If there’s one ingredient that yields polarizing opinions, it’s the chile pepper: Some of us can’t get enough of them, adding heaping scoops of chile powder and flakes to our meals, while others avoid the peppers at all cost. But chiles are everwhere: They’re denoted with red stars on menus, provide a depth of spice to our paella, and sometimes find their way into our Spaghetti alla Chitarra, packing a universally-recognized punch — despite their origin. Chiles are originally from the Americas and didn’t make their way into Asian cuisine until the 16th century — proof that anyone can learn to love spicy food, given time.

While as ubiquitous as salt, the ingredient is shrouded in mystery — particularly for those who go out of their way to avoid it. But unpacking common misconceptions and questions about chiles could be the key to cooking with them comfortably, particularly when they take the lead in so many recipes.

So let’s turn up our chile know-how, starting with their definition. If we’re getting technical, chiles are identified as any pepper that include the chemical compound capsaicin, also known as that bone-rattling, tongue-searing feeling. Capsaicin, unlike other compounds found in food, is a chemesthetic (a chemical that activates receptors associated with pain and touch) so it produces a burning sensation, rather than a taste or smell. In short, the more capsaicin, the more spice (Ghost peppers, for example, have a lot of capsaicin). So whether you’re cooking Guatemalan tamales or Indian masala, here’s the low-down on what you need to know about chiles:

Chili with Cayenne

How to buy and store fresh chiles:

Fresh chiles, particularly popular variations like jalapeños and poblanos, can be found in the produce aisle of nearly any grocery store. Before purchasing a pack, make sure that they are firm to the touch, and that the skin is unblemished and smooth, rather than wrinkled. Wrinkled chiles are past their prime, and will not yield a lot of flavor. Once home, chiles can be stored for up to two weeks in a dry paper towel inside of a plastic bag, placed either in your refrigerator or in a cool, dark place, like an enclosed pantry. You can also freeze chiles in a plastic bag for up to a year, though this may cause them to lose some of their flavor.

Chopping a Jalapeño

How to cook with chiles:

You probably know by now that it’s a bad idea to touch your eye after handling a chile, but some chiles contain so much spice that it’s necessary to handle them with gloves, as the oils can burn bare skin. If you don’t have any gloves at the ready, coat your hands in oil before handling particularly hot peppers — the oil from the peppers will stick to the oil, rather than to your skin. If you have the unfortunate experience of mistaking a serrano for a mild pepper, as an editor’s friend recently did, soak your hands in milk or yogurt until the burning sensation subsides — the idea being that chile oil is more soluble in fats and oils than it is in water.

Once properly protected, it’s time to get to work. If you aren’t a huge fan of spice, there are several ways to prepare your chiles to cut down on the heat. The majority of the spice, or capsaicin, is contained in the spongy white mass directly under the stem that holds the seeds. To reduce the spice, remove this part of the chile, along with the seeds, using a spoon or paring knife. For recipes that require an entire chile, like chiles rellenos, try to remove the seeds by first removing the stem and going in through the top to maintain the structure of the chile. Once you’ve done this, you can submerge the chile in cold water for several minutes to further remove heat, then drain and pat dry.

Chiles in Order of Heat
Chiles lined up in order of heat. From left (mild) to right (spicy): poblano, jalapeño, serrano, cayenne, habanero, Thai, ghost pepper

Varieties of chiles:

There are countless variations of peppers, but there are only really about ten that you need to know about because of their popularity. Three of the greatest variations between peppers are their color, their origin, and their spice level, measured inScoville units. For reference, Tabasco contains 5 thousand to 10 thousand Scoville heat units (SHUs), while ghost peppers can have as many as 1 million SHUs. A good rule of thumb is: The smaller the pepper variety, the spicier the chile. The majority of the peppers mentioned here will fall somewhere between 1 thousand to 100 thousand Scoville units — don’t worry, we’ll let you know which are on the higher end of that spectrum.

  • Cayenne peppers are often used in dishes like chili and salsa, and are named for a region in South America, Guiana. In its pureset form, it can be rated as high as 50 thousand SHUs, but it is far less spicy in its powdered form, which is where it is commonly found. It is also a key ingredient in many hot sauces.
  • Jalapeños are the most readily available peppers and are used for mild dishes like green salsa. When smoked and dried, they are called chipotles.
  • Thai chiles, also known as the bird’s eye chile in its dried form, is commonly found in Southeast Asia, and measures around 100 thousand Scoville units. It is used extensively in Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, in curriesstir-fries, and Thai salads.
  • Serranos are similar to jalapeños but are crisper and spicier — they are often used in Mexican cuisine in dishes such as pico de gallo and guacamole.
  • Poblano, also known as ancho chiles when dried, are much larger than other pepper variations and are very mild. They can often be found in dishes like mole and chiles rellenos.
  • Habaneros are extremely spicy, so only use them if you have an appetite for heat. They can be delicious in salsas — just don’t eat one whole.
  • And then there are the incredibly spicy chiles for thrill-seakers, like the ghost pepper, or bhut jolokia, and the Carolina Reaper. Both have enjoyed the title as the spiciest pepper in the world, and are used, highly diluted, in some hot sauces and dishes by the truly brave.

Dried Cayenne versus Cayenne Powder
Dried cayenne pepper on the left; cayenne powder on the right

Using whole chiles versus dried or powdered:

As with other produce, fresh chiles contain the most flavor, but some recipes call for dried or powdered variations of chiles. The best dried chiles are those that have been sundried and are slightly flexible, rather than completely dried out. The benefit of dried chiles is that they can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to a year or can be ground into a powder. Many recipes call for chili powder (notice that “chile” here is spelled with an “i”). Chili powders are so spelled as they are the primary ingredient in chili con carne and are usually not pure chile, but rather a combination of dried chile pods and other spices like cumin, oregeno, and garlic powder. Still, chili and chile powder can be used interchangeably for most recipes. Similarly, chile flakes are made out of a variety of dried and crushed red chiles, including ancho, bell, and cayenne.

Spice up your meals:

Now that you know the basics on chiles, what are you waiting for? Here are a few dishes that wouldn’t be the same without chiles:

Chicken Paprikash (Hungarian Comfort Food)
Mulaku Bajji (Jalapeño Fritters with Mint Chutney)
Punjabi Buttermlk Stew with Spinach Dumplings
Massaman-Inspired Chicken Noodle Soup

What are some of your favorite ways to cook with chiles? Tell us in the comments below!