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The chile guide from long, mild greens to tiny firebombs.

IN THE DUSTY SHED, HATCH chile grower Jim Lytle tries to explain what makes chiles hot. He slits open a Big Jim and slices off a piece of the plain green flesh. "Taste it." It's sweet and mild like a green pepper. "Now take a look at the rest of this chile. See these yellow threads running down the side veins? Touch your tongue on one of those veins." I lick the tip of my tongue across the yellow threads. Instantly I feel the burn: sharp and persistent. "Capsaicin," he says. "Makes them hot. It's found in the placenta of the chile, the part just under the stem where the seeds attach, and down the ribs or veins. People think the seeds are hot; they just taste hot because they rub against the parts that hold the fire. When you roast the chiles, the capsaicin tends to spread throughout the flesh." To tone down the heat, remove veins and seeds from chile.

Can you tell if one chile is hotter than another just by looking at them? Sometimes.

Variety makes a difference. Some varieties are naturally hotter than others; it's in their genes. Big Jims generally are milder than Espanolas and 6-4s are milder than Jims. But varietal differences really apply only to pure breeds. Lots of home gardeners plant different varieties side by side; they cross-pollinate and you get an unknown mixed-up hybrid.

Often, but not always, size indicates heat. Generally, smaller varieties are hotter than larger ones, because they have less flesh in proportion to the amount of veins. If you make a green chile sauce with mild 6-4s and find it disappointingly mild, try adding a few smaller hotter pepper varieties such as jalapeno or serrano.

Where the chiles are grown also affects heat level. Those produced in cooler, wetter climates tend to be milder than ones grown in hot, dry conditions. So most experts agree hotness really results from a combination of factors--genetics, size, and growing conditions.

Yet old-time farmers will throw in another theory. They claim the chile's heat reflects the mood of the person who planted it. If he was angry on that day, the peppers will be fiery hot; if in a happier mood, the chiles will be mild. It is just another theory to explain the mystery of chile heat.

As I depart, Lytle's mother rides by on her scooter. She stops and hands me a piece of dried greenish leathery pulp. I chew on the tough slab--spicy, slightly hot, and surprisingly sweet. "It's a dried peeled roasted green chile. It's next best to fresh or frozen green chiles. Just soak it in water until it swells three to four times its size, then use like a roasted green chile. Transplanted New Mexicans love it, and we can even send it to Saudi Arabia. It costs more; takes 3,200 pounds of fresh green chiles to make 100 pounds dried." Another gift to chile fanatics--maybe they ought to call it green chile jerky?

The veins tell all

Hot blood runs through chile veins. Yellow veins down sides of chiles hold capsaicin, compounds that make chile hot.

Shape can influence heat in some varieties. Long green New Mexico chiles have a vein running down the center of each side. Cross section shows flatter pepper on left has two sides, two capsaicin veins; three-sided pepper on right has an additional vein. The pod with more capsaicin is likely to be hotter.

Measuring the heat

Back in 1902, pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville from the Parke Davis Pharmaceutical Company developed a method to measure the power of capsaicin. He needed a way to measure the heat of the peppers used in making the muscle salve Heet. In the original test, Scoville mixed ground chiles, sugar, alcohol, and water, then a panel of five tasted it and gave it a value. The number was based on how much you had to dilute the chile before you could taste no heat. Now computerized technology replaces human tasters. The scale ranges from zero for bell peppers to 150,000 to 200,000 for the hottest habaneros. Pure capsaicin rates 15,000,000.

What's mild, what's hot?

Based on Scoville ratings, a simplified scale of 1 (mildest) to 10 (hottest) is also often used to assign general heat levels to different pepper varieties. On this page, you'll find Paul Bosland's heat scale and Scoville ratings for chiles grown in New Mexico; grown in another area, they can be hotter or milder. Keep in mind the scale is only a general guideline; a wet or dry year, hot or cool weather, and cross-pollinating can modify the rating.

Cooking with chiles

In New Mexico, learn how to cook with chiles in a class. For directions and recipes on how to cook with New Mexico chiles.

Santa Fe School of Cooking and Market, 116 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe; 983-4511. Offers 2 1/2-hour demonstration classes in traditional and contemporary New Mexican cuisine; lunch is included. In a farmers' market class, students go to the market to buy fresh produce, then return to the school to cook it. Reservations advised for all classes; prices start at $25.
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Date:Sep 1, 1993
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