The Fiery Appeal of Hot Chile Peppers

Enthusiasts are drawn to their colorful culinary potential—or simply the thrill of the challenge

Grab a glistening, hot chile pepper—one jewel-toned beauty with a volcanic pedigree—and take the dare. Just know that once you pop that capsicum into your mouth, there is no turning back. No amount of water, beer, milk, or bread can fully put out the flame. 

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, for every coughing and gasping amateur daredevil, there are dozens of die-hard chile-heads for whom the pain of eating hot peppers is all pleasure. The seared taste buds, watery eyes, and sinus-clearing fumes are part of the attraction, along with the hunt for evermore pungent pepper thrills. 

Red chiles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bringing the Heat

Humans have been eating peppers for at least 9,000 years. While archaeologists pinpoint the eastern coast of Mexico as the cradle of cultivation, there’s evidence that around the same time, indigenous peoples were harvesting and eating wild peppers from what is now the southwestern United States through Mexico and south to Peru. 

Pecans, pistachios, and chiles at McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch, Almagardo, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nobody knows exactly why humans crave the culinary drama of hot peppers, but scientists have come up with a few theories. The word addiction has been bandied about, in part because capsaicin, the substance that gives chiles their signature punch, causes pain followed by an immediate release of endorphins. Endorphins floating around the brain trigger a sense of euphoria. In addition, capsaicin releases chemicals that reduce the sensation of pain (which is why it is a popular ingredient in topical pain relievers). 

Related: Chile Peppers 101

Red chiles at Farmers and Craft Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How Hot Is Hot?

In 1912, Parke-Davis Co. pharmacist Wilbur Scoville began exploring the capsaicin kick of different types of peppers. He wasn’t aiming for chile-head immortality but for a more efficient way to produce a capsaicin-laced liniment. He crushed chiles combined them with sugar water and had a panel of taste-testers take sips. Over time, Scoville diluted the chiles with more and more water until the tasters could no longer detect any heat in their cups. The pharmacist rated different chiles based on how much water was required to negate the capsaicin. 

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scoville called his process the Scoville Organoleptic Test. Today, in his honor, pepper punch is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) arranged on the Scoville Scale. No taste-tester tongues were harmed in the ranking process. Now, SHUs are measured using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), a process that measures the heat-generating chemicals in chiles.

Hot sauces at Billy’s Boudin, Scott, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For context, pure capsaicin ranks at 15 to 16 million SHUs, and sweet bell peppers come in at 0. In between is the Carolina Reaper at 2.2 million, orange habaneros at 150,000 to 325,000, cayenne peppers at 30,000 to 50,000, and jalapeños at 2,500 to 8,000.

Related: Feel the Burn

Pepper growers continue to try to out-spice each other with new tongue-searing cultivars. At any given time, a new hybrid could explode to the top of the scale.

Red chiles at Farmers and Crafts Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sensory Perception

What are the mechanisms through which the human body responds to the varying degree of heat in chile peppers? As it turns out we didn’t know until very recently. In fact, in 1997, Dr. David Julius discovered the neural pathway that gets activated by capsaicin, causing spicy foods to feel “hot” when consumed.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, on October 4, 2021, David Julius, a physiologist, and Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular biologist and neuroscientist, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The men were honored for their research into human sensory perception; each had, independently of the other, discovered mechanisms through which human bodies respond to touch and temperature.

Red chiles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The importance of the five senses cannot be understated. They are mediums through which we experience and understand the world around us, transforming external stimuli into electrical signals that our brain translate into the sensations of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. How exactly this transformation works out on a molecular level, however, was long unclear and still remains one of the most elusive questions in modern science.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dr. Julius currently serves as the chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of California in San Francisco. In 1997, his team of researchers compiled a library of neural pathways that are activated by capsaicin, a compound that gives spicy foods like chile peppers their burning sensation when consumed. Along the way, Dr. Julius discovered TRPV1, the ion channel that acts as our primary capsaicin receptor.

