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Feeling hot, hot, hot

At the Zesty Foods Show in Austin, Texas, farmers and chefs show off the hottest peppers and the many different varieties on the market. “Today” supermarket guru Phil Lampert tells all about these hot tamales.
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Flavor has come to trump fire these days in the pepper market, but what exactly can you do with these chilies? At the Zesty Foods Show in Austin, Texas, farmers and chefs show off the many different varieties of peppers, along with how you can use them. “Today” supermarket guru Phil Lampert describes the hottest tamales and how you can get your hands on these regional delights.

IMAGINE THE largest collection of spicy, zesty, hot foods ever. It’s the annual gathering in Austin, Texas, of some of the most “mouth-burning” sauces, salsas, candies, honeys, chips, nuts, jams, spices, sausages, soups, dressings, meats… and of course chili peppers.

What makes the International Zesty Foods Show unique is that most of the exhibits are manned by the owner, recipe developer and cook — one-and-the-same and all-smallish family-run businesses with one common thread — a passion for hot, hot, hot.

Most of these products will never see their way onto a supermarket shelf. These products are more regional than national and usually sold mail order, on the Internet or in gourmet stores. Their labels are special, many hand drawn, and many with stories that “prove” what’s in the bottle is the hottest sauce you could buy.

But the trend seems to be changing. Many of the purveyors I spoke with told me how they are now moving towards flavorful as well as hot. The idea of burning the roof off your mouth just doesn’t seem to be as important these days. (By the way, for those of you who still like it as hot as you can stand — the best way to cut that burn is to drink a glass of milk).

The good news for both these manufacturers and consumers is that these products are getting more flavorful, less hot; and in combination with sweet jams, sweet relishes and even candies, zesty foods are trying to become more mainstream. This move comes just in time, as there is more competition and less product differentiation. According to ACNielsen, for the 12 months ending Oct. 5, 2002, unit sales of Chile Sauces were up 4.9 percent, Hot Sauce up 5.6 percent, Tabasco/Pepper Sauce up 10.3 percent; these sales figures are based on those products sold in food, drug and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart. For comparison, last year we bought over $340 million worth of Barbecue Sauces, while combined Hot, Chili and Tabasco sales reached only about $165 million, underscoring the potential.

The first rule for buying any “zesty” product is to read the ingredients. The type of chile pepper or extract that is used will determine just how hot the product will be. The “heat,” as a true hot-head would say, is determined by its Scoville rating. Wilbur Scoville was a pharmacologist who devised the method to determine the hotness of a chile. The higher the units, the hotter the chile.


When cooking with chilies, remember that the longer you cook the chile, the milder it will become. Here’s a guide to some of the most common chilies:

Anaheim, Green — Native to Latin America, Anaheims vary from mild to hot in flavor as well as vary in color from green to red. When the chile is red they are mature and they tend to have a sweeter flavor. Anaheim chilies are traditionally used in making chile rellenos. Heat — 1,000-1,500.

Caribe, Yellow — This hot chile takes its name from a tribe of Indians that inhabited their Caribbean growing area during the Columbus era. These chilies are used fresh in sauces or for seasoning and are processed as pickles or hot vinegar sauce. Heat — 5,000-15,000

Cayenne, Red — Not available in great volume fresh, cayennes are also sold in dry form. They are traditionally used to make cayenne chile powder, a powerfully hot seasoning used in Latin and Creole or Cajun cooking. Heat — 5,500-20,000.

Cherry Hot, Red — This chile is thought to have been developed in Hungary from the cascabel chile that originated in Mexico. Fresh cherry hots are traditionally pickled in vinegar-based brine for a condiment. Heat — 5,000-15,000.

Cubanelle, Yellow (Hungarian Wax) — This fresh, yellow pepper comes both sweet and hot. The sweet form is generally called the Banana chile while the hot variety is the Hungarian Wax. Both will turn red when fully mature. They are used fresh in salads or stuffed with a cream cheese filling for an appetizer called botanas in Mexico. Heat — 5,000-15,000.

Fresno, Red — The Fresno chile was developed in 1952 and named after the California city. Fresh green Fresno chilies are pungent and hot. Allowed to stay on the vine, they will turn red and their hot flavor will sweeten slightly. Heat — 5,500-20,000.

Habanero, Orange — Habaneros are the hottest chilies in the world — 100 times hotter than a jalapeòo. Habanero means “from Havana,” although there is evidence suggesting its origins in South America date back to 6500 B.C. Habaneros are a popular ingredient in the cuisines of Jamaica and the Yucatan. Heat — 200,000-300,000.

Jalapeòo, Green — This fresh chile originated in the town of Jalapa in Veracruz, Mexico. Their color turns from dark green to red and the skins may have sun marks or striations that indicate quality and degree of hotness. Their flavor can vary from medium hot to hot in flavor. Heat — 5,500-20,000.

Poblano, Green — Poblano is a large, fresh chile that is sometimes referred to as a Pasilla chile, which is more slender. Its dark green, meaty flesh has a mild to medium flavor and is used for making thick, rich sauces. It is also excellent stuffed with meat and cheese. Heat — 1,000-1,500.

Serrano, Green — The Serrano is the most widely used fresh chile in Mexico and the southwest U.S. It is thought to have originated in the mountain ridges or serranias, in Mexico. A serrano has a thin skin and is not as meaty as a jalapeòo. Heat — 7,000-25,000.

When buying fresh chilies, always choose chilies with smooth, firm, unblemished skins. Store refrigerated, unwrapped up to 2 weeks. And be sure to wear gloves when handling fresh chilies.


The best advice I can give when cooking hot is to experiment slowly, being sure to add the heat in small doses.

It’s not uncommon for even experienced cooks to ruin a wonderful meal by adding too much “heat.” Adding a bit of zest to almost any food will add flavor and can make an ordinary meal a bit more special.