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Chilli, Chili or Cayenne Pepper covers a very wide range of different heat levels and flavours from habanero through to Kashmiri chilli. There is also a plethora of ways to spell chilli, with almost all be acceptable - chillies, chilies, chilis etc.

Chilli plants vary considerably in size, appearance and heat. Capsicum annuum is a herb or small shrub, with oval leaves and firm woody stems, growing to 1 metre high (3 ft). They are usually grown as annuals as the yield of chilli fruits diminishes after the first year. The chilli pod is a many seeded red berry with a shiny skin that comes in a wide variety of shapes, colours, thickness and spicy heat.

The aroma and flavour of fresh chillis is distinctly capsicum-like, with a hint of sweetness. Their pungent bite comes from the levels of capsaicin present in the fruit; capsaicin (cap-SAY-a-sin) causes the brain to release endorphins and so feelings of well-being.

Chilli powder should be a consistent medium heat around 40,000 Scoville Units and cayenne pepper a bit hotter at 50,000 Scoville Units. Once chilli powder and cayenne pepper were different, but nowadays they are simply ground chillis, blended to a consistent heat.

Chillis include:

Chillis need some care in their preparation: preparation of chillis.

Chillis and Heat

Table Of Heat Of Types of Fresh Chillis

Rating Scoville units Fresh Chillis Dried Chillis
10 100,000 - 300,000 Habanero Chilli, Scotch Bonnet Chilli Habanero Chilli
9 50,000 - 100,000 Bird's Eye Chilli Bird's Eye Chilli
8 30,000 - 50,000 Piquin Chilli, Thai Chilli (prik khee noo) Piquin Chilli
7 15,000 - 30,000
6 5,000 - 15,000 Serrano Chilli Chilpotle Chilli (dried jalapeño)
5 2,500 - 5,000 Jalapeño Chilli, Tabasco
4 1,500 - 2,500 Cascabel Chilli Cascabel Chilli, Pasilla Chilli
3 1,000 - 1,500 Ancho Chilli, Pasilla Chilli Ancho (dried poblano), Guajillo Chilli, Mulato Chilli, New Mexico Red
2 500 - 1,000 Big Jim Chilli
1 100 - 500 Hot Paprika, Peperoncino Hungarian Hot Paprika
0 0 - 100 Bell Peppers, Paprika, Sweet Peppers Paprika

Tips on dealing with heat of chillis:

  1. Some of the heat of chillis, i.e. the capsaicin, is in the membranes inside the chilli. So removing these membranes will reduce the heat quotient of your chillis. Alternatively, you could use a less hot type of chilli.
  2. If the chilli's heat is too hot for you, do not reach for beer or water, drink some milk or even more sensibly eat rice together with the hot food. Note that that is together and not one mouthful of heat followed by rice. The best liquid to have with your chilli or curry is milk or orange juice. Afterwards, eat ice cream, yogurt or a banana as these will disperse the capsaicin.
  3. Reduce the level of chilli in a recipe for extra flavour, because the chilli's heat masks the tastes from everything else. This is especially important for Indian and Thai cuisine where these often just become a heat fest.

Further Reading

  • Hemphill, I., Hemphill, K. (2014) The Spice and Herb Bible, Robert Rose. ISBN: 9780778804932.
  • Norman, J. (2015) Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference, DK Publishing. ISBN: 9781465435989.