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico

In order to truly appreciate Dr. Julius’ discovery, a bit of context may be in order. Unless you build up a tolerance, eating spicy foods is painful. Peppers (and wasabi) give off a strange sensation that your mouth is on fire and for the longest time researchers simply couldn’t figure out why this was the case.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dr. Julius answered this question by showing us that TRPV1 is responsible for keeping our bodies safe from high temperatures. The channel responds not only to capsaicin but also to temperatures that are greater than 110 degrees Fahrenheit. TRPV1 also acts up when we are injured or sunburned, causing damaged tissue to feel hot to the touch. In all cases, the channel transmits a signal that our brains turn into the sensation of heat.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Matter of Taste

Chile aficionados know their way around the Scoville Scale but they also insist that chile varieties like grape varieties and wines have terroir. Put simply, terroir is a subtle turn of flavor based on the location where a pepper is grown. By this measure, a Hatch green chile from New Mexico will taste distinctly different from the same variety grown in California. 

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Hatch Chile Peppers

Tabasco Country Store, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Likewise, different peppers carry different signature taste prints. Habaneros are known for their fruity, floral flavors; jalapeños tend to be herbaceous; Thai chiles have an earthy flavor; Tabasco peppers have a slightly smoky taste. 

Experimenting with chiles of different pedigrees and forms—fresh, dried, crushed, powdered—could become a lifelong obsession. At what point does the chile overpower the food? What blends work together? What chile paste perfectly accentuates a stew, a kebab, barbecued ribs, or a block of tofu?

La Posta Restaurant, Mesilla, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, while you’re pondering, shopping, and cooking remember one thing: capsaicin, the thing that brings the truth-or-dare pleasure and pain to hot peppers has exactly no flavor. None! So if you’re expecting to add a sweet, tart, or vegetal aura to your food, start with a pepper you can actually taste before moving up the scale. 

Red chile flavored pistachios at Eagle Ranch, Almadargo, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Hot Pepper Sauces

Chile-heads love to sample and collect hot sauces for the flavor and potency of the specific elixirs as well as for the opportunity to grab a portable pepper fix. For most, the hot sauce hobby has the makings of a lifelong obsession simply because there are so, so many different commercially produced sauces to try.

Related: 4 Things to Know Before Visiting New Mexico

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Market researchers quantify the U.S. hot pepper sauce market at around $1.2 billion as of 2018 with the spicy condiment snaring more than $2.3 globally. At any given time, more than 100 major brands are vying for a share of that pie.

Red chiles at Farmers and Crafts Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The invention of hot sauce is credited to the ancient Aztecs who cultivated chili peppers to add some flavor and nutritional value to their limited food choices. By the time the conquistadors arrived, the Aztecs were already mixing peppers, herbs, and water into sauces and serving them on ancient versions of the corn tortilla.

Fast forward several hundred years and hot sauces have spread from their birthplace in Central America to North America, Europe, Asia, and outer space. Walk into your average grocery store and you’ll be confronted with a dazzling array of hot sauce bottles filled with liquids in red, green, yellow, and orange. Different brands come with different types of peppers, ingredients, spice levels, and suggested food pairings—and not all are created equal.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Edmund McIlhenny, a banker from Avery Island, Louisiana, founded Tabasco in 1868. The recipe evolved over time. A soldier returning from Mexico in 1840 gave McIlhenny, a known gardener, seeds from wild peppers he had collected. McIlhenny planted the seeds and the peppers that grew became the basis for Tabasco sauce. McIlhenny named the unique Mexican pepper strain for the sauce which he had already named for a region in Mexico. 

Tabasco Country Store, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To this day, Tabasco is made from the McIlhenny family’s original recipe: Tabasco peppers, vinegar, and salt aged in oak barrels for up to three years. Tabasco peppers are handpicked when they turn a deep red, which apparently signifies optimal flavor and heat.

Related: Avery Island: Touring Tabasco & Jungle Gardens

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tabasco has many competitors including regional hot sauces, sauces with international pedigrees, and sauces created for different cooking techniques. I’ve tried many of them including:

  • Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce which was engineered in New Iberia
  • Tapatío, a popular Mexico hot sauce with a guy with a sombrero on it that’s not actually a Mexican hot sauce but made in California
  • Cholula (Choe-loo-la), named for a 2,500-year-old city in Mexico but actually manufactured in Chapala in the Mexican state of Jalisco—not Cholula—and instantly identifiable by its signature wooden bottle cap
  • Crystal Hot Sauce, the best-selling Louisiana hot sauce that has been in New Orleans since 1923 and popular around the world
  • Frank’s Hot Sauce, a Louisiana-born sauce made from Cayenne red peppers, distilled vinegar, water, salt, and garlic powder

Worth Pondering…

Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.

