The mighty capsicum (botanical name for pepper) has been named 2016 Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association. As a result, these remarkable pods will be in the spotlight for their health benefits as well as for their incredible endorphin rush.
Capsaicinoids are the naturally occurring compounds that give chile peppers pungency and heat. Every type of pepper has a unique taste – from slightly floral, fruity, sweet, and spicy to pungent – and each type has a heat rating that is based on the kind and intensity of the capsaicin it contains. For example, peppers that contain only nordihydrocapsaicin (NDHC) will present a mellow, warming effect that recedes quickly and lingers briefly at the front of the mouth. In contrast, the explosive heat and pungency of pomodihydrocapsaicin (HDHC) produces a strong numbing, burning sensation in the throat and back of the tongue that is more intense and lasts longer.
Chile heads (lovers of hot peppers) have long known that the hotter the chile pepper (and the more capsaicin it contains), the greater will be the endorphin rush they experience. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus – when released they cause a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. By triggering endorphins, capsaicins work as natural painkillers along with boosting memory function.
How to Gauge the Heat
Want to eat more chiles but are afraid of their blazing bite? I have two tips for helping you enjoy the incredible benefits of chiles. First, get familiar with the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) system of measuring the heat in chile peppers. The Scoville Scale is a standard measurement of the heat in chile peppers; it measures the concentration of capsaicin (the constituent that causes the skin and mouth to tingle or burn) in every type of pepper and assigns it a number from 0 to 5 million.
Secondly, start cooking with peppers that are low on the Scoville scale and begin to work your way towards a higher rated pepper. Sweet bell pepper types rate 0 to 1000 Scoville Units, which means that they are delicious (red bell peppers are sweeter than green), with no discernable burning, but are not high in capsaicin. Hungarian paprika is only slightly hotter, with 1,500 units, but it imparts an apple note that is perfect for stew and goulash dishes, or in vegetable stir-fries. Poblano chiles and New Mexican types move up the scale to 7,000 SHU and are roasted or stuffed and baked for a mildly hot experience that dissipates quickly.
My goal, when I began to grow, buy, and cook with chile peppers was to become comfortable eating cayenne peppers, which flare from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU. This is a reasonable goal to set because, as I point out below, you will enjoy significant health benefits from adding one fresh (or dried) cayenne pepper to smoothies, soups, stews, stir-fries, or other dishes at least three times per week.
I’m happy to say that it didn’t take long before I was inching my way up to Habanero type peppers, which register between 80,000 and 150,000 SHU. Then my friends at Shady Acres Herb farm in Minnesota sent me some Bhut Joloka (aka Ghost) chiles that they had grown. Although Carolina Reaper chiles register higher in SHU (1,600,000 to 2,200,000 SHU), Ghost chiles are still considered to be incendiary, combusting at 855,000 to 2,199,999 SHU. I dried my cache of Ghost red hots and sometimes, when I am feeling adventurous, I slip on a pair of disposable gloves, snip off a quarter-inch piece of pepper and dice it into teeny granules which then get added to a chowder or curry dish. This ingredient never fails to deliver the famous chile-rush.
Health Benefits of Cayenne
Being exceptionally high in vitamin A, which acts as an antioxidant to help fight aging and cell damage, cayenne peppers, and all others above them on the Scoville Heat scale, deliver an incredible array of healing gifts. Buy or grow them and use fresh, or dry and crumble them into all kinds of dishes (see “Cooking with Cayenne” below).
Here is what you can look forward to once you begin to enjoy the buzz of cayenne conflagration:
• Anti-inflammatory action – reduces the pain and swelling of arthritis. Cayenne cream or salve is applied topically to treat arthritis and muscle pain;
• Lowers cholesterol – and triglyceride levels for heart health;
• Fights bacteria and viruses – with its high vitamin C content;
• Increases circulation – by improving blood flow and stimulating sweating (an important process of detoxification). A tea made of warm water, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper is an excellent morning beverage for total body health;
• Anti-fungal properties – soak feet in warm water with one tablespoon powdered cayenne pepper to help alleviate athlete’s foot.
• Aids digestion – capsaicin stimulates the digestive tract and may give relief to people suffering from peptic ulcers by stimulating blood flow that nourishes the gastric mucosal membrane;
• Helps relieve allergies – and acts as a decongestant by stimulating the release of mucus from respiratory passages;
• Reduces blood clots – and can be used as a first response for wounds to stop bleeding.
Cooking with Cayenne
The active components that fire up chiles are the capsaicinoids, which are concentrated in the placenta, the thin white membrane surrounding a spongy white centre found in the middle of the pepper, to which the seeds are attached. According to Tucker and DeBaggio, “The pure seeds themselves contain none, or up to 10 percent, of the total capsaicinoids; the heat on the seeds primarily arises from contamination from the placenta.”
