How to Cook With Chili Peppers If You're Not a Heat Freak
Fall means that it's chili pepper season. Gardens and farmers markets are awash in peppers, from your basic jalapeños to exotics like chocolate habaneros. Every size, shape and color are piled into pyramids or filling baskets. They're so alluring, but it can be fraught if, like me, you have very little tolerance for heat.
You see, I'm a supertaster. That has some drawbacks. One of which is that, since every tastebud is surrounded by pain receptors, and I have about five times the amount of tastebuds as your usual person, I have exponentially more pain receptors. Making the spicy kick of chilis hit me much harder than most. I cannot tell you how many times I have made a dish at the limit of what I can handle, heat-wise, only to be told by my husband that it is “well-spiced, but not spicy.”
But chilis do more than just add heat. They add flavor and nuance as well. Over the years, I have gotten pretty good at figuring out some adaptations to make dishes that I can handle, but don’t just leave out the heat altogether.
Prep Them Well
Prepping chili peppers for use is the easiest way to temper heat. The heat itself is concentrated in the ribs and seeds, so removing these carefully will tamp down the burn. Always use gloves when handling hot peppers and be sure to really wash your hands well before accidentally touching your eyes, face, or any other sensitive part of your body.
Cut Down on the Amount
Obviously, the easiest thing to do is reduce the volume of peppers in the dish to your personal taste. I always start with half of what the recipe calls for, because you can add more, but it is harder to take away. I will taste as I go, and if I can handle it, add more as the dish cooks.
Give Them a Good Soak
Rinsing the cut peppers in cold water can help wash off a little more of the heat, because it removes the initial juices. Pickling peppers in vinegar also reduces some of the impact but be sure that the added acid bite would be welcome in the dish in question. Soak them for at least two hours, but pickled peppers can last forever. The vinegar itself will build in heat as the pepper sit, so I am always careful to rinse them off and pat them dry before adding to a dish.
Cut Them In Larger Pieces
Leaving the peppers in large chunks, or even whole and uncut, can be a good way to minimize some of the heat, just be sure to warn diners that the large pieces and whole peppers will have some serious punch so that they are not caught unawares. Similar to using whole garlic cloves instead of minced garlic to get a milder flavor.
Dairy Is Your Pal
Adding full-fat dairy to the dish itself when appropriate in the form of butter, cream, milk or ghee can help.
Roasting can turn some of the spicy peppers a bit milder, roast whole, and then remove the seeds and ribs and usually the skin. Try a jarred puree instead of fresh. Usually the processing helps to tone down the full-punch. Espelette pepper puree is much milder than fresh or dried, ditto aji Amarillo paste.
Make a Swap
Swapping out milder peppers for the really spicy ones is helpful as well. If your dish calls for serranos, jalapeño or poblano will be a bit milder. Instead of habanero, try pequin, or yellow wax peppers. Instead of bird or Thai peppers, go for cayenne or aji. And if you really want pepper flavor with as mild a heat as possible, swap out for pepperoncini, cherry peppers, or shishitos. If you have a garden, Row 7 seeds now has a pepper called a habanada which is a habanero bred specifically with all of the fruity flavor, and none of the heat.
If serving a crowd, err on the side of less heat and offer a range of hot sauces, chili oil or paste, and fresh or pickled peppers for people to amp up the spice if they like.
Finally, be sure to serve sides and garnishes that are known to balance heat and help manage the burn. Rice and bread are always welcome. Cooling full-fat dairy helps, so that bowl of sour cream for your chili, shredded cheese for your pozole, and raita for your vindaloo are a great way to help your guests enjoy the flavors of chilis without the pain.
Special note to my fellow heat-challenged folks: the spiciness of chili peppers builds as a dish sits. So, while your chilis and such will taste better the day or even two after they are made? The heat will increase as they sit. If you are planning on serving same day, no problem. But if you are making a dish ahead? Either seriously reduce the amount of heat or eliminate altogether and then add as needed during the reheat. The last time I made vindaloo it was perfect for me the night of, and beyond my tolerance by lunch the next day. So if you are gonna want to eat leftovers, I sometimes put some aside for myself pre-chili, just to be safe.