it and allow for growth (a 3-4 liter pot ought to do the trick!). Now all you need to do is water it thoroughly whenever it dries out with plain tap water and a few drops of liquid, organic fertilizer and wait patiently for the fruits of your labor to appear.
Pleasure and pain: The Chemistry of hot peppers
But why would one such as myself even put so much thought into chilies, and particularly into which ones to grow at home? You can just get them from the supermarket, fresh or jarred, right? A chili is just a chili, right? A red, pointy thing that tastes like burning, right? Wrong!
For starters, supermarket chilies taste of NOTHING compared to the real deal as is the case with much supermarket produce. But more importantly, reaching for the generic supermarket hot chili means you’re missing out. Completely.
There’s a whole wide, and very confusing world of chilies out there and the fun only really starts where the supermarket shelves end. But let’s for the sake of this example look now at the differences between two chilies that would be recognizable to most: the Jalapeño and the Habanero. The Tex-Mex favorite, Jalapeño, has fresh, distinct aromas of green apple and a mild to medium burn. The Caribbean favorite Habanero, in turn, is full of tropical fruity flavors to mirror its heritage – and an entirely different heat profile to match the much hotter climate in which they grow. In addition, the two look nothing alike: Jalapeños are little, thick-skinned, smooth, elongated fruits while Habaneros are thin-skinned, rounder and quite noticeably wrinkly. Indeed, these two critters while basically the same type of fruit have very little in common other than being hot peppers and are about as different as night and day.
But that’s just the beginning, there are literally thousands of other varieties of chilies, with numerous new strains popping up each year as sadist, geek growers cross-breed different species in an attempt to create new, exciting and often extremely hot mutations. Each of these have their own unique shape, aroma, taste and characteristics – and their own unique burn! Limit yourself to the supermarket selection and you’re missing out on a world of fun.
Speaking of burn, the heat of chilies is something that has received a lot of attention for very obvious reasons. The heat of a chili is traditionally measured by way of the Scoville-scale, named after its inventor Wilbur Scoville. The Scoville scale, in simplified terms, measures the heat of chili by how many parts of sugar water to one part chili it would take to effectively cancel out the burn of said chili.
Thus, a red bell pepper with no heat at all would receive a rating of 0 Scoville Heat Units, a slightly hotter Banana Pepper (of Subway fast-food fame) would clock in at about 500 SHU (Scoville Heat Units), our old friend the Jalapeño at 5,000 – 10,000 depending on ripeness. A fully grown, fully mature Habanero chili would probably reach 250,000 – 350,000 SHU on a good day – and that’s pretty damn hot, by the way… And from there on it’s a downward plunge into oblivion: The macho favorite of the last decade or so, the mighty Ghost Chili, has been known to clock in at a whopping 1 MILLION SHU which, at the time of this writing, is only about half of the mind-blowing 2.2 million SHU that the current world’s hottest chili record holder, the ominously named Carolina Reaper, has been known to reach. That, by the way, in turn is almost half of what would be found in a can of pepper spray (6 million SHU) and about 1/8 of the way to pure capsaicin extract (the stuff in chilies that burns your mouth) which hits 16 million on the scale… Hot enough for ya’?!
The burning sensation perceived when eating chili peppers is caused by their active ingredient, a compound called Capsaicin. Capsaicin is an irritant to humans and most other mammals and is mainly found in the inner membranes of chilies and in the placental tissue which holds the seeds. It is not, however, as some people – notable TV personalities included – would want you to believe, actually found in the seeds of chili peppers.
Capsaicin, essentially is pretty interesting stuff as it shouldn’t technically be a joy to consume. And if it seems confusing that eating an irritant would be such course of joy and excitement as it is for many chili heads, it’s probably because it is all a bit confusing, irrational and hard to explain. Popular folklore amongst chili heads suggest that the chili rush is caused by the release of endorphins triggered by the capsaicin burn and some initial research actually seems to confirm this. It’s all a bit of a science gray area, but what we do know is that eating chilies stimulates blood flow, releases adrenalin and seems, in most cases, to induce a state of happiness or euphoria. Think about that the next time you devour a great, big, delicious, greasy bowl of chili. It’s actually good for you!
