It’s August again which means not only are temperatures rising outside, but things are heating up in the kitchen, too! It’s pepper season and a wider variety of hot peppers are available fresh. They vary wildly in color and shape as well as heat level. It might seem a little overwhelming at first, but following a few simple guidelines will have you cooking peppers like a pro.

Our taste buds are receptors designed for specific tastes, such as sweet, salty, sour and bitter. That’s why when you eat something sour you get that puckering sensation in the back of your mouth. All of the tongue’s sour receptors, located towards the back, are firing up at one time. A hot pepper gets its “heat” from the molecule capsaicin. This particular molecule fires off all your receptors at once, giving you the sensation of burning. Not all peppers have the same amount of capsaicin, of course, and peppers are rated on a scale known as the Scoville Heat Index (SHI). Bell peppers, which are classified as a sweet pepper because of their lack of heat, score a zero on the SHI in contrast to the jalapeño which comes in at around 6000 SHI.

With so many varieties of peppers it’s hard to know what each type has to offer. Luckily there are a few loose rules to help guide you. The smaller the pepper, the spicier it will be, while the longer varieties will be hotter than short ones. Green peppers, which are actually young peppers, tend to be spicier than red ones since immature plants produce the spicy chemical capsaicin as a weapon to protect themselves.

As with most things, there are always exceptions to the rule. For instance, the habanero is round and orange, but this small pepper has a whopping 200,000 SHI. On the other end of the scale is the cherry pepper, weighing in at only 500 SHI. This small, red, heart-shaped pepper is known as a pimento pepper since it’s the pepper you’re likely to find inside of a stuffed olive. The sweet, mild flavor of this pepper is great in salads or as a pizza topper. Anaheim peppers are a long, light green pepper and are quite mild, around 1000 SHI. You might be more familiar with these peppers in their canned form as “green chilies.” Anaheims are a great way to get that chili pepper flavor without the heat. Use them to create a simple Mexican rice by sautéing them with onions, then add into your rice along with chopped tomatoes and cilantro. Then simply cook the rice as usual.

Poblanos are a fat, dark green pepper around 4 inches long. They are only slightly hotter than Anaheims at 2000 SHI. Since poblanos are so big they are a great pepper for stuffing. Personally, I like to stuff them with jack cheese, dip them in an egg white batter and fry them, aka, a chile relleno. They’re certainly delicious stuffed with healthier fare too. Try using them in place of bell peppers for any of your favorite stuffed pepper recipes. Serrano peppers are similar to jalapenos in appearance only smaller and much hotter, about 20,000 SHI. These peppers are a great way to add some kick to stir-fry and curry. Or try adding them to homemade hummus with some cilantro and lime.

If you’re curious to try some of these hot peppers but are worried about heat, you’re in luck. The heat from peppers is produced in the glands attached to the stem. If you cut a pepper in half you’ll see all the seeds clinging to this membrane. Simply scoop out the seeds and membrane and it will dramatically decrease the heat of the pepper. Be careful though! Those seeds and membranes are spicy, indeed. Getting the capsaicin on your hands can leave them burning for hours or even days afterward. And heaven forbid you forget and rub your eyes. It’s a good idea to wear latex gloves when handling peppers to protect yourself.

If you do get some of that spicy capsaicin on your hands, all is not lost. Wipe your hands with rubbing alcohol to remove the oil, then soak them in a dairy product such as yogurt or milk. If you don’t have any dairy on hand you can also apply olive oil or vegetable oil. If you’ve eaten something spicy and your mouth is burning, swish some milk around in your mouth and then spit. Swallowing the milk will only move the burning down into your stomach.

Alright, ready to try some peppers? One of my favorite ways to use all those pretty hot peppers is to make salsa! My family has been making salsa all my life and each one of us makes it differently. That’s what’s so perfect about salsa, you can tweak it for your taste buds. On page 6 is a recipe for my version of salsa, along with some variations to make it your own. Enjoy!

Erin’s Mixed Pepper Salsa

  1. Roast the Anaheim pepper under a broiler for 5 minutes, turn the pepper over and broil for another 5 minutes. Once the skin of the pepper has blackened, place it on a plate with a bowl over the top. The steam will help loosen the skin making it easier to peel. After 5-10 minutes you should be able to easily remove the skin. Running the pepper under cold water can help.
  2. Next remove the stems of the jalapeño, serrano and habanero and place them in the food processor, chop finely. Save pepper mixture in a small bowl for later. Chop the onion, garlic and anaheim pepper in the food processor, then add tomatoes, cilantro, oil, lime and spices, and blend thoroughly. Next add in as much or as little of the hot pepper mixture as you like to obtain your heat preference. Start with a spoonful or two and blend it together, taste and see if you can handle more heat.
  3. Feel free to substitute whichever peppers strike your fancy or switch out the slicing tomatoes for romas. Not quite ready to try roasting an anaheim? Just throw in a can of green chilies instead. For a chunkier salsa, chop all the ingredients by hand. My advice is to start with small quantities and add more until you find the flavor you want.