Jalapeños are a type of hot pepper, also known as Capsicum annuum. Jalapeños appear in traditional South American cuisine and are also popular around the world to add spiciness to dishes. The small green peppers are readily obtainable in most grocery stores, along with a more mild red variety. When looking for jalapeños to buy, look for moderately sized peppers of approximately three inches (7 centimeters) in length that are firm and evenly colored. Store the peppers in a paper bag under refrigeration and use within one week.
Hot peppers are an ancient food which has been cultivated for over 10,000 years throughout South and Central America. Early European explorers brought samples of the spicy fruit back with them, where it enjoyed popularity in Europe as well. The name chili for peppers originates from Nahuatl, a native South American language which was widely spoken in the area now known as Mexico.
When growing, jalapeños appear on moderately sized bushes which can grow as tall as 36 inches (90 centimeters). The plants are bright green and vine like, growing best when supported on wire frameworks. Jalapeños prefer full sun, but will grow readily in zones three through nine, as long as they are planted outside in full sun after the last frost. In warmer weather, jalapeño plants can fruit in as little as 45 days if kept well watered.
Like other members of the Capsicum genus, jalapeños are spicy because they contain a compound known as capsaicin. This colorless compound has a crystalline structure which can irritate the skin and mucous membranes, creating a feeling of warmth. Capsaicin is concentrated in the seeds and veins of the jalapeño, which can be taken out to reduce the kick or left in if a dish is not zesty enough for the cook's taste. Another famous member of this genus is the habanero pepper, a much spicier specimen.
Jalapeños appear in many traditional dishes, but can also be used to add flavor and spiciness to interesting places. Lemonade, for example, can be enhanced with a small amount of jalapeño added, and some national cuisines include a mixture of jalapeno and chocolate for a sweet yet spicy dessert. For cooks looking for a more conventional setting, jalapeños are great in Mexican foods such as guacamole, enchiladas, and salsas.
As is the case with all peppers, jalapeños should be handled with care. Wear gloves when cutting and deseeding them to prevent the capsaicin from irritating the skin on your hands or entering small wounds. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling peppers, along with the knife and cutting board used. If you become overwhelmed with heat when eating a dish seasoned with jalapeños or any other pepper, just remember that water will not help dissolve the capsaicin. Your best bet is to seek out things with a high fat and sugar content, like ice cream or sweetened cream. Be careful, common antidotes such as ice water or beer will actually make the experience worse.