And the more heat the better, right? Well, that certainly somehow seems to have become the general assumption behind my personal chili growing craze.
Playing with fire: A slow descent into increasingly fiery peppers
As I’ve mentioned already, I’ve been growing chilies at home for the past five or six years. I started off quite innocently with an ornamental variety from a local supermarket and a scrawny Jalapeño who rather quickly came to bear the name Oliver. I started out as a home chili farmer mostly for the fun of it, but as with many other things I do, it took off and became an obsession and a learning experience. Over the course of a few years, I learned a lot about proper lighting conditions, watering, pest control and, in an incident still referred to as “The Great Dying”, who to trust and who not to trust to look after your plants when touring the States.
I also learned a lot about myself and my presumably masochistic tendencies. While starting off (somewhat) mildly with a Jalapeño and a colorful, mild ornamental variety, I quickly escalated into the much hotter and much more interesting Habanero family before launching a veritable suicide mission into growing some of the world’s hottest chilies including the African Fatalii and the Indian Ghost Chili (great names, huh?). Why? Well, out of morbid curiosity, I suppose. The super hot chilies take the longest to grow, they’re the most demanding in terms of light, heat and proper care, and they ripen very, very slowly. In return, though, they reward you with some of the most unique and prettiest albeit weirdest looking fruits in the chili world. Fruits that pack a punch not of this world, a burn so severe that you’d think them good for nothing (spoiler alert: you’d be wrong!) My trip into the realm of very hot chilies have included, but not been limited to Habaneros, Scotch Bonnets, Fataliis, the now infamous Ghost Chili (aka the Bhut Jolokia) which I had a lot of fun with last year… Oh and a new Danish sensation and personal favorite I’ve been growing this year, the absolutely beautiful but oddly named Bhut Orange Copenhagen.
Bhut Orange Copenhagen: A Danish sensation
The story about my latest obsession, the Bhut Orange Copenhagen (or BOC for short) is also the story of a man named Søren, or Soren to his American friends. Søren is the kind of guy my friend Malene would describe as “a guy whose knowledge and dedication to plants makes Johan’s knowledge and dedication to food seem non-existent” (actual quote right there!). In other words, Søren knows and loves his chilies.
A couple of years ago, Søren was playing around with a few Ghost Chili (or Bhut Jolokia as they’re also called) plants and by some accident, stroke of luck or whatever you want to call it, he more or less accidentally managed to crossbreed one of them with a Habanero variety the name of which has long since been forgotten. The result was a ghost chili that, in place of the familiar red fruits produced fruits of a bright and beautiful orange variety that, upon closer inspection, turned out to have inherited all the heat from their mother ghost chili along with an intoxicating citrus and tropical fruit aroma from the Habanero.
Now, being the kind of guy that he is, Søren knew he had something pretty unique in this new chili and he immediately set out to save the seeds from the precious few fruits. The next years, he and fellow chili geeks from around the world put a lot of effort into germinating these seeds, sowing them, reaping the fruit of the best specimens and eventually turning what was initially an unstable hybrid into a strong, new player on the chili scene: The Bhut Orange Copenhagen, named in part from its mother: the Bhut Jolokia, in part from its color: orange, and in part from the closest largest town to where it was born: Copenhagen. The small miracle that is the BOC has since gained a lot of attention not only in its native Denmark, but also around the world where major and influential chili heads from as far away as Australia and America have gone on record saying that the BOC is the best damn chili they’ve ever tasted.
I, being the geek and sucker for perfect little things that I am, of course had to find out what the fuzz was all about and 2014 being the first year that the BOC was deemed truly stable and ready for the mass market, I was lucky enough to acquire a young plant early in the season which I took home, re-potted, pruned, watered and meticulously cared for (I even sent her in family care during my summer vacation in Dixie Land) for months and months until eventually, this August and September, I was awarded with the beautiful fruits of my labor. Around 50 odd pretty, little, perfect orange balls of happiness that ripened slowly over time.
