Andrea Lynn is a freelance food writer and recipe developer, who spent a couple years as Senior Editor at Chile Pepper magazine, where she developed and tested recipes for the spice-obsessed audience. This spicy expertise landed her on Martha Stewart Radio discussing her recipe for Sriracha Wings and as a bhut jolokia expert on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Also, she wrote weekly blog posts on fiery food for Serious Eats. In addition to still contributing to Chile Pepper, her past gigs have included recipe editing for MarthaStewart.com, plus editorial and corporate recipe development. She is the author of the recently released, The I Love Trader Joe’s College Cookbook.
Gina: Do you have any advice about using chili powder vs. fresh or dried chiles for making chili? Is one better than another?
Andrea: I think it can be a personal preference. I think the average chili competitor knows this but I think it should be pointed out that chili powder purchased in the grocery store isn’t what you’re looking for. It’s a combination of chiles—most of which you may not know the name or are just throwaways. At the end of the day, it just doesn’t have a ton of flavor.
I’m in love with New Mexican Red Chile powder, so I often reach for that if I’m making chile using chili powder. If I have more time for the chili recipe, I’ll most certainly use dried chiles—usually a variety of them—and then remove them after they are hydrated, remove the seeds, add them back into the base, and puree. I think that dried chiles add more of a complexity to the dish. Also, if you toast the chiles prior to using them in the chili, it adds even more of a layer of complexity, which I feel like is what you are after in a bowl of chili. When someone tastes the chili, they know it’s outstanding but can’t pinpoint what makes it so. As for fresh chiles, I’ll use them mostly to garnish the chili – depending on the spice level I want, I might pump it up with fresh chiles to top the chili.
Gina: Can you recommend any good online sources for chile peppers?
Gina: What tools does one need to create one’s own chile blends?
Andrea: The first step is to know what you like. Taste a blend of spices and figure out what suits your palate. For me, I realized I like a little spiciness to be combined with the smoldering smokiness of spices like smoked paprika or chipotle powder. Experiment until you get a blend you like. Then, toast dried chiles just briefly in a sauté pan to deepen the flavor, and use a spice grinder (also known as a coffee grinder) to make a blend.
Gina: If one wanted to make “five alarm” super spicy chili, what would be the best chile peppers to use?
Andrea: Habanero or—if I dared—bhut jolokia powder.
Gina: Please walk me through the steps that you go through as a professional recipe developer when you taste a bowl of chili. What criteria do you use to evaluate it? Do you have a special technique for tasting? Is there a part of the tongue that’s best of tasting spice?
Andrea: As a recipe developer, part of it depends on the criteria of the recipe. Sometimes, it needs to be a bowl of chili made in a hurry or it needs to be under a certain amount of ingredients. But—no matter what the criteria—I always aim to make a bowl of chili that differs from ones I have created previously. It’s the name of the job—I always want to experiment with ingredients that are new to me or different techniques, which translates into eating a bowl of chili unlike what I have tasted or made before.
To evaluate, I think it’s important to keep two things in mind: Cleanse your palate with dairy products so the heat hasn’t built up and you can have an accurate measure of the taste. Secondly, get the feedback of others.
Gina: What are the health hazards of cooking with chile peppers and tasting chili and what precautions and antidotes do you recommend? Can a person die from ingesting too much hot pepper?
Andrea: When dealing with chile peppers, always make sure to wash your hands repeatedly (and, yes, I’ve been guilty of touching my eyes with chile residue on my hand and regretting it very much). If you are dealing with using a large batch of chiles, invest in a box of latex gloves for the kitchen and use them. Also, know your tolerance—both in terms of how much heat you can take and how your stomach reacts to it.
I use dairy products to ease the pain of a chile overload on my tongue—sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt, or milk. As far as I know—no, you can’t die from ingesting too many chiles. I wrote a post on it because I was very curious, but the doctor seemed to say that the worst thing that would happen is your stomach won’t be a happy camper.
As far as an antidote, once I was using Scotch bonnets and vinegar to make a hot sauce. I had the window opened but I guess cross-ventilation is important because the fire in the air from the chiles was so strong that tears were streaming down my face. And my roommate and her boyfriend ran out of the apartment coughing and wheezing. Yeah, I can’t say they were too thrilled with me at that moment!
Gina: What are the most interesting “secret ingredients” you’ve come across in chili recipes?
Andrea: Hmmm, I think peanut butter is a weird one that I’ve come across. (Of course, I’m not the biggest pb fan, so that could be why it sounds so odd to me.) Other ones are cocoa powder or chocolate, coffee/espresso, grape jelly (a man I interviewed swore by the grape jelly add-in), cloves, raisins.
Gina: What’s your personal favorite kind of chili?
Andrea: I made a Double Pork Chili (which has both chorizo and pork ribs) with Cornbread Croutons that is one of the favorite chili recipes that I’ve created.
I would say though when I first started working at Chile Pepper, the green chilies were a revelation to me. I had never been exposed to green-based chilies as a kid, and I fell in love with them. Nothing beats the nostalgia of a bowl of red, but green chili comes a pretty close second.
Gina: Why do you think people love spicy food?
Andrea: I think there’s a certain addiction when it comes to spicy food; you’re always striving for spicier, smokier, and/or that nasal-clearing burn. Whether it’s the tingle of a Szechuan pepper or the sting of a habanero, it’s all very crave-worthy.
Gina: So many people are passionate about chili. Why do you think that is?
Andrea: Everyone has a way they make chili—their own special way of doing it, their own blend of meat, the with-or-without beans factor, and a secret ingredient or two. It’s a source of pride—your own original concoction of ingredients that makes your chili the best.
Gina: Why do chili cook-offs matter?
Andrea: Throughout all the interviews I’ve done with chili cook-offs winners, the things that appeared over and over were passion and camaraderie around the cook-offs. At some level, it became about so much more then just a pot of chili or perfecting a recipe to win, but it was about the friendships that had formed over the years.