Superfoods: Chili Peppers

By Darya Rose | July 01, 2012
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purple green orange and red peppers
Illustration by Maria Schoettler

Sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy and always beautiful, you'd be hard-pressed to find a sexier fruit than the chili pepper. And with their extensive list of health benefits and medicinal properties, the word "superfood" has never been more fitting. And, chili peppers only trick your tongue into thinking its actually on fire.

What is it? Chilies are fruits of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family of flowering plants in the Capsicum genus. Though technically not peppers, which are of the Piper genus, they were given this name when discovered by European explorers because their spicy heat is reminiscent of the black peppercorn. Originating in the Americas, chili peppers are thought to have been domesticated over 6,000 years ago, predating the existence of pottery in some places. Chilies are now culinary staples on nearly every continent.

The characteristic spiciness of certain kinds of chilies is determined by the presence of a chemical known as capsaicin. Capsaicin activates a type of neuron receptor (TRPV1, for you geeks) that also responds to sensations of heat and abrasion. Your brain therefore interprets these feelings the same, which is why we describe the sensation elicited by peppers as hot or burning.

Technically capsaicin does not damage human tissue, though some inflammation can occur at extreme doses. In the chili fruit, capsaicin is most concentrated in the white pithy membranes that hold the seeds, whereas the rest of the fruit's flesh has much less capsaicin. The spiciness of a chili is measured on the Scoville scale, which indicates capsaicin levels. For reference, a jalapeño chili typically has a Scoville score of 2,500-8,000 Scoville heat units (SHU), whereas a habanero is typically 100,000-350,000. Sweet or bell peppers have a Scoville score of 0 SHU. On March 1, 2011, Guinness World Records certified the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper as the hottest chili in the world, with a Scoville score of 1,463,700 SHU. However, the Naga Viper pepper and the Infinity chili, both from England, have also held the title of world's hottest pepper in the past several months, with scores of 1,382,118 SHU and 1,067,286 pepper ratings, which will require more accurate Scoville measuring techniques to resolve.

Peppers come in several colors including red, orange, yellow, purple and green. The color of a ripe chili fruit is determined by genetics, though many peppers will remain green if picked before they reach full maturity. Common chilies such as poblano and jalapeño would turn red if left to ripen on the vine.

Health benefits The medicinal value of chili peppers has been recognized for centuries. Both sweet and hot peppers of all colors contain substantially more vitamin C than oranges. Peppers are also rich in B vitamins (except vitamin B12), potassium and other minerals.

Chilies contain a host of powerful antioxidants that have been shown to protect against sun damage and insulin resistance, as well as inhibit growth of several types of cancers.

Red-colored peppers have the greatest antioxidant capacity, though all fresh peppers contain more antioxidant activity than canned or preserved peppers. Though the clinical application of these discoveries is still being investigated, it is a promising area of research. Topical application of capsaicin in a cream or balm has been shown to be effective at reducing pain, making it a useful treatment for arthritis and other chronic pain conditions.

Sourcing and storage We are fortunate to have some excellent sources of chilies in San Francisco and, not surprisingly, your best bet is at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Happy Quail Farms (Tuesdays and Saturdays) has the largest selection of pepper varieties, including sweet Hungarian banana peppers, spicy hot cayennes, lavender bell peppers and everything in between. Though it is impossible to tell how spicy a chili is by looking at it, generally speaking the more mature the pepper is the hotter it will be. This fact is particularly important if you're planning on bringing your peppers home for later use. While the flavor of peppers is better preserved when they are stored outside the fridge, hot peppers will continue to ripen on the counter and you may end up with a far spicier dish than you anticipated. To avoid this fate, store your peppers in a clean, dry area of your refrigerator's crisper drawer. Another excellent source of local peppers is Tierra Vegetables, which also has a fantastic selection of exotic peppers. Tierra also carries jars of homemade hot sauce and chili jams, which are wonderful for adding additional flavor and heat to your meals. For Thai chilies I head to Chue's Farm, which sells them either in baskets or in bunches still attached to their stems. Every year I buy at least one basket and dry the chilies overnight in a low oven, so I have a supply to last me until next fall.

At home For pepper lovers like me, these amazing fruits are appropriate in almost any dish. One of my favorite treats is buying a bag full of Pimientos de Padrón from Happy Quail Farms. These small green peppers are typically savory and not spicy, however one out of every 8-10 peppers will be fiery hot, so eating them is a bit like playing Russian roulette. Keep in mind that the longer these little guys sit on your counter, the more hot ones your bag will contain. Store them in the fridge and eat soon after purchase to avoid eating a bag full of fire.

To serve tapas style, cook padróns in a hot cast-iron skillet with lots of olive oil until they blister, 2-3 minutes. When they are just starting to brown, remove from heat and sprinkle generously with a good sea salt and serve immediately. I like to dip chunks of baguette into the remaining olive oil, which becomes infused with the flavor of the peppers during cooking.

One of the most mouthwatering ways to prepare sweet peppers is to roast them over an open flame. This is easy to do at home over a gas burner: Simply place the whole raw pepper onto the burner and allow the skin to char on all sides, turning with tongs when necessary. When the skin is completely black, turn off the heat and allow to cool. After about five minutes, when the pepper is cool enough to handle, grab the stem with your hands and move it to a cutting board. Use a butter knife to scrape away the blackened skin, which should slide off easily. Slice the flesh of the pepper into bite-sized chunks and add to salads, eggs, beans or other dishes. For the best flavor, do not rinse the bits of roasted pepper with water before eating.

When handling hot chilies it is extremely important that you use precautions to protect your skin. Capsaicin is oil soluble and quickly absorbs into your hands, and it is easily spread to other surfaces. Anyone who has sliced peppers then accidentally rubbed their eye can attest to this phenomenon. Since removing capsaicin from skin is virtually impossible, the best option is to wear latex or nitrile gloves when handling spicy peppers, being very careful to not touch your face or other sensitive areas. Discard the gloves immediately after use.


Superfoods: Chiili peppers was published in the Fall 2011 issue of Edible San Francisco Magazine. © 2011 Edible San Francisco. 

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