And yes, indeed they were pretty and fascinating little things (much like some women I know!), but were they worthy of the hype? There was really only one way to find out… So, summoning all my courage, I bit into one, and here is what I found: These little babies are not only the prettiest chilies I’ve ever grown, they’re also easily the hottest and most flavorful. The aroma alone, while so laden with Capsaicin that it will make your nose tingle, is an overwhelming burst of citrus and tropical fruit; papaya and pineapple. The taste is fresh, acidic, fruity, a little oddly grassy and warming. That is before an all-out assault of heat hits you for a good 5-10 minutes. And by heat I don’t mean a “I wish I were dead” kind of heat, it’s more of a “well, that was a pretty stupid thing to do, let’s see if we can find some other uses for this thing” kind of heat.
And it was with this exact realization in my head, as well as a burning sensation in my throat, that I set out to answer the question: What’s a boy going to do with fifty-odd ghost chilies?
Making the best of it: is eating Ghost Chilies really a good idea?
Alright, growing stupidly hot chilies for fun and novelty factor is all well and dandy, but this is probably right around the time when those of you who may not entirely share my fascination with heat may have started wondering just why the hell anyone in their (supposed) right mind would really want to grow some of the world’s hottest peppers at home. They’re so damn hot you can’t really use them for anything, right? Wrong!
Admittedly, one obvious response to the why? question would probably be: because I can! Another one, again, would be: because the process is interesting and because Ghost Chilies are not only strangely pretty but also oddly fascinating in their own morbid kind of way. A third, and probably more reasonable response, would be: because they have a fragrance and an aroma completely unlike anything else in this world, and while stupidly incendiary hot, they actually offer a fresh, fruity taste quite unlike anything else in the chili world, even when used in shockingly small quantities.
But really, I hear you crying, is there really a use for super hot chilies, other than burning your face clear off.
And to that, I’ve but one response: Yes! In fact, once you really start to think about it, there are quite a few! More than you would think, actually. Don’t believe me? Well, here, I’ve taken the liberty of collecting ten rather clever and somewhat unorthodox uses for super hot chilies:
What to do with ghost chilies and other really hot chilies?
Whether you’ve grown your own, have more or less accidentally purchased a large portion, or have merely been gifted a nearly endless supply (hey, these things happen!), you may at some point in your life find yourself in possession of a bunch of really hot chilies for which you have no really obvious or original use.
For those occasions and because all self-respecting food blogs apparently need at least one post of the list variety, I’ve compiled a list of ten more or less alternative uses for hot chilies. The list below is intended to showcase possible uses of exceptionally hot chilies, but most of the ideas will obviously work just as well with less hot or even mild varieties, either home-grown or store bought.
Chili trick no. 1: DIY elephant repellant!
This first trick may not be of much use to the average Dane or other westerners, but apparently one original and surprisingly common use for Ghost Chilies was to ward off elephants. Wild elephants, apparently, are a serious threat to homes, people and crops in Assam, India. Wild elephants, however, apparently don’t much care for the intense heat of the ghost chilies so in some rather successful experiments in India, ground ghost chilies have actually been used as a pretty effective elephant repellant. No, really! I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Granted, chances are you won’t be putting this information to good use any day soon, but if you get trampled by an elephant in the near future, don’t come crying to me. Johan tried to help!
Chili trick no. 2: become an Olympic equestrian champion
Again, this may not really be of much use to the average Joe on the street, but to you aspiring equestrian champions out there with little to no regard for rules and the well-being of horses, here’s one for you:
Apparently four horses were thrown out of the show jumping final in the Beijing Olympics after testing positive for capsaicin, the active and very hot component found in chili peppers. Capsaicin can have a hypersensitizing effect and when rubbed on the poor animals’ legs really make them pick up their feet. Literally and figuratively speaking. No, really, I swear, I couldn’t make this stuff up!
