How to Tell if a Jalapeño is Going to Be Hot or Not…

The search for the ideal jalapeño – one that will bring flavour and the right degree of heat to your dish – is a familiar one for chilliheads and culinary daredevils alike. The jalapeño, also known as the jalapeño pepper, is a chilli pepper variety commonly eaten whole, either fresh or after roasting and pickling. It is a staple in cuisines worldwide, as well as a showcase ingredient in cooking competitions. Although jalapeño peppers are often sold at moderate levels of heat, they can run the entire gamut, from mild to very hot. If you’ve never grown jalapeño peppers but are contemplating it, or if you just enjoy spicy food and want to know how to tell which pepper is hotter than the last, here are some things to bear in mind.

Understand the Heat Source

The heat in a jalapeño, and indeed in all chilli peppers, comes from capsaicin, a compound in the flesh that is most concentrated in the membranes (or placenta) of peppers, which, like a papaya, is attached to the seeds. These seeds aren’t actually the hottest part of a chilli, they just soak up the heat from the surrounding membrane. As a result, the heat of a jalapeño is largely dependent on the quantity of capsaicin in the flesh.

Factors Influencing Heat

1. Size Matters

Smaller jalapeños will generally be hotter than larger jalapeños, because they indicate that the pepper had less water and more cardamom: that is, more capsaicin.

2. Skin Appearance

Check the skin for white stretch marks or striations – these sometimes indicate a jalapeño that has been more stressed in its life, and can result in a hotter pepper. Corking marks could also be an indicator of hotness, because they often appear if the jalapeño has quick fluctuations in water availability or temperature, which stress the plant and cause it to produce more capsaicin.

3. Color Transition

Jalapeños ripen from green to red, and fully ripe red jalapeños are slightly sweeter and hotter than green ones. For the number of cultivars involved, slight advantage – selecting a red pepper could boost the odds of finding a hotter pepper.

4. Growing Conditions

In addition, the environment in which the jalapeño was grown can influence its heat level; peppers grown under hot, dry conditions will be spicier than peppers that were grown under cooler, wetter conditions, where plants produced less capsaicin. Without water, peppers will turn on the heat.

Testing the Heat

In case you’re still not certain about a jalapeño’s bite potential, take a risk and opt for a very small portion from the head. That section of the pepper is usually the mildest. A little sample from there can give you a sense of the overall heat without subjecting your taste buds to a barrage.

Cooking with Jalapeños

Wear some gardening or kitchen gloves, or put the peppers in the freezer for a few minutes first, so that you can handle them without burning your skin with the capsaicin. Removing the seeds and membrane also reduces the heat.

The Heat Can Vary

The problem with even these guidelines is that you can’t ever quite know for sure how hot a certain jalapeño will be. The amount of heat per pepper can change considerably, not just from one jalapeño on a plant to another, but even within a single pepper.

Conclusion

Knowing the possible warning signs of a jalapeño’s heat level will give you some guidance as you choose your pepper based on the flavour you want in your culinary endeavours. If you’d prefer to add just a light bite of heat to your dish, you might notice a larger lighter or more green coloured jalapeño. However, if you want to include a real fiery kick, choosing a smaller darker, and more red coloured jalapeño would be in order. Always be willing to experiment with the flavour and heat of the jalapeño in contrast to what you want in your dishes – and keep your taste buds ready to adjust accordingly.

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