A guide to cayenne pepper, a popular ground chilli spice used in Mexican cooking.

cayenne
Cayenne pepper is not actually related to the pepper spice that we know as black pepper. It is the ground powder of the dried small, thin, red, hot chilli peppers that belong to the same vegetable family (Solanaceae) as sweet peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and other types of chillies. These chilli pods, which are native to South and Central America are dried and ground down to make chilli powder and cayenne pepper.

Cayenne pepper has a deceptively mild aroma, yet has a hot and fiery taste. When using cayenne pepper in cooking, it must be used sparingly, as this spice is much hotter than it looks on first appearance.

Cayenne pepper is widely used in Mexican cooking and Cajun cuisine and has now become a staple spice of various Asian cuisines also. It is one of the components of Tabasco sauce and ginger ale, both of which are known for their fiery kicks.

The history of cayenne pepper

Cayenne peppers were traditionally grown in Mexico and South America and were both used as a food and medicine for at least seven thousand years.

The native Indians would eat these peppers as we would a sweet fruit, something that we would deem unthinkable, as who in their right mind would snack on one of the hottest types of chilli?

Christopher Columbus brought the cayenne chilli peppers back to Europe, where it was used as a cheaper substitute for black pepper, which roughly had the same value as gold in those days.

Nowadays, cayenne peppers are commercially cultivated all over the world with Mexico, China and some East African countries being leading producers.

The therapeutic value of cayenne

Cayenne peppers, as well as other types of pepper and chillies, contain a component or substance by the name of "Capsaicin". This component is known to have many therapeutic qualities, ranging from lowering cholesterol levels and preventing cardiovascular disease to relieving pain caused by arthritis or rheumatism.

The hotter the type of pepper or chilli, the higher amount of capsaicin it will contain and cayenne chilli peppers are one of the hottest types of chilli.

To take cayenne pepper medicinally, you can add ½ tsp or less per day, if you are not used to the hot taste, to fruit juice, milk or beer. Cayenne pepper goes particularly well with tomato juice, although the hotness of the spice is diluted in milk and beer.

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Some of the benefits of cayenne pepper include:
  • Cayenne is a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Vitamin K and manganese.
  • Capsaicin is a powerful anti-inflammatory.
  • Cayenne is said to relieve arthritic and rheumatic pain and inflammation.
  • Cayenne is thought to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood and therefore reduce the risk of all forms of cardiovascular disease.
  • Cayenne can be a useful cold, congestion and cough remedy.
  • Cayenne is thought to boost the body's immunity system and prevent infection and illness.
  • Contrary to popular belief, cayenne prevents the formation of stomach ulcers rather than actually causing them.
  • Hot spices such as cayenne can speed up a person's metabolism and help burn off calories much quicker.
  • Cayenne lowers the body's internal temperature, helping inhabitants of hot countries to cope with the intense heat and hot weather.
  • Cayenne prevents blood clots forming and keeps the blood thin, which is useful in the prevention of strokes and cardiovascular disease.
  • Cayenne is useful for diabetics, as it is thought to reduce blood sugar levels.
  • Cayenne is a popular stimulant, tonic and energizer.
  • Cayenne can be made into creams and ointments to be applied to the body externally in order to help heal bruises and muscle aches and pains.
  • Cayenne is an effective stimulant to the circulation, used to treat sufferers of poor circulation, cold hands and feet and chilblains.
  • Cayenne may be used to treat stomach problems such as diarrhoea, cramps and wind.
  • Some say that cayenne is the most powerful spice around.

Culinary uses of cayenne

Cayenne pepper is used liberally in Mexican cuisine, where you will find it in hot dips, enchilada sauces, spicy bean mixtures and in meat marinades.

Cayenne is also found in a great number of curries and in other Indian dishes.

In European cooking, cayenne pepper is often added to cheese or egg dishes for a hint exotic spice and can often turn plain dishes into hot and exciting dishes. Below are a number of ideas to get you started:
  • Add cayenne pepper to homemade fajitas, enchiladas, tacos, burritos or any other type of Mexican main dish.
  • Use in meat marinades