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What Makes a Chili Pepper Hot ? The Chili Pepper Institute in Las Cruces New Mexico

Updated on August 19, 2016

Chili Peppers

New Mexico Chili Ristras
New Mexico Chili Ristras | Source

What is a Chili Pepper and How do you Spell it?

Chili peppers hanging on strings called ristas are a true symbol of Southwestern hospitality. The biggest question for a connoisseur of Southwestern cuisine while ordering, is red or green, and how hot is it? Is the chili pepper a fruit or vegetable and what's the correct spelling of chili? Where did the chili pepper come from?

There is strong archaeological evidence that chili peppers were growing in the Americas at least 6,000 years ago. Some historians credit Christopher Columbus, the explorer, for recognizing chili growing during his explorations of the "New World" in the Caribbean and he authorized Diego Alvarez Chanca, the physician on his ship to bring the peppers back to Spain. Chanca cultivated and studied the chili peppers and wrote about the medicinal purposes of chili peppers. Once the peppers were widely grown in Spain, they were said to have "traveled" into India and into Asia. Chanca was correct about the medicinal properties of the chili because we know now that chili peppers are loaded with vitamins C, B-6, potassium, magnesium and traces of iron.

The spelling chilli (with two l's) comes from the ancient Nahuatl word that listed chilli peppers as a fruit. Sometimes the spelling chile is used to mean the chili pepper itself, while chili refers to the dried ground red chili seasoning or to chili as a prepared food with or without beans, or the sauce made from the peppers. The most recognized spelling is now CHILI.

The mystery seems to continue on whether chili peppers are a fruit, a vegetable a spice a type of berry or a true pepper, but there isn't any mystery on what makes chili peppers hot. Chilies contain amounts of the oil capsaicin which is held in the membranes under the skin of the pepper. Most people will swear that it is the seeds that make a chili hot, but in truth, it's just because the seeds have absorbed the capsaicin from the chili's membrane.

Which is hotter, the red or green?

As a rule, the green chili sauce is the milder and the red chili sauce from tiny red dried chilies is the hottest. Over two hundred varieties of chilies exist and new varieties are being bred all the time. The heat of a chili is determined using a method of Scoville heat units on a scale of mild to hot. Wilbur Scoville developed a method of testing the heat of peppers by using human subjects relying on their taste buds. Scoville then recorded their perceptions on a scale. Today, the results of how hot a pepper is can be determined in labs using liquid chromatography instead of human taste buds, but the lab results are still recorded into Scoville heat units of measurement.

While the jalapeno pepper has a reputation for being hot, the jalapeno is actually rather mild according to the Scoville heat scale. For a number of years, the Red Sabina Habanero was deemed the hottest pepper, but in the 2007 Guiness World Recods the Bhut Jolokia peppers grown in India, sometimes called Ghost Peppers, were been determined to be the hottest. On February 16th the Chile Pepper Institute through an article released by the Associated Press written by Susan Montoya Bryan, proclaimed a new hottest pepper on the planet the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper.

Having a pitcher of water or milk at the ready is a good idea when trying a new food that contains some of the hotter peppers.. Others suggest squeezing a lime into your mouth, eating a slice of cheese, or eating rice or a slice of bread will help "put out the fire." When roasting or cooking with chili peppers, it's important to take precautions too. In the old days, cooks were careful to apply a thick layer of grease to their hands before handling the peppers. Today, gloves should be worn and even having worn gloves, its is important to wash your hands several times before touching your face, especially the area around your eyes and nose.

Some varieties of chili can reseed themselves, but most chile seeds come from specialized chile growers and growing and processing chili has become an increasingly big business. In 2007, sales of salsa surpassed the sales of ketchup in the United States. New Mexico is the largest producer of chile in the United States and New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico opened the Chile Pepper Institute to study new ways to cultivate chili and fight the diseases that attack the plants. The hot days, alkaline soils and slightly saline water in New Mexico is the perfect combination for growing superior chili According to an article in the July 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine, the Chili Pepper Institute has developed 43 new varieties of chili which are marketed under the label NuMex. Visitors to the Chile Pepper institute can visit the chili pepper garden and see 120 varieties of chili peppers growing. Guided tours are available for a $25 fee. The Institute also, promotes New Mexico chiles by organizing chili festivals and culinary shows and by selling its own line of chile seeds such as Chimayos.. More information about the Institute and the chilis that they have developed can be found at and at

In reading about the bland, greasy and tasteless foods available in the early Southwest, it's no wonder folks used chile to add a little flavor, and the use of chile peppers has continued in various salsas, sauces and as a dried seasoning. While many of the uses have become widely known, adding a pinch of chili powder to a cup of strong coffee gives it a real punch, and adding a pinch of chili powder to your favorite brownie or chocolate cake will intensify the chocolate flavor. Viva Chili!

Chili Rellenos

Chili Rellenos with Frijoles, Yummy!
Chili Rellenos with Frijoles, Yummy! | Source


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    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 2 years ago

      I'll be sure to order an extra margarita next time. THX

    • profile image

      Bk 2 years ago

      I have known that what causes a pepper to be hot is not soluble in water. If this is correct lactic acid , citteic or alcohol based drinks are best to beat the heat of pepper.

    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 4 years ago

      Thanks Redberry Sky, Ever notice that many spicy Mexican foods are served with cheese on top. Dairy really does help cut the heat. Good luck with your housemate's cooking.

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      I'm building up my heat tolerance to chilis, but I doubt very much that I'll ever be able to manage one of the infamous Ghost peppers! Fascinating article - the history of chilis is wonderful, and your tips on how to manage the heat by drinking milk and having a slice of lime is something I'll be trying out tomorrow - when it's my spice-mad housemate's turn to cook!

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      I am leaving my comments on the follow up Hub. Thanks.