Habaneros are in season, those wicked little hot peppers that clock in at 100K - 580K Scovilles.* They taste of fruit and smoke—really a yummy pepper—but their heat puts them well up into the “biohazard” range. I’ve been working up improved methods for dealing with them.
Here’s the principle: Capsaicin, the molecule that makes hot peppers hot, is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn’t like water. Safely handling habaneros isn’t just a matter of wearing rubber gloves and never touching your face (though you do have to wear rubber gloves and avoid touching your face). Less obviously, you want to avoid having lots of habanero come into contact with water that isn’t heavily loaded with detergent. If you’ve ever handled metallic sodium, you know the drill, except you use olive oil instead of kerosene.
I was once cooking with habaneros and maintained proper procedures right up until the end, when I absentmindedly took the big wok I’d been using and ran it under the kitchen tap. It seemed like only a few seconds had passed before I heard Patrick start coughing, two rooms away. I went to him, eyes streaming, and told him that we were going eat out that night while the air cleared.
What I do with habaneros is use them to make a big batch of hot pepper oil once or twice a year, and then use the oil in my cooking, a drop at a time. Capsaicins are much better behaved in oil. It simultaneously picks up the hot pepper flavor and buffers it—sort of smooths it out and spreads it around. The result is still hot, but the burn has a nice long slow buildup and fade, without that raw feral bite that makes you want to scrub your tongue.
Equipment: A large glass jar (I used recycled spaghetti sauce jars) that will fit in your microwave oven. A tight lid for the jar. Rubber gloves, which you will infallibly wear every time you’re handling habaneros. (Goggles aren’t a bad idea, either.) A metal strainer. A microwave oven. Lots of dish detergent. Lots of paper towels. Utensils that aren’t made of wood, unless you’re planning to throw them away afterward. Optionally, an aerosol degreasing cleaner like Orange Clean or Xenit—it’s handy for the cleanup phase.
Ingredients: Fresh habaneros, half a dozen to a couple of dozen, depending on your tastes and ambitions. A big bottle of fresh olive oil. (I just used up a quart.) It doesn’t have to be virginissimo, but it does have to be fresh. Additional flavoring materials to suit your fancy (see below).
I like to freeze my peppers first. It makes them more inert when you process them, they give up their flavors more quickly when they’re cooking, and it means you can make hot oil when it pleases you.
Wash the peppers when you get them home. If you have an outdoor water tap, consider washing them there. Don’t stem and seed them. Just get the outsides clean. If you’re going to freeze them, wait until they’re reasonably dry, then pop them into a plastic bag and put it in the freezer.
When you’re ready to use them, take your large glass jar and fill it half full of olive oil. Lay a plastic grocery bag or other disposable covering on your cutting board. Take each frozen habanero, holding it by its stem, and give it one quick whack with a sharp knife, making sure the cut penetrates the inner cavity. Toss the pepper into the bottle of oil. Continue until the jar is close to full, or until you run out of peppers. Add more oil if needed. Don’t fill the jar all the way. If your peppers don’t all fit, wait a bit; the peppers already in the jar are going to be collapsing soon, which should make room for the rest.
Plain habaneros will give you a satisfactory result, but if you want to get fancy, you can toss other flavoring agents into the olive oil. Some congenial additions: rosemary, citrus zest, coarse black pepper, garlic, ground coriander, plain unsweetened cocoa powder, a small pinch of cinnamon, and maybe a teeny bit of cardamom or allspice. If you dry and process your own herbs, this is a good use for the leftover seeds and stems.* If you have a particular commercial spice mixture you like, you can put in a good big pinch—olive oil will pick up anything.
Put the jar into the microwave and nuke it until it just starts to bubble, then let it sit a little while. The air inside the chiles expands and escapes when they’re heated, creating a mild vacuum when it cools. This sucks olive oil into the chile. Add more frozen peppers and nuke it again in a leisurely and episodic fashion. Whatever you do, don’t let the jar boil over, unless you fancy having to clean up a biohazard spill. I nuke my jars for a minute or two at most, and watch them the whole time like a cat at a mousehole.
Nuke and cool, nuke and cool. Add more peppers, if you’ve got them. Add more oil, if there’s room after the peppers collapse. One batch of peppers can flavor two batches of oil, if you want to make that much. Eventually, though, you’ll start feeling bored by the whole thing, which is as good a sign as any that it’s time to strain off the oil. Do so. It’s okay to press the cooked pepper mass to get more oil out, even if some water-based stuff gets squeezed out too. If you decide the oil isn’t ready yet, you can just pile everything back into the jar and run it through a few more cycles.
How to taste-test your oil: Dip something thin and pointy into it, like a skewer or a fork tine. Pull it out and let all the oil drip off. Lightly touch it to your tongue. Count to ten. If you can’t feel the heat yet, try a slightly larger sample. If you’re convinced that the oil isn’t hot enough yet, take a pair of scissors, stick them into the cooked pepper mass, and snip repeatedly until it’s chunk-style, then reheat and cool it a couple of times. If it still isn’t hot enough, you bought the wrong kind of chiles.
When the oil is satisfactorily flavored, dump everything out into a strainer. While it’s draining, wash and dry your jar. Pour the oil into the jar, put the lid on tightly, and set it in the refrigerator upside-down. When the oil has cooled and hardened, remove the lid and pour off any water that has risen to the bottom. Make sure you get every drop. If need be, pat the surface dry with a paper towel. Put up your finished oil in a nice bottle. Smaller bottles of it make good gifts for other capsaicin junkies.
Cleanup: Either put an oily dish dry into the sink, squirt it generously with dish detergent, and then run water into it, or have a good strong mix of detergent and water already standing, and drop the dish into that. I like to wash everything, then zap it with a degreaser, then wash it again.
How to use: Carefully, possibly using an eyedropper—though Beth Meacham has been known to take a spoonful of the stuff straight, first thing in the morning, to rectify her humours and make her joints stop hurting.