Food & Wine Photo Credit: Western Living

Pepper Primer: Flavours, Cooking Tips and What to Serve Your Enemies

It’s not about heat, it’s about flavour! Pepper expert Steve Gill shares his top tips for rehydrating, cooking and making the most of chili peppers.

Picking chili peppers based on a sliding scale of hot, hotter, hottest is a missed opportunity says Mexican cuisine restaurateur Steve Gill, because each type of chili packs its own distinct flavour.

The pepper expert turns our attention to the ancho chili as a prime example. One of the most popular chilis in Mexican cuisine (it’s a dried version of a poblano), Gill says these low burners can be used to add a sweet heat to your dishes. The pasilla on the other hand, another favourite in Mexico, will bring a more earthy flavour that will round things out nicely (and it’s also relatively low on the heat scale).

The morita chili, because it’s actually a smoke-dried jalapeños, will give you a strong smokey flavour in addition to its spice (but keep in mind the more you use the spicier it gets). Not that it’s anything like a ghost pepper, Trinidad moruga or Carolina reaper, which Gill says will blow out the palette and any ability to taste flavours altogether (perhaps you save those for your enemies).

Unlike those you special order off the Internet, habaneros and scotch bonnets are available in your local grocery store and are some of the hottest chilis that still produce a good flavour explains the pepper expert.

“It’s not quite citrusy, but like a floral type of flavour,” says Gill. “Besides heat, they sort of brighten up the food and enliven it.”

Steve Gill’s Tips for Cooking with Chili Peppers

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1. Pick the Right Pepper

When shopping for fresh peppers, avoid wrinkles. “The most flavourful, fresh chili peppers are firm to the touch and have smooth skin,” says Gill.

2. Rehydration is Key

“Before cooking with dried chilis, soak them in water for approx. 30 minutes,” says the pepper expert. You don’t need to put them in boiling water, the hottest water from under your tap will do. Don’t let them sit too long or they’ll get mushy, and if you do put them in boiling water they’ll be ready faster, around 15 to 20 minutes.

3. A Toasted Pepper is a Tasty Pepper

Especially recommended with rehydrated varieties, Gill recommends toasting peppers on a skillet or under a hot broiler to slightly char them and bring out a deeper, richer flavour. “As long as you don’t go too far until they’re really black!”

4. Don’t Pick A Pickled Pepper

… when it comes to jalapeños, that is. Instead of opting for the kind of pickled jalapeños you’d find on pub nachos, the pepper affectionado likes to dice up fresh peppers and use them as a dish topping. Be warned though, the heat from jalapeños varies widely (just like wine grapes). “Depending on harvesting conditions, the growth, when they were picked, a jalapeño can range from something I can bite into and eat, to something that a little piece would burn my mouth,” shares Gill.

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5. 3 Ways to Take the Heat Off a Chili

“A lot of people think that taking out the seeds eliminates the heat,” says Gill. But it’s the white fleshy middle part on the inside that is the main source: heat emanates from here to the seeds and the rest of the pepper. You can take out the flesh or seeds or both to mitigate the sweat factor, but grilling peppers (like a stuffed jalapeño on the barbecue!) is another way to moderate the heat.

6. The Restaurant Trick

When working with such large quantities, the restaurateur and founder of Quesada Burritos and Tacos says his chefs like to grind up chilis into a pepper paste that they can easily add to dishes. This is great because you can easily control the heat by adding a little or a lot. When pasting chilis you can throw the whole thing in, fresh, charred or dried (but dried might yield something more like chili flakes).

7. Boost Those Everyday Meals

You can just throw in a chipotle pepper to cook with your spaghetti sauce and take it out before serving, or you can try chopping up peppers and adding them to scrambled eggs, burgers and stir-fry recipes. You can also add a pinch of chipotle or habanero powder to mayo or sour cream to make things a little more interesting.

MORE: Make Your Own Chili Oil

MORE: Spicy Chicken, Mango and Cucumber Salad

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