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A Cinco de Mayo guide to chile peppers

With Cinco de Mayo around the corner, it seems fitting to learn how to make salsa from scratch. First things first, though: figuring out the difference between chiles so as not to make a salsa that's too hot to handle.

Thankfully, along with myriad cooking sites explaining the nuances of chiles, there's also a resource that's awesomely called The Chile Pepper Institute. That's right, there's a non-profit organization, backed by New Mexico State University, dedicated to education and research on the kicky capsicum.

A chile pepper's heat, or pungency, is determined by the Scoville scale, based on its capsaicin content. Chile extract is diluted until the heat can no longer be tasted, with each degree of dilution representing one Scoville heat unit (SHU).

A bell pepper has zero capsaicin content, and therefore, no SHUs. At the other end of the scale is the world's hottest chile pepper called the bhut jolokia, or naga jolokia, measuring more than 1 million SHUs.

The folks at New Mexico State University only recently discovered that this pepper, from Assam, India, beat out the now second-hottest pepper, the Red Savina, which measured a measly 577,000 SHUs.

Somewhere between zero and a million are a variety of peppers that are ideal for making salsa. Here are a few common ones and their Scoville heat unit*:

Habanero - 100,000 - 350,000 SHU - These small peppers come in red, orange, yellow and are staggeringly hot, so use extra caution when handling

Scotch Bonnet - 100,000 - 325,000 - Often used in Caribbean cooking, these squat little guys come in a variety of bright reds, yellows, oranges, and greens.

Serrano - 25,000 - Smaller and hotter than jalapeños , these little green beauties give a good kick in the pants without causing major damage.

Jalapeño - 5,500 - The most familiar of the bunch with manageable, medium heat packed in its green skin. Dried, smoked jalapeños are known as chipotle.

Poblano - 1,000 - 2,000 - So dark it's nearly black in color, this mild pepper is also known as an ancho when it's dried.

*SHU ranking from http://www.chilliworld.com/FactFile/Scoville_Scale.asp

Oh, and the story about milk soothing a burning mouth? It's true, according to The Chile Pepper Institute. The casein in dairy products disrupts the burning sensation. If you get the oil on your skin, clean the area with rubbing alcohol followed by soaking it in milk. Always use gloves when handling hot peppers and do NOT touch your eyes, mouth or nose while cooking.

Local source:

Vallarta Supermarket
10950 Sherman Way, Burbank, CA 91505
13051 Victory Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91606
13715 Vanowen St, Van Nuys, CA 91405
16107 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys, CA 91406

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