They look innocent, don’t they?August 8, 2006
Yes, they look innocent. All green and shiny. But they can be a bit tricky for the uninitiated. Sure, you could take your knife and go after them willy-nilly and bear no ill results. But one careless rub of the eye will make you sorry you didn’t read my husband’s primer on how to handle jalapeños. A quick perusal of this, and you’ll approach these chiles with the confidence of the Dog Whisperer confronting a yappy Chihuahua. (Don’t you just love the Dog Whisperer? He’s freakin’ amazing. We don’t even have a dog.. yet I’m glued to the set.)
How to handle jalapeños.
You can handle jalapeños without much problem. The tips below are just precautions and a helpful guide. I regularly rough chop jalapeños and don’t have issues. But these precautions could be especially necessary when you cut into nuclear-hot chilies such as Scotch Bonnet/habañeros or serranos.
What do I do?
When I first started cooking, my favorite cuisines were southwestern and Cajun. I really enjoyed the heat. Of course, this meant I had to handle a number of chilies. And I quickly learned what not to do. The most memorable lesson came when my wife and I were making a large batch of salsa for a family affair. Her index finger became so soaked with jalapeño juice that she made a shocking discovery when she later went to bite her nail. Yes, spicy finger. It sounds exactly like what it is. So here are some lessons:
1) Don’t touch your eyes after you have begun.
You will regret this. You will burn your eyes. So contact lens wearers WASH YOUR HANDS THOROUGHLY after you’re done. Otherwise, when you take out or put in your contacts later, you’ll regret it.
2) The heat is inside.
The heat from the pepper is on the interior of the fruit. If you pick them up or hold them, you shouldn’t worry unless the pepper is somehow broken.
3) The heat is primarily in the white placenta (that filmy stuff you see when you open the pepper up… the membrane-like thing).
While there is some heat in the flesh and the seeds, the heat production is primarily concentrated in the white interior flesh, called the placenta. You can reduce the heat of your salsa by removing this white area. Try scraping it out with the tip of a spoon or even laying the pepper flat and running the blade of your knife under the rib. Removing the seeds will also help.
4) Cover your hands.
With a jalapeño, this isn’t vital — but it is the single best way to prevent transfer of the spicy stuff to your fingers. The ideal would be something like a surgical glove. Get a cheap pack of them and put them in the drawer with the Ziploc bags and tin foil.
Then again, you could improvise — which is what I usually do. My favorite “glove” is just my hand in a sandwich bag. One hand in the bag while holding the pepper, the “ungloved” hand chopping the pepper. This keeps the transfer to a minimum. You could wrap your hand in plastic wrap for the same effect, I suppose. The overall goal is to keep your hands’ contact with the interior chile to a minimum.
5) Wash your hands!
This is a sound rule for cooking in general. You will find that really washing your hands eliminates your chances of regret. And I don’t mean you should rinse your hands. Wash them. Think of yourself as about to do surgery and really give them a good long scrub with soap and hot water.
What is a jalapeño?
A jalapeño is a type of fruit. “No!” you say. “Yes!” I say.
A jalapeño is a fruit because it bears seeds and is part of the reproductive process of the plant. It is from a broader family associated with other chilies that come from South America for its production of capsaicin. See below, for an explanation of capsaicin.
If it’s a fruit, why is it called a pepper or a chile?
The name game for these plants is difficult. “Pepper” in American English has come to mean any capsaicin-producing fruit. These would include the myriad things you see in the vegetable bonanza of your supermarket — including bell peppers, jalapeños, serranos and habañeros. The term “chile” is more accurate. It’s also where we get the name for our stew chili.
Why is it hot?
Capsaicin. This is the chemical compound produced by the placenta of the plant that is used to protect the seeds. According to Harold McGee, a well-known super food geek extraordinaire (aka famous food scientist), the capsaicin is produced to protect the plant’s seeds from mammals that find it spicy and burning. This allows birds to eat the fruit and spread the seeds more broadly. (See, McGee’s book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen).
Consuming capsaicin causes a series of chemical responses. The mouth tingles and burns, the body temperature becomes elevated, and a series of other more complex reactions associated with eating something spicy hot begins to occur.
How hot are jalapeños?
In the scheme of things, they aren’t that hot. The traditional way of discussing the “temperature” of a chile is by listing it in Scoville units.
Jalapeños are relatively low on the scale at 2,500 Scoville units. Compared with a bell pepper, which can easily register a 0, that seems hot. But common hot peppers such as tabasco, cayenne and serrano are all easily 4 to 20 times hotter. For those commercially common, the King of Heat is a habañero (aka a Scotch Bonnet). This registers at nearly 150,000 Scoville units.
The general rule is: the smaller pepper, the more intense the heat. Habañeros break that rule a bit (though they are smallish). Luckily, they tend to come in road-cone orange, so you’ll know you’ll be lighting up whatever dish you put them in.
On that note, I’ve used a habañero a couple of times when making a large pot of chili. One chile, sliced open and then later removed before serving, sends the dish into serious heat territory. Yes, that little chile does the trick. So be sure you like really spicy before you use really hot peppers.
If you have questions please send them, I’ll do my best to find you answers.