Chili trick no. 3: eating them whole (not recommended!)
From the department of things you actually could, but probably shouldn’t try at home, here’s one that’s become all the rage here in Denmark these days. You could try grabbing yourself one of your pretty new fruits and eating it raw, either entirely or partially, to really sample the subtle fruity and floral notes. As well as the not so subtle scorching heat.
You can even film the whole thing and put it up on Youtube for your friends to laugh at as has become all the rage these days. That might be fun.
Is this really advisable, though? Well, probably more so than trying to cheat in the olympics by way of chilies. But only barely. I submit for your approval this stunning image above of yours truly dancing with the cruel mistress that is the Bhut Orange Copenhagen.
What’s that? You don’t want none of that? Well, how’s about this, then…
Chili trick no. 4: Feeding chilies to friends for shits and giggles (also not recommended!)
Like no. 3, only you’re not the one getting hurt or being laughed at. Well, you might eventually end up getting hurt and/or losing a friend in the process. So, seriously, don’t do this. Or do it, but please don’t cite this blog as an influence.
Oh, alright, alright. I’ve had my fun now. All kidding aside, there really are some very legitimate uses for super hot chilies. And all of them are based on one basic principle: Divide and Conquer!
Divide and conquer
Habaneros, Ghost Chilies or worse are legitimately, fucking, insanely hot and anyone who said otherwise is either playing macho or lacking a few all-important taste buds or pain receptors. They’re also usually high yield plants which means that to make any use of them would require finding a way of preserving the fruits as well as splitting them into smaller, more manageable pieces that can be easily and carefully dosed out in various culinary applications. Our next tips explore methods of preserving and dosing out hot chilies.
Chili trick no. 5: Making dried chilies
Drying is a great way of preserving all kinds of chilies, whether super hot or not. Contrary to what you may think, dried chilies actually maintain their flavor, aroma and heat – some even claim that the drying process intensifies the flavors of chilies. I’m not too certain of this last part myself, but I certainly don’t shy away from using dried chilies in my cooking.
To dry chilies, you can either thread them on a string and hang them in a warm, dry, well-ventilated spot till completely shriveled and bone dry, or you can dry them in an oven at very low heat. Turn your oven on to its lowest setting, about 50-75 degrees C, place your chilies of choice in a single layer on a cookie tray or similar, then place in oven till thoroughly dry. This process may take from several hours to about a day depending on the varietal of chilies used. Turn chilies every now and then during the process.
Dried chilies should be stored in an airtight container and will keep pretty much forever. To use, you can reconstitute the whole dried chilies in water and use them as you would fresh, or you can use them for…
Chili trick no. 6: making homemade powdered chilies
Powdered chilies, not to be confused with chili powder – a blend of various chilies which usually includes other spices – makes for an attractive display piece and an easily portionable addition of heat to any dish.
To make powdered chilies, simply grab one or more varieties of dried chilies according to personal preferences, then grind them to a fine powder in a blender, spice grinder or coffee mill. Be aware, though, that owing to drying and a substantial change in mass and surface area from the blending, you’ll need a lot of chilies to make even a sizable portion of powdered chilies.
In reality, it takes about 100 grams of fresh chilies to make 10 grams of powdered chilies So this would be the kind of project to save for one of those sorts of days when your whacky ass friend gifts you a kilo or so of ghost chilies.
Chili trick no 7: making homemade hot sauce
Recipe: Ghost Chili and Mango Hot Sauce
Want an even more attractive but equally applicable use for hot chilies? Want a little less heat but a little more nuance? Are you attracted to the thought of not spending hours drying chilies at home? Then home-made hot sauce is the answer, my friend!
With hot sauce, you get the heat of the chilies mixed with whatever cooling, herbal or fruity notes you desire to add and usually an acidic zing in the shape of some sort of vinegar addition. As such, hot sauce can become the ultimate dance between hot and sweet, sour and acidic, hot and soothing… And best of all? Hot sauce is a great way of using up those really, really hot varieties because the end result can be used as sparingly as you like – a little really goes along way.
