Bright, piquant, or hot as hades: Whatever your preference, there’s a perfect chili pepper for your palate.
From candy-like Peruvian Lemon Drops to the incendiary Indian Ghost Pepper, hot peppers are a near-universal ingredient in the world’s pantries. That range of flavor is also the reason chilies are a top choice for chefs hoping to add depth and “mystique” to their culinary creations.
“Our mission here at the farm is to grow more of our own ingredients, and to bring some of the more unique products into our restaurant kitchen,” says Spice’s Ben Bebenroth. And peppers are near the top of his list. “With their intriguing names and versatile flavors, we’ve found hot peppers make a very popular addition to our menus.”
Especially compelling in sweet-and-salty dishes, chilies also find their way into hot sauces, relishes, salsas, pickled dishes, and even cocktails, where they contribute depth and balance to house-made simple syrups. In salsas and sauces, their capsaicin kick pairs well with ingredients like lime, cilantro, and sweet peppers. But their fiery nature requires some finesse. “A ring or two is all you need to add a great background heat to a batch of pickles,” says Bebenroth. “Throw in a whole one, and you’re in trouble!”
This season, Bebenroth and his staff are focused on growing three exotic hot-pepper varieties at Spice Acres. You aren’t likely to see them at your local grocery store, although DIY types can find seeds online. Or you can wait until harvest, in August or September, and taste what Bebenroth and his chefs have cooked up.
- Lemon Drop, or Aji Limon: A native of Peru, this bright, lemon-yellow pepper offers spectacular flavor and aroma, with a sweet lemon-drop taste balanced by a touch of smoldering fire. Plants grow to about two feet high and are covered with thin-walled, slightly pointed fruits two to three inches long, with very few seeds. Used fresh or dried, the peppers make a cooled-down substitute for habaneros, mimicking their citrusy flavor notes. Still, Lemon Drops can hit 30,000 on the Scoville heat scale, making them two to twelve times hotter than a jalapeño.
- Bhut Jolokia, or Ghost Pepper: An Indian import legendary for its fiery flavor, these pointy, wrinkled red peppers have readings in excess of 1,000,000 Scoville units. That’s over 400 times hotter than a jalapeño and 10 times hotter than a habanero! The plants grow slowly but eventually top out around four feet and their thin-walled fruits reach two to three inches in length. Not long ago the peppers were considered the hottest in the world — a 1980 study calculated that a 150-pound person could die from eating three pounds of Ghost Peppers — but their fiery crown has been challenged by another Spice Acres’ favorite, the Trinidad Scorpion Pepper.
- Trinidad Scorpion Pepper: The title “World’s Hottest Pepper” is a moving target these days, with ever more incendiary varieties coming onto the market. (As of 2012, in fact, the Guinness World Record belonged to the Carolina Reaper, which rates an average of 1,569,300 Scoville heat units, according to tests conducted by South Carolina’s Winthrop University. Pepper spray comes in at around 2 million Scoville units.) But wherever you rank these Trinidad natives, the fact remains that they are some of the most fiery peppers on the planet, averaging 1.2 million Scoville units. The plants usually grow two to three feet high, and produce small, wrinkled, lantern-shaped fruits that ripen to a searing red-orange. Intrepid tasters report that behind their heat, the chilies pack a sweet, fruit-like flavor.
Want to bring a little fire into your home kitchen?
Bebenroth recommends a chili-inflected simple syrup as a good place to start. Adding the syrup drop-by-drop to other dishes (or even cocktails) allows you complete control. “The syrup provides a predictable level of heat that you can taste before you add,” says the chef, “and keeps things from getting out of hand.”
And don’t hesitate to experiment with complementary flavors, Bebenroth adds. “This is a basic recipe. Don’t be afraid to play around. You can take this syrup in a million different directions.”
Note: Always wear gloves and avoid touching pets, children, or your face and eyes when working with hot peppers.
Recipe: Spice-y Simple Syrup
1 C sugar
1 C water
1/2 hot chili pepper of your choice, seeds included
Optional: 1 to 2 tsp grated lime peel, 1 tsp lime juice, 1 whole allspice, 1 bay leaf
Place sugar and water in small sauce pan over medium heat. Add chili pepper and any desired optional ingredients. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Remove from heat and let steep for one hour, stirring occasionally.
Taste and adjust seasonings. Add more chili pepper to increase heat, more lime peel or juice to increase brightness, or more allspice to increase sweetness. If additions are made, repeat the boiling and steeping process.
Cool and strain. Store covered in refrigerator for up to one week.