Embarking on a culinary journey through the world of spicy food is like an adventurous lifelong quest. Even if you typically tread cautiously, avoiding fiery flavors, there comes a time when an unexpected dash of spice graces your taste buds – and it’s oddly delightful. That initial jolt of fear quickly gives way to a surprising appreciation.
But let’s be clear, diving into spicy food doesn’t always mean subjecting yourself to Carolina reaper-level heat. There are ways to master the art of spiciness in your own kitchen, allowing you to use it as a complement to your dishes and an enhancer of their inherent flavors. Join us as we explore the realm of spicy food, offering tips to savor the perfect level of heat for your palate.
Start with chili oils or hot sauce
Mastering Spiciness in Your Kitchen
Cooking with hot peppers can be a bit of a tightrope walk because their fiery essence, capsaicin, tends to reveal itself with increasing intensity. In some cases, the spiciness of your dish may even intensify as it sits (beware of those fiery leftovers). So, instead of diving headfirst with a pile of freshly chopped chilies, let’s take a more controlled approach.
To ease into the world of spice, consider starting with chili oil or hot sauce. Many chili oils, like chili crisp and salsa macha, contain sizable flakes of dried chilies that can pack a punch. However, the orange oil that floats on top is milder. Simply spoon off this mild oil and swirl it into your dish to infuse a delightful warmth with just a hint of peppery bite. Save the “crisp” for later when you’re ready.
Hot sauce is a kitchen staple, available in a variety of heat levels, from mild to blazing inferno. These sauces are typically blended with ingredients like vinegar, garlic, and seasonings. They’re perfect for adding a zesty touch to your finished dish, and you have full control over the amount and placement.
Both chili oil and hot sauce work brilliantly as finishing sauces. A finishing sauce is applied to the plate after the meal is cooked and served. Drizzle a small amount over a portion of your dish, about the size of a bite or two. Taste it and evaluate the heat level.
If it’s too fiery, mix it with some of the unseasoned meal to mellow the heat. If things get too intense, you can always scoop it off your plate. But if it’s hitting the spot, continue to add the finishing sauce as you go. Remember, spiciness tends to build, so go easy at first to avoid fiery regrets halfway through your meal.
Explore fresh peppers
Introducing Fresh Peppers for Flavor and Spice
Freshly chopped peppers and chilies can be excellent additions to your cooking, contributing flavor, texture, and a dash of spiciness. Peppers come in a wide range of spice levels, measured in Scoville units, and can even take the spotlight in some dishes. While I’m not a fan of munching on whole chilies, I’d never turn down a tasty jalapeño popper.
To begin incorporating hot peppers into your recipes, start with modest quantities and opt for peppers known for their manageable heat, such as jalapeños, shishitos, poblanos, or serranos. If you’re concerned that pepper might be too spicy but you still want its flavor and a touch of heat, you can remove the hottest part.
When you slice a pepper open, you’ll notice the white or light-colored ribs that cradle the seeds in the center. These ribs can vary from spongy and thick, like those in bell peppers, to thin in smaller chilies. The spicy capsaicin is concentrated in these membranes and seeds.
For milder heat, quarter large peppers and halve smaller ones. Use a thin, sharp knife to separate the fruit’s flesh from the rib. Discard the rib if you want to avoid most of the heat, especially if it’s an exceptionally spicy pepper. To test a pepper’s spiciness, touch a piece of the cut rib to your tongue or give it a sniff.
When you add chopped peppers to a dish, their heat will infuse the entire meal. So, proceed with this only if you and your dining companions appreciate a bit of spiciness. If you want the heat to blend seamlessly throughout the dish, finely mince the peppers. For an unexpected burst of heat during your meal, coarsely chop the peppers.
Graduate to dry chilis
Handling Dried Chilies for More Flavor and Spice
Dried chilies are essentially dried versions of their fresh counterparts, and they can pack a more intense punch of spiciness. Although they contain the same amount of capsaicin as fresh chilies, the absence of water concentrates the spice. When working with whole dried chilies, chili flakes, or ground chili powder, approach them with care.
If you’re adding chili flakes or powder to a sauce, begin with just a pinch or a quarter teaspoon. Allow it to hydrate and blend for a few minutes before tasting to gauge your dish’s spiciness. Adjust as needed from there.
Whole dried chilies can be transformed into flakes or blended with other ingredients to create thick sauces like mole. Enhance the flavor of your dried chilies and chili flakes with a light toasting, either in a dry pan or with some oil.
Use low heat, taking care not to burn them, as the resulting smoke can lead to unpleasant coughing fits. Once toasted, incorporate them into your sauces, soups, chilis, stews, stir-fries, and various dishes.
If you’re being cautious or catering to those who prefer mild flavors, save the chili flakes for the finishing touch. As always, start with just a pinch, and keep it confined to a specific area of the dish, just in case.
In all these spicy applications, if your dish turns out spicier than intended, you can reduce the heat to some extent, but it will always have a hint of spiciness. To remedy an overly spicy dish, dilute it with other watery ingredients, such as a few cups of cooked vegetables or broth. Alternatively, serve it with a side dish that can help mellow out the spice, like pasta or rice.
Capsaicin, the compound responsible for spiciness, binds to fats, so if the heat becomes too much for your mouth, serve the dish with bread and plenty of butter or a cooling, full-fat yogurt dip. This will help alleviate the spiciness in your mouth. (It might head to your belly next, but that’s all part of the adventure.)