With Halloween fast approaching, we’d like to take a moment to spotlight a decidedly spooky ingredient that’s been turning heads in the culinary world for the last decade or so. Though they’re not native to Texas or Mexico, ghost peppers have gained popularity among Tex Mex connoisseurs due to their incredible heat—and thus their ability to produce new, “extreme” takes on queso, chili, and other old favorites. The name of this fruit may suggest that they belong in some kind of myth or fantasy story, but ghost peppers are very real…and a bit dangerous, if you don’t know what you’re getting into!
“What are ghost peppers, anyway?”
Ghost peppers, also known as Bhut jolokia, are a variety of chili pepper originally cultivated in eastern India. They’re usually between 2.5 and 3.3 inches in length. They come in a relatively wide range of colors, including red, orange, yellow, and brown. Ghost peppers are oblong in shape with a pointed tip, meaning that they resemble cayenne peppers more than they do jalapeños.
“Are ghost peppers really that hot?”
Short answer: yes.
Longer, more detailed answer: Yes, they are. While different people have different degrees of tolerance for spicy foods, a generally agreed upon method of expressing spiciness is in the form of Scoville heat units, or SHU. The Scoville method is not the most accurate way of measuring the amount of capsaicinoids in a substance, but it is one of the oldest and most common. Thus, you’ll likely see “SHU” when everyday folks (as opposed to scientists and other experts) are comparing assorted peppers.
According to the Scoville scale, bell peppers typically clock in at 0 SHU, poblano peppers are between 1,000 and 4,000 SHU, and jalapeños (and chipotle peppers) can be anywhere from 3,500 to 10,000 SHU. Tabasco sauce tends to reach a respectable 2,500 to 5,000 SHU.
So, how hot are ghost peppers? Well, the Scoville numbers for these little devils can easily reach 855,000 SHU, and some have been measured at more than a million SHU. That means that even “mild” ghost peppers are about 85 times hotter than the hottest known jalapeños! Diners who adore spicy foods will likely have to endure sweating, hiccupping, watery eyes, and trouble breathing after ingesting one, and those who are more sensitive to capsaicin may experience vomiting, diarrhea, and (in extreme cases) respiratory arrest.
“Let’s say I want to try eating ghost peppers. How should I do it?”
Well, the absolute first step should be to stop and think hard about whether or not you really, really want to try them. Re-read the last paragraph of the previous section and then do a web search for “ghost pepper injuries” to arm yourself with knowledge. You may also want to watch a few reaction videos on YouTube to drive the point forward.
If you’re still determined to give ghost peppers a try in spite of these scare tactics, then our best advice is to be careful. Try eating a single bite or two instead of shoving an entire pepper in your mouth at once, and keep in mind that it can take between 30 and 45 seconds for the heat to actually “kick in.” Have a bottle of milk or a large bowl of ice cream ready; this will help soothe your lips, tongue, and throat if the heat becomes unbearable. Wear latex or nitrile gloves to protect your hands when handling the peppers, and consider using disposable utensils if you need to do any cutting or slicing.
Once you know how you react to ghost peppers, you can then decide whether or not you’d like to try integrating them into your favorite Tex Mex recipes—after all, this ingredient may be the key to preparing delicious, extremely potent hot sauce or salsa. Just make sure that you warn other people before they sample your creations, as there are recorded cases of folks needing to go to the hospital after eating ghost peppers.
It’s worth mentioning that, contrary to popular belief, ghost peppers are not the hottest pepper known to man. In 2011, Bhut jolokia was dethroned by the infinity chili, and the infinity chili isn’t even the current record holder, either. We’ll let our readers decide whether this is an astounding example of mankind’s ability to innovate, or just proof-positive that our species doesn’t know when to quit.
Depending upon your personality, hearing about ghost peppers (or, even scarier, actually thinking about eating them) may make you feel nervous and a bit sick, or morbidly curious and excited. That’s okay, people often have the exact same reactions to consuming horror media—and we all know that that genre isn’t for everyone. So whether you wouldn’t try a bite of ghost pepper for a million dollars, or you’re already planning to eat one and record your reactions, do whatever makes you happy!
And remember: if you start to feel a little too creeped out or uncomfortable with Halloween revelry, you can always come to Mattito’s for classic Tex Mex comfort food!