Stuff You Should Know Podcast: Chile Peppers


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  • Bell pepper is a chile pepper, just not spicy
  • One of oldest domesticated crops in South America between 5-12k years ago in Brazil or Bolivia (heated debate…)
  • Originally spread by birds who cannot feel spice in their beaks and thus immune to hot chiles
    • Tip: Spraying hot pepper sauce on bird feeders is safe for birds and effective on keeping away them darn squirrels
    • People/birds cannot digest pepper or any other seeds (like corn) as they are covered with cellulose
  • Originally known as Chiles before Columbus among the Aztecs and others)
    • Columbus (who is just terrible. Pretty much a rapist and murders…) though incorrectly that they were related to Black Pepper and thus called them Chile Peppers
    • Columbus brought them to Europe and it spread from there like crazy
  • 25 wild species and 5 domesticated species/cultivars
    • In general, once domesticated humans stop using wild varieties, but not with chile peppers whose wild varieties are still hot stuff…
    • Part of the nighshade family with potatoes, tomatoes
    • Capsicum annuum, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum frutescens, Capsicum baccatum, Capsicum pubescens
  • Heat comes from alkaloids called capsaicin
  • Seeds are attached to pepper via white stuff called placenta, and the membrane is really the source of the hotness
  • Pain not from taste receptors, but from pain receptors in your mouth (TRPv1 receptor)
    • Same thing that tells you coffee is hot
  • Can be used a Pain Reliever: Capsaicin can find these receptors on the skin and overloads them so much that they can’t transmit pain signals to the brain
  • Do not cause ulcers and in fact can protect the stomach lining
  • Can thin the blood, so be careful if taking an anticoagulant medication
  • Water just moves it around, not help – You want something fatty like milk/sour cream as it dissolves the capsaicin
  • Mammals are not immune, people are only mammals who like to eat hot peppers
    • Can trigger release of endorphins that make you feel amazing…
  • Measuring Heat of Peppers: Scoville Scale
    • Scoville was a pharmacist who developed the Scoville organoleptic test (the prior test was just asking people if something was hot)
    • Scoville Heat Unit: How many cups of water to dilute 1 cup of pepper extract the point that a person can no longer feel the heat
      • Bell Pepper: 0
      • Red Savinia Haberno: 500,000 = It would take 500,000 cups of water to dilute 1 cup of extract it to the point that nobody can taste the hotness (yikes)
    • We no longer use the Scoville method, but we still use his name
    • Today liquid chromatography is used: Looks for parts/million of capsaicin in any pepper (is generally 16x the original Scoville Heat Unit)
  • Chipotle Peppers = Smoked Habenero
  • Ancho Peppers: = Dried Poblano (great for Chile Relleno)
  • Types of Peppers: 2 ways to classify (heat and shape [A-I])
    • All Bell Peppers are the same pepper, just ripened for less time (green is just harvested first, then yellow, orange and red)
      • Red also has 11x the beta-carotene and 1.5x vitamin C vs. Green
      • Paprika is smoked red pepper
      • Chocolate, purple and white also exist, but there are different varieties
    • Rule of thumb: Thin and long = hottest
      • Exception: Scotch bonnet is pumpkin shaped and orange
      • Dehydrated peppers are hotter
    • Chile Pepper Institute (U. of NM): New Mexico is largest cultivator of chile peppers in the US
      • India is the world’s largest producer
      • 5 Part Heat Profile: Scoville Heat unit, speed it hits you, whether it lingers/how long, where it is sensed (throat, tongue, etc.), flat (coats whole tongue) vs. Flat (hot needles)
    • Chile Pepper Community: The Fire Eaters, New Yorker 
      • No 1 governing body to determine the spiciest pepper (they don’t trust Guinness)
        • Constantly being cultivated and improving…
      • Should it be the peak or the mean spice?
        • Guinness Record Holder (using mean): Carolina Reaper with a mean of 1,569,300 scoville heat units and peak of over 2.2 million
          • Cross of Ghost Pepper (past champ) with red habanero
          • English restaurant called Bindi with curry with 20 ghost peppers (3/4 people we able to finish it)
        • Also, who cares…?
      • When working with super hot peppers, you NEED TO WEAR GLOVES (nitrile gloves), washing hands isn’t enough, even the next day
        • Maybe use a respirator if cooking with hot peppers (it’s like tear gas)
      • Storage: Dry, freeze, pickle, fridge
      • Growing: Perennials
        • Start as seeds 10 weeks prior to last frost
        • Then start to harden them a couple hours a day to harden them
        • Fertilize
        • Harvest at step to increase shelf life
      • Off Label Uses: Rub on pain parts, lower blood pressure, anticoagulants, lower LDL, maybe cancer (found capsaicin can attack tumors)

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