by Jodi Helmer
Andrew Garrett grew up on a small farm, picking fresh peppers from the vine and eating them raw. The experience led the self-described “chili head” to continue experimenting with peppers in the kitchen and, as an executive chef and founder of his own line of small batch hot sauces called NW Elixirs, ghost peppers have become one of his go-to ingredients.
“The hotter the chili is, the better the flavor is going to be,” the Oregon-based Garrett explains. “Ghost peppers are hot, yes, but they also have great flavor and that’s what draws me to them.”
Bhut jolokia, better known as the ghost pepper, originated in India, but, thanks to a growing appetite for unique ingredients, the once-fringe ingredient has gone mainstream. Chefs use the hot peppers in dishes ranging from salsa and pizza to chicken wings. Even fast food chain Wendy’s added Ghost Pepper Fries and a spicy chicken sandwich made with the oh-so-hot pepper to its menu.
Ghost peppers might be trending but the ultra-hot peppers, which top out at more than one million Scoville heat units (a jalapeño has just 35,000 SHU), need to be handled with care.
Beat the heat
Ghost peppers are not just potent for your palette. Handling the peppers, which are one of the key ingredients in pepper spray, could also burn flesh. Garrett’s advice: Wear gloves. “You do not want to get capsaicin on your skin,” he says.
Skip latex gloves, which are too thin, and opt for sturdier nitrile gloves. If you do get chili burn, use rubbing alcohol or dish soap to dissolve the oil.
Garrett also suggests using a sharp knife, explaining, “If you use a dull knife and you’re pressing through to the [cutting board] the liquid will splash up and hit you in the face.”
The hot chicken at Pepperfire Hot Chicken in Nashville incorporates the hottest peppers into its spice blend. Although owner Isaac Beard pays a premium to source ghost peppers, he believes the petite peppers are worth the investment.
“Despite the higher price per pound, it’s actually cheaper per heat unit,” Beard says. “It effectively takes less product to achieve the same heat level as other peppers, which allows you to not have the overall flavor profile diluted.”
To keep a dish from becoming too hot to handle, start with the smallest amount of ghost peppers and add more as needed. It’s easier to add heat than take it away.
Focus on flavor
Although it takes an estimated 135 pounds of ghost peppers to create 500 pounds of NW Elixirs hot sauce, Garrett is not aiming to produce the hottest sauces around. Instead, he uses ghost peppers to complement the flavors of other ingredients.
“You have to work with them in a way that highlights the flavor, not just the heat,” he says. “Pairing ghost peppers with salt or vinegar helps tone down the heat and lets the beautiful, bright flavor of the chili come through.”
Ghost peppers, which can be used raw, dried or smoked, also pair well with tropical, acidic ingredients, including pineapple, papaya and guava.
The Guinness Book of World Records named it the Hottest Pepper in the World in 2007, although it has since been superseded by other breeds, it’s no surprise that some hot sauce labels and menus post warnings about the oh-so-hot peppers.
At Parish Gastropub in Tucson, Arizona, chef/partner Travis Peters likes featuring ghost peppers in special dishes. Before he serves them to guests, he asks servers to sample the dish and rate its heat.
“In this area, we’re blessed with a lot of spicy foods so most of our local guests are ready for heat, not scared of it,” he says. “But ghost peppers can bring a lot of heat so we warn them, ‘This is going to be hot,’ when they order.”
Even with a warning, Beard says, “People love testing their tolerance for pain, pleasure or risk,” which means dishes made with ghost peppers will always pique their interest.