—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss

The Ultimate Guide to Hatch Chile Peppers

Green chile season is heating up in New Mexico where the fiery peppers are an indispensable part of the local cuisine—and daily life

Hatch chiles grown today (in fact all New Mexican chile peppers) owe their genetic base from cultivars (cultivated variety) first developed by horticulturist Fabián Garcia at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now known as the New Mexico State University (NMSU). Starting in 1894, Fabián Garcia crossed several local pod types with the goal of improving them for the region. He sought larger, smoother peppers that were better for canning.

Following many years of crossing and growing, he released a variety called New Mexico No. 9 in 1913. All New Mexican chile peppers owe their genetic base to these peppers. Today, chile pepper studies continue at the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico, founded by Paul Bosland in order to study New Mexican peppers and others from around the world.

Red chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatch Chile Fever

To pay homage to the grandmother of all New Mexican chile peppers, consider a visit to Hatch, a small agricultural village in southern New Mexico known as the “Chile Capital of the World.” The oh-so-flavorful Hatch pepper is named after Hatch Valley where the bulk of Hatch peppers are grown. This is thanks to the river valley’s combination of nutrient-rich soil, intense sunlight, and cool desert nights.

Unlike other peppers, Hatch comes in different seed varieties that cover the full spectrum of heat levels. Typically, the mild to medium-hot varieties are more readily available. Then, there is red vs. green peppers. For those that didn’t know, red peppers are the same but have simply been left on the plant longer to ripen.

La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In preparing Hatch Valley’s famous peppers, a 40-pound burlap sack of green chiles is dropped into a gas-fired roaster. The flames roar as chiles tumble in the rotating wire cage and the thick, sharp scent permeates throughout the area. First, it’s high heat, then low!

These chiles are the centerpiece of the meal which is itself the pinnacle of New Mexico cuisine, a distinctive craft in which the Land of Enchantment takes such pride. The state has made chiles the “Official State Food” and designated “Red or Green?” the “official state question” referring to which kind of chile diners prefer on their enchiladas.

Chile Ristras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The harvest begins most years in late July and extends into October. Labor Day weekend heralds the annual Hatch Chile Festival, a celebration of their world-famous crop. Despite the town’s tiny size, Hatch swells to more than 30,000 people during the two-day festival. The event features chile ristra contests, artisan and food booths, and a carnival. This year marks 50 years since the festival’s inception. The pandemic thwarted last year’s celebration making the 2021 gathering extra-special.

For first-time visitors, it’s not a stretch to think the hot chiles the farmers grow in these fertile fields are hazardous (a sentiment first-time chile tasters often feel today). But I quickly grew to love the chiles and can’t imagine daily life without the fiery and tasty peppers.

Red chiles by the sack © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiles of the World

Those first chiles were what are called landrace varieties, a term referring to crop types that people develop by saving seeds and adapting them to their specific growing area. Chiles and chile seeds were no doubt traded up and down the Rio Grande Valley for centuries among indigenous peoples, then Hispanic settlers. The distinctive chiles so familiar today date back to the early 20th century.

In the world, there are literally thousands of chile types. They originated in Mesoamerica and spread rapidly across the globe after Christopher Columbus brought New World foods back to Europe. In Africa, southern Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, backyard growers did their own breeding, just as New Mexico growers did.

Chile Ristras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of those thousands of chile types, the ones that form the backbone of Hatch pepper production are called—surprise—“New Mexican pod” varieties and the original types have been supplemented often with new cultivars developed at New Mexico State.

Chile farming today is vastly different from a century ago. Most of the fields have buried drip irrigation that feeds steady moisture to the plant roots. A six-year rotation schedule fends off soil-borne diseases; when they aren’t growing chiles, Hatch farmers produce alfalfa, onions, and cotton, among other crops.

Red chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatch Chiles

The Hatch Chile Association has obtained a federal-type certificate and a trademark for chiles grown there. But there’s more than one kind of “Hatch chile” ranging from modern mild types to older, hotter varieties. Charger (hybrid Anaheim) chiles, a medium-hot favorite grown to be used green, can range from 500 to 3500 on the Scoville scale (which extends past 1 million for ghost peppers and such); Big Jims are milder, Anaheim-like; Sandias are hotter and grown for ripening; Lumbres is hotter still, and the list goes on.

And if the list of thousands of chile varieties, all with different shapes, colors, flavors, and levels of heat, isn’t complex enough, consider that all of those chile types produce fruits that vary from plant to plant—sometimes from pod to pod on the same plant.

