Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ingredients: Ghost Chilis

Left to Right: Habaneros, Serranos, and Ghost Chilis
Earlier in the month, one of our Facebook friends very kindly offered to share her chili harvest with us so we could include them in some of our culinary adventures. We've tried to grow our own chilis here in California before but didn't have much luck. Unlike where we lived in Montana when we grew that fantastic vegetable garden that one summer, Monterey isn't all that great for growing things like peppers. It's not hot enough or dry enough. Our friend, on the other hand, lives in Arizona, so she didn't have that problem, as you can see from the picture above.

We were especially excited to try the ghost chilis so we could finally see what they're really like. We've seen all the food shows where people eat impossibly hot ghost chili chicken wings on a dare and we've seen all the YouTube videos where people eat the damn things whole and then proceed to wish for their own death on camera. We've certainly heard all the warnings about these things being the hottest chilis in the entire universe save for one or two others, so yeah.

Being the food nerd and professional content writer that I am, I've even done my fair share of personal research on ghost chilis and wasn't able to find much on them that wasn't equally discouraging. For instance, these things apparently aren't even considered fit for human consumption in countries like India. (In fact, they use ghosts as elephant repellent there.) Food bloggers and recipes that use ghost chilis also seem to be virtually non-existent, as hardly anyone save for the most hardcore of chili heads seems willing to try them.

I couldn't wrap my mind around something like a chili pepper truly being all that bad though. I mean... sure, I figured they were hot, but I didn't buy that they were impossible to cook with or that they didn't really have any merit as legitimate ingredients in real food people can actually enjoy. Seth and I have spent a little time lately getting to know ghost chilis though and now I'm here to record our findings for anyone else who'd like to try them as well, but would prefer to know what to expect first.

Ghost Chili Turkey Burger
For our first experiment, we tried fine-chopping a single ghost chili and adding it to a pound of ground turkey along with some basic seasonings to see how that went. (We're big believers in enhancing our hamburger mixtures with tasty extras, don't you know.) This burger was absolutely fantastic. Yes, the ghost chili added a lot of heat -- especially for being such a small pepper -- but I wouldn't say that it added so much heat, the average person who enjoys a spicy hamburger wouldn't have been able to tolerate it. We didn't cry or wind up with indigestion either.

Later in the week, Seth and I decided to turn up the dial a little bit, because we really do like our food pretty spicy and we're capable of handling a lot of heat. Seth scored some Kobe beef patties from the store and added two ghost chilis (along with onions, barbecue, and some other fixings) to them. Now... that was much hotter. Don't get me wrong. It was just right for us and certainly something other heat lovers might like to try, but probably a lot spicier than the average person would like.

I also put some of the ghosts -- along with some of the other peppers -- in a chili we made with the leftover scraps from our Christmas duck last night. It was a huge hit with Seth when it made it for Christmas for us a couple years back and... hey. You can't not make a chili when you have ghost chilis on hand. This was a pretty substantial pot of chili that involved two whole bags of dried beans, two jars of tomato sauce, and a double helping of chili seasoning, so I added two ghosts, three serranos, and a habanero. The heat level was awesome -- quite spicy, but honestly not so spicy that you felt like you could barely eat it.

As you can see from the heat scale above, ghost chilis are pretty far up there when it comes to actual heat units. (They're the same thing as "bhut jolokia", just FYI.) I've seen other charts that list one or two other really new, really rare peppers higher than ghost chilis, but for all intents and purposes, the only thing that's really spicier than a ghost is actual pepper spray. And yes, they're really fucking hot. 

However, I think it's worth noting as someone who's tried a bunch of the chilis from the upper end of the scale there, it's less that they're hotter than other peppers and more that they're hot in a different way, if that makes any sense. Peppers like ghosts and habaneros are spicier, so a little goes a long way, but they tend to add a heat that lingers at the back of your palate as far as the overall taste of your foods go and and they don't add as much to the overall flavor of the food. Jalapenos and other similar peppers seem to produce a heat that really demands center stage and is a bigger part of how the dish ultimately tastes. 

For that reason, I really like the hotter chilis for adding heat without overwhelming a dish flavor-wise. For stuffing and other purposes that will require consuming the pepper in larger amounts, something like a jalapeno or a poblano is generally going to be a better choice (although I personally do enjoy stuffing habaneros sometimes as well.) Ghost chilis in particular add a very distinctive "peppery" taste that actually reminds me a lot of the way Tabasco sauce tastes -- perfect for adding to chilis, Mexican dishes like enchiladas, or any other dish where you'd like to add a spicy, peppery note to the mix.
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