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Understanding and Using Peppers

With these tips, you can enjoy the full flavor of peppers in your recipes whether you like them mild, medium, hot, or extra-hot.

Peppers are a great addition to any dish and are a mainstay for many cooks around the world. Once you become familiar with the different types of peppers, you will want to add them to many favorite dishes.

Peppers do not have to be hot. Bell peppers have no heat whatsoever while cherry peppers and Anaheim peppers bear just a small amount of heat. Habaneros, or Scotch Bonnets, top the heat scale and are only for very hardy eaters who have practically been raised on fiery foods. Jalapenos are somewhere in the middle, although some batches can be very hot. Thai peppers are easy to grow, but classified just below habaneros in heat. Cayennes and Serranos rank just below Thai peppers. Hundreds of other pepper varieties lie somewhere in between the mildest bells and the hottest habaneros.

Many people may think the fire factor lies in the seeds, but it is the inner membranes that actually produce the heat. However, that heat, in varying degrees, does transfer to the seeds and the pepper itself.

Use latex or rubber gloves to protect your skin when handling peppers. Avoid touching your eyes or face until you have washed your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water. If you have handled hot peppers without gloves, sometimes one washing is not enough.

You can cook with fresh chiles in several ways. Always remove the stem. Trim the head of the chile and throw the pepper in whole, cut it up in chunks or slices, or dice by hand or in a food chopper. If using it in chunks or dicing, remove the membrane and seeds if you choose to reduce the fire in the pepper.

When shopping for chiles, it is hard to tell which are freshest just by looking. The skin should be firm and the pepper should feel heavy. Roll the pepper around between your fingers; if it gives, then it is not the freshest. Check for blemishes and try to select those with stems intact.

Dried versions are also popular. They keep forever until you are ready to reconstitute them with water. Some, like the chile de arbol, make terrific sauces that will set some tongues on fire.

Many grocery stores now carry dried chiles. If a Mexican or Asian food market is nearby, you may find better prices and selection.

You should always take a taste test when using chiles. Even varieties that are typically mild can pack an occasional punch. Heat levels depend on many factors, including where a pepper bloomed on the plant: sun seems to increase the fire while shade takes it away.

You have several options for roasting chiles:
Broil on a baking sheet, place over a hot grill, or fry in hot oil. When all sides of the chile have blistered, remove and place in a brown paper bag. Let the bag sit for about twenty minutes and carefully remove the outer layers of the peppers. A word of caution: the fumes can also be painful, even to the point of burning your throat.

Removed the skins and the chiles can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen.

Chipotle peppers, which are smoked jalapenos, have become popular additions to many recipes. They are available in dried form or canned in an adobo sauce. They are well worth a try for their unique smoky flavor.

Reconstituting dried chiles is easy but takes some time.

Here is one method for reconstituting dried peppers. If you have time, it is best to soak the peppers in water overnight. You can also bring a pot of water to a boil and add the peppers. Simmer for about thirty minutes then reduce heat to the lowest setting. Do not remove the peppers for at least three hours; you want to soften the skins as much as possible.

At this point, you can process the peppers and strain the juice through cheesecloth. If you are leaving the skins on, be sure to run the processor for a longer period to create a finer mush.

If you find your pepper dish is too hot at the dinner table, try a glass of milk, some sugar, or even a taste of salt to lessen the pain.

Even if you prefer mild foods, do not be afraid to experiment with the flavors of peppers.

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