Get to know the many varieties of Hatch chile peppers. Following are some of the most popular developed for and grown in the Hatch area.

Red chiles by the sack © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NuMex Big Jim: This giant chili pepper was introduced by NMSU in the 1970s as a cross between a few different types of local chiles and a Peruvian chile. They measure 10-12 inches and mature to red but are usually harvested and used when green. The peppers have actually been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest chile ever grown. Big Jim chili peppers are about as hot as a milder jalapeno pepper (Scoville Heat Units: 2,500-3,000 SHU), so you’ll get a bit of heat, but not very much, depending on your heat tolerance and preference.

La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NuMex Sandia: Another hybrid chili pepper developed by the NMSU, the Sandia grows to 6-7 inches and is similar to the Anaheim pepper. They start green and ripen to red but are often used while green. Like so many other peppers from this region, the red ones can be dried to make decorative ristras. They are also great for roasting, making chiles Rellenos, or for use in salsas. Slightly hotter than a jalapeno (Scoville Heat Units: 5,000-7,000 SHU), it adds quite a kick to dishes and salsa but not overwhelming heat.

NuMex Joe E. Parker: This New Mexico variety was named after Mr. Joe E. Parker, a graduate of NMSU’s College of Agriculture and Home Economics who helped to evaluate this selection of chile. It originally came from one plant selected from a field of open-pollinated New Mexico 6-4 peppers. The chiles grow to about 8 inches in length and 1.8 inches in width and can be used either in their green or red stage. Although similar to the New Mexico 6-4 in flavor and heat (Scoville Heat Units: 1,500-3,000 SHU), green color, and size, it is generally preferable to the New Mexico 6-4 because of its higher chile yield, its thicker walls, and its ability to continue to produce red chiles after the initial green fruit harvest. The NuMex Joe E. Parker can be a great chile for canning whole and is excellent for chiles Rellenos or for grilling or roasting due to its thicker walls.

Red chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NuMex Heritage 6-4: The New Mexico 6-4 Heritage chile pepper was developed around 1998 from a seed bank of the original New Mexico 6-4. The original NM 6-4 which was released in 1957 had “run out” meaning that after so many years of commercial growing, it had lost much of its flavor and aroma and had increased its variability in heat levels, maturity date, and yield. Dr. Paul Bosland along with NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute and Biad Chili used seeds from the original NM 6-4 that had been frozen in a storage lab to create the new line of chile. Dr. Bosland grew the peppers for three years perfecting the line by selecting for more flavor and improved yield. The result was a chile (Scoville Heat Units: 3,000-5,000 SHU) with five times more flavor and aroma than the original and the flavor is even stronger and richer when it’s roasted. They grow to 5-8 inches in length.

Barker Extra Hot: The Barker’s Hot chili pepper is an extra-hot chile (SCOVILLE HEAT UNITS: 15,000-30,000 SHU), the hottest of the Anaheim/New Mexico variety and it has great flavor. They grow to 5-7 inches in length and can be used just as you would use an Anaheim with an extra punch. This variety originally comes from a selection of native New Mexican chiles so it naturally grows well in very hot, dry climates. The peppers ripen from green to red with the red fruits growing hotter than the green ones. The fruits have thin skins making them great for roasting, frying whole, canning, or stuffing. They also make deliciously hot salsa.

La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How Hot is Hot?

Talk about heat! The 7 Pot Douglah is an extremely hot pepper (SCOVILLE HEAT UNITS: 923,889 – 1,853,986 SHU) from Trinidad. Its skin is notably dark chocolate brown and somewhat pimpled. It starts off green but matures to a rich brown. It is one of the Hottest Peppers in the World. Aside from the color, it looks very much like other superhot chili peppers, roughly habanero shaped, about two inches long. The hottest 7 Pot Douglas is about 232 times hotter than the hottest jalapeno pepper and more than 5 times a very hot habanero pepper.

La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hooked on the Heat

My introduction to green chile came long ago at a variety of restaurants in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and Mesilla. My palate sizzled with capsaicin. Endorphins fizzed in my veins like butter. It was the start of a lifelong love affair and chiles have been a constant in my diet ever since. Once you get hooked, you can’t get unhooked. It’s an addiction, but it’s a good one.

Worth Pondering…

Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.

—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss