Hey hot stuff! Our guide to chilli
Chillies are part of the capsicum family and they come in a whole range of varieties and colours (from green through to yellow, orange and red) and are one of the most popular spices in the world.
Chillies can be used fresh, dried or powdered, and the level of heat varies by variety. Some are sweet and mellow while others can be blisteringly hot - as a general rule, the smaller the chilli, the hotter the taste. The substance that generates the heat is called capsaicin, which is found mainly in the pith and, to a lesser extent, the seeds.
Prepare chilli by removing the pith (membrane) and seeds. You can do this using the tip of a sharp knife or scraping them out with a teaspoon. Once the seeds and pith are removed you can slice or dice the chilli as required. Placing the chilli skin-side down on the board will make it easier to cut. If you like the heat from chilli you can simply chop the chilli with the seeds and pith in place. As capsaicin can irritate the skin, you should consider wearing gloves, particularly if you have sensitive skin. If not, scrub your hands thoroughly afterwards in cold water (hot water can make the chilli sink into your skin making it harder to remove) and remember not to touch your face or eyes - even if you've scrubbed well, it may still burn.
When choosing chillies you should mostly look for glossy and firm, although some varieties do have a wrinkly appearance even when they are at their prime. Choose your chilli according to the degree of heat you want – remember the rule that larger tends to be milder. Here are five of the most popular chilli varieties:
Jalapeno – one of the world’s most popular chillies. Measures five to nine centimetres in length and has a rounded end. Its thick flesh makes it easy to cook with. Try them chopped in a salad with avocado, tomato and lettuce.
Bird’s Eye Chillies – widely used in south-east Asian cooking, these little chillies really pack some punch. They are two to four centimetres in length, tapering to a point. Try them with prawns or fish.
Habanero – These are about five centimetres long and wide at the shoulder, tapering to a small point. Intensely hot, handle these with great care as they will burn if you get them on your skin. Try a very small amount in a salsa.
Long Chillies – these can grow up to 15 centimetres in length and can be a bit of a lottery in terms of heat. The heat level often depends upon the time of year. Try them in a stir-fry.
Serrano – these look like a bird’s eye chilli but they have a rounded end like a jalapeno. They have a sweet, crunchy flesh and the heat of a jalapeno. Try them raw or chopped into a salsa.
Chilli powder is a mixture of dried chilli peppers, other spices and salt. If you want pure powdered chilli choose cayenne.
And finally, a really important tip - to cool down the mouth-burn from a too-hot chilli dish, try milk or yoghurt; they're much more effective than water.