These extremely irritating components transfer easily, not only to the seeds, but to your hands, the knife and the cutting surface, and anywhere you touch with your hands, like your eyes or lips. When harvesting, handling, and cooking with hot chiles, use disposable gloves and avoid touching your face and eyes. After handling, wash hands, knives and countertops thoroughly in hot, soapy water, and rinse well.
Start with small amounts, but use cayenne pepper often so that you can gradually increase the amount with which you are comfortable. Here are some starting guidelines:
• Whole, fresh or dried: One cayenne pepper (ribs and seeds removed) in a recipe will be hot enough for a two to four-person serving dish.
• Dried, ground: A pinch and up to 1/4 tsp cayenne seeds or powder is sufficient for two to four servings. Taste and add more, if required.
A key flavouring and condiment in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, Harissa is never far from a Moroccan, Libyan, Algerian, Turkish, or Tunisian table. In fact, it is the go-to seasoning for many cooks in the region. Often it is added to soup, stew and curry dishes or tagines, used with meatballs, or rubbed into kebabs and other meats before grilling.
The main ingredient is cayenne (or other hot chile peppers) and while it is easy to make from fresh or dried hot chiles, it is also widely available in cans or tubes, or freshly prepared in tubs in Middle Eastern or North African markets.
Dairy products (in particular yogurt), and the starch in pastas and couscous, help to dial the heat down and so they are often paired with harissa and other hot chile dishes.
(Makes 1/2 cup)
- 12 cayenne, serano, or jalapeno chile peppers, fresh or dried
- 3/4 cup boiled water
- 1 Tbsp cumin seeds
- 2 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 piece (2-inch) cinnamon, crushed
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
The name sounds daring, and the brew is ablaze with the energy of healing ingredients. This natural sinus, cold and ‘flu folk remedy has been home-brewed for eons by herbalists, naturalists, and anyone who has learned of its efficacy. Grated horseradish root, garlic, onion, ginger, and hot peppers are the main ingredients that are steeped in organic unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, but you can develop your own amounts and combinations. Before my horseradish plant grew large enough for me to actually dig the roots, I developed the following simple and very potent blend. Now I add the horseradish, but you can omit it if you can’t find fresh root.
See the Resources section for a link to herbalist Rosemary Gladstar’s Fire Cider method  and visit the Mountain Rose Blog  to read about this well-known herb supplier’s Fire Cider.
If you are passionate about protecting the rights of individuals to make and use folk remedies and folk names without the threat of having those recipes or names being trademarked, you might be interested in following the trademark battle between three small business owners who are being sued by a company that has trademarked the term, ‘Fire Cider’. You might even opt to support their cause by making a donation. See the Resources section for the website that explains the grassroots movement to cancel the trademark on ‘Fire Cider’. 
(Makes about 4 cups)
- 25 whole fresh cayenne peppers
- 1 head garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
- 1 cup fresh ginger, grated
- 3 – 4 cups raw unfiltered apple cider vinegar (ACV)
- Optional Ingredients:
- 2 cups fresh horseradish, grated
- 6 sprigs fresh rosemary, horehound, thyme, sage, parsley
- 2 onions, chopped
Sweet and hot, we add a dash of sour to this ultimate of comfort foods. Add parsley or other fresh green herbs, or add shredded, cooked chicken for a hearty meal. (Makes 4 to 6 servings)
- 3 Tbsp coconut oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 jalapeño pepper, chopped
- 1 fresh or dried cayenne pepper, minced
- 2 Tbsp gluten-free flour mix or all-purpose flour
- 1 can (400 mL) coconut milk
- 1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
- 2 potatoes, scrubbed and cubed
- 2 cups frozen corn, organic preferably
- 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional)
- In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, jalapeño, and cayenne pepper, cooking and stirring for four minutes or until onions are soft.
(Makes 1 cup)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 slice candied ginger (or 1 Tbsp fresh ginger, grated)
- 1/2 red onion
- 15 cayenne peppers
- 12 fresh or dried lemon verbena leaves (or 4 stalks lemongrass, minced)
- 6 sprigs fresh cilantro (or flat-leaf parsley)
- 3 sprigs fresh rosemary (or 1 Tbsp minced kaffir lime leaves)
- 1 tsp Malabar Black peppercorns, cracked
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
 Tucker, Art and Thomas De Baggio, The Encyclopedia of Herbs. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2009
 Rosemary Gladstar, video of her Fire Cider method: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JU8U0bDmXks&feature=youtu.be
 Mountain Rose Blog: http://mountainroseblog.com/fire-cider
 Fire Cider Grassroots Movement: http://freefirecider.com
 Heinerman, John, Ph.D. The Health Benefits of Cayenne. New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing Inc., 1997