There’s literally more hot sauce recipes on the internet than you’d bother throwing a stick at, but if you want a good starting point and like things a little hot and exotic, why not try my Ghost Chili and Mango hot sauce?
Chili trick no. 8: making Sriracha!
Regular hot sauce not good enough for you? Well, I don’t blame you. We all know the facts of life: there’s hot sauce, and then there’s Sriracha! The Thai-inspired tangy-sweet but fiery nectar of the gods.
What fewer of us Sriracha addicts know, though, is exactly what gives Sriracha its unique taste and qualities. The answer, my friends, is fermentation – a controlled state of decay that sounds far worse than it really is and helps bring some really unique and shall we say funky flavors to the party.
For the adventurous out there who’re not afraid of a bit of work and the scent of fermenting hot peppers, I had my own go at home-made Sriracha about a year ago which resulted in this curious and unbelievably popular little post.
Chili trick no 9: making hot and sweet chili-infused syrup
Recipe: Ghost Chili and Spiced rum syrup
Fermented chili sauce really not weird enough for you? Alright, how about another abomination from the mind of the Johan? Want to know what happens when you mix sweet cane sugar and blazing hot ghost chilies? Well, for some odd reason, I wanted to… So I tried it! And now I have Ghost Chili Syrup to fit even my most sadistic dessert needs!
In hindsight, mixing sugar and Ghost Chilies was maybe not the best of ideas, but I do get a kick (literally) out of the resulting syrup from time to time. This is one of those things that should really be handled with care and used in moderation, but it does add a very interesting punch to many dishes. I also imagine it would be quite good, and more widely applicable if made with a not quite so hot chili.
Chili trick no. 10: making chili salt
Oh, so you’re the salty over sweet kind of type? No problem!
Here’s a clever way of using those super hot chilies that till recently was entirely new to me: Make chill salt! Salt, they say, should be used in moderation. Ghost chilies, unless you’re truly suicidal, should too! How do you make sure you use both sparingly? Well, basically, if you blend chilies with salt in a 1:10 ratio, and use said salt for seasoning your dishes, you get something along the lines of .1 grams of hotness per 1 gram of salt. Clever, eh? You can, of course, adjust the ratio to your liking or according to the hotness of the chilies used.
To make chill salt you quite simply remove the stems and seeds from whichever and how many fresh chilies you’d prefer to use. You then add them to a blender along with your desired among of kosher (i.e. coarse) salt and blend until a uniform powder is formed. The resulting powder will be somewhat moist and lumpy, so turn your oven on to 75C and spread the salt evenly on a tray, then place in oven with door slightly ajar and roast till dry.
You can then blend again or stir to separate the grains of salt. Chili salt is exceedingly attractive, quite pungent and will basically keep forever in an airtight container.
Have fun… and wear gloves!
See, I told you, barring a few really outrageous and stupid suggestions from yours truly, there are actually valid uses for super hot chilies. All you’ve got to do is use a bit of thought and caution, both in handling, preparation and consumption and you, too, will realise that hot chilies can actually play a role in serious cooking – and this without blowing your head clean off.
If Habaneros and Ghost Chilies are still entirely too hot for you, consider using something much milder and friendlier like a Jalapeño, as a gateway drug into the wonderful world of capsaicin. The real art when it comes to using Chilies in your cooking is to not blow your guests’ heads clean off – rather it is to use the delicate fruity flavors of chilies to accentuate your cooking all while balancing the heat and keeping it a warm, desirable buzz. It is far more impressive to nonchalantly tell your guests “Oh, and then I whipped up this little fire-roasted salsa using a touch of Habaneros and Ghost Chilies” and have it actually be warming and enjoyable, rather than blazingly inedibly hot.
I hope you have found some of these ideas inspirational and I hope you’ll have fun finding your own chill applications. Whatever you do, though, remember to have fun and wear gloves!
What’s YOUR favorite chili application?