Cayenne peppers are pretty hot little guys, so being able to identify them in all their different forms is important if you don’t want an unexpected mouthful of fire. Ripe cayenne peppers are characteristically bright red in color and look like a crooked finger, which explains why they are nicknamed "finger chilies." Once ground into fine powder, cayenne is characteristically reddish-brown in color.
Cayenne peppers are named after a region in French Guiana, South America, where they commonly grow, although they are also found in India, Africa, Mexico and the southern United States. The peppers are the fruit of the perennial Capsicum frutescens plant, a vine-like shrub that grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions. Cayenne and similar hot peppers were introduced to Europe and then around the world after the Spanish conquest of the Americas during the 15th and 16th centuries. On a “hotness” scale of 1 to 10, cayenne peppers are usually ranked as an 8 or 9 by culinary experts, depending on the number of seeds eaten, as the seeds are hotter than the flesh. In terms of flavor, cayenne peppers are hot, pungent and biting with a slightly dusty bouquet.
Fresh Cayenne Peppers
On the vine, cayenne peppers actually appear as many different shapes, sizes and colors, although the ones picked for commercial sales are typically small, slender, slightly crooked and red to yellow when ripe. The peppers are usually between 4 and 6 inches long, about 1 inch in diameter, thick fleshed, somewhat wrinkled or withered-looking and attached to a thin green stem. In contrast, cayenne peppers grown and picked in the summer months are usually larger and green in color, but these are not as common in grocery stores or markets as the bright red varieties. Cayenne peppers are eaten raw, dried, roasted and pickled. They are commonly found in spicy salsas and sauces.
Once dried, cayenne peppers can be ground into a fine powder and sold as a spice. The more seeds used in the process, the hotter the powder. Cayenne powder is typically dark red or red-brown in color, although most brands are not pure, as manufacturers often combine other varieties of peppers. Cayenne powder looks similar to chili powder, which is used to make stew-like chili, but they are quite different. Chili powder usually combines some cayenne powder with garlic, onion, cumin, black pepper and paprika. Cayenne powder is one of the strongest seasonings you can buy at a mainstream grocery store, so it should be used sparingly.
If you are brave and can tolerate eating them raw, cayenne peppers are a good source of nutrition, as they contain ample vitamin C, beta-carotene, antioxidants called flavonoids and capsaicin. Capsaicin consumption is linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and it’s also a common ingredient in arthritic creams. Cayenne powder should be kept in a dark container because it deteriorates quickly in sunlight.
- Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition; Benjamin Caballero et al.
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
- Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Reference: Evidence-based Clinical Reviews; Catherine E. Ulbricht and Ethan M. Basch
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.