By Alyssa Clough

Published on May 6, 2016

Pin It
Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

as far as we’re concerned, the hotter the better.

written by ALYSSA CLOUGH
illustrations by PHUONG NGUYEN

You either love or hate spice—and there’s really nothing you can do about it. Now, if you’re one of those people who favor milder flavors, we don’t think you’re lame. We only kind of think you’re lame. Just kidding (not really). All jokes aside, spicy food lovers are a serious bunch. No matter what you’re consuming, you’re always in search of the next hottest dish that will numb your tastebuds…. Or at least a new flavor combination or cooking challenge. For all our spice addicts out there, we called on our favorite chefs, bloggers, and general food experts to get all of their advice on the hottest peppers, their go-to spicy dishes, and what to do if you’re just plain bored with your current spicy fare. Keep reading for information that’s sure to make you sweat—whether it’s now or in the kitchen.

First, meet the chefs.

Pin It
Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

Adding red pepper flakes or the ever-popular Sriracha to your finished dish is a go-to for most of us lazies who crave spice. Thankfully, these chefs are sharing a few lesser known ways to add spice that you need to consider.

“One of our secret weapons at Catch is wasabi. We use a freshly grated wasabi root to season lots of our dishes here at catch. It’s magical when blended with a little soy sauce and a touch of honey to use as a dressing or as a great dipping sauce.” – Chef Beatty

“Wasabi, Sambal Oelek, Szechuan peppercorns.” – Spicy Southern Kitchen

“Ginger, wasabi, horseradish, or dehydrated peppers!” – Chef Andino

Pin It
Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

SPICES EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE ON HAND:

  • Ground Cayenne pepper
  • red pepper flakes
  • ground cumin
  • chipotle chili powder (has so
  • much more flavor than regular
  • chili powder!)
  • Paprika
  • garlic powder
  • chili powder
  • hungarian paprika
  • onion powder
  • Salt
  • crushed black pepper
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Sriracha Lemons
  • whole peeled garlic

Are you a TRUE spice addict? Kaplan might have you beat—he has a spice shelf in his refrigerator.

“I also have a “red” shelf in my refrigerator that’s designated for all things hot and spicy. Among some of my favorites that I always make sure to have on hand are Sambal Oelek (Southeast Asian chili sauce), Gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste), and Valentina (Mexican hot sauce).”

Pin It
Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

The pepper comes in 3 forms:

Kaplan said, “All of these products can be applied to different cooking styles and techniques to offer heat and spice, but also add a depth of flavor and sometimes interesting textual notes.”

1 – Dried, like chili flakes and powders.

2 – As a sauce, like Sriracha.

3 – As a paste, like chili paste. 

Pin It
Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

Know before you buy:

Hottest on top

Least hot on bottom

Ghost

You’d be wise to never consume a ghost pepper.

Habanero

“Habanero peppers are the hottest peppers that are readily found at stores. They pair nicely with sweet flavors. Use them in fruit salsas or in a peanut butter sauce for grilled beef or chicken skewers.” – Christin

Cayenne

Serrano

According to Chef Andino, the serrano will provide a nice mild to medium spice.

Jalapeno

The chefs are in agreement, Jalapenos are the most versatile of the bunch.

Poblano

“They have a mild flavor and are great for stuffing or using instead of bell peppers.” – Christin

Banana

Bell Pepper

If you’re like, “I will NEVER retain any of that info” (though we think you should obvi bookmark this), there’s an easy trick you can remember.

Kaplan shared that as a general rule for chilies, the size of the pepper tends to correlate with the spice level. The smaller the spice, the hotter the taste. Let me simplify that for you even more: Smaller = spicier, or hotter.

He said, “Take for instance a poblano, which is big in size, but carries very little to no heat at all…. As opposed to a habanero, which is about 1/8 the size, but will leave your lips burning from the high level of heat it carries.”

Pin It
Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

Now, for our rookie cooks. What part of the spice do you actually cook with?

Answer: It’s your choice. But beware, different parts of the pepper provide different levels of heat.

Chef Beatty reminded us to always destem the pepper before cooking or eating.

The flesh is the second spiciest part and carries the majority of the flavor.

The seeds are by far the spiciest (due to oil retainment, according to Chef Andino), so if you’re looking for a more mild heat, discard them ASAP. The more seeds, the hotter the dish. Christin also urged us to keep in mind the texture of the dish. If you’re making something smooth, including the seeds might be awkward.

Pin It
Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

Okay, let’s get down to it. What are our panel of experts’ favorite spices?

“Personally one of my favorite spicy things to cook with is the infamous Jalapeno. It’s such a versatile chili and can be used in so many different types of cuisines. It can be extra spicy by leaving in the seeds, or quite mild by removing them. They are great raw, roasted, and grilled.” – Chef Beatty

“I am a huge fan of horseradish and love to add it to potato salad or anything creamy. Also love the smoky heat of canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Dried ancho peppers are perfect for adding not just heat and smokiness, but lots of flavor to sauces and soups.” – Christin

“Every culture has their own variety of spices and ways of adding heat to a dish. If I have the time to plan ahead, I love making Jamaican lamb stew with Yellow Curry which adds a fragrant Caribbean essence and dry mild heat.  One of my favorite dishes of all time however is Cacio e Pepe.  This simple dish takes no time at all and combines only four ingredients, pasta, butter, cheese, and loads of of freshly cracked black pepper to create one harmonious dish that leaves your mouth slightly on fire, but coming back for more.” – Kaplan

Pro tip from Christin: “Dried peppers work well in slow-cooked sauces and soups while fresh peppers are perfect for dishes with short cooking times.”

Experts had to learn lessons, too. Keep reading to see what they’ve learned over time.

“When cooking with hot peppers, always wear gloves, and avoid contact with eyes and any other part of your body that you don’t want to burn. Also peppers are organic vegetables, just like carrots or broccoli. With most things organic, no two of the same crop are going to taste exactly the same. They might look the same, and will probably taste very similar, but be aware that you need to taste your peppers and chilies before cooking with them to really be aware of their spice level.” – Kaplan

“Rule of thumb, you can always add more, but next to impossible to remove once you’ve overdone it.” – Chef Beatty

“If you add spice with fatty foods, add more spice because the fat dulls the spice. [Also,] Spiciness has more than just pepper notes…. buttery aspects, tanginess, sweetness…. Think of that when pairing things with spice!” – Chef Andino

Pin It
Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

Bored with your usual spicy fare? We have some quick fixes for that.

Meet your new favorite chili: The Aleppo, normally consumed dried, like red pepper flakes.

Chef Beatty and Kaplan both expressed a certain love for the Aleppo chili.

Kaplan said, “I’ve recently become obsessed with Aleppo pepper. Think of Aleppo as a more robust dried pepper from Turkey that has a delicate vinegar/salty-like finish and a deep earthy-red color. This has quickly replaced my old stale jar of regular crushed red pepper flakes. I sprinkle it on just about anything that needs an extra kick, whether it’s scrambled eggs, or avocado toast, or my favorite cold pizza.”

Switch out your pepper flakes for a new combination of flavors. 

Pin It
Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

Pickle them.

“I love pickling fresh peppers, such as jalapeños or serranos. It’s so easy and gives nice contrast to the heat of the chilies. Try sprinkling them on your guacamole or adding them to salad dressings to add a zip. It’s super easy; just slice the peppers really thin (keep or discard seeds, totally up to you); pack into a jar, cover with vinegar, salt, and sugar; and let sit in your refrigerator overnight. The longer you keep the chilies in the vinegar mixture the more mellow the flavor will be,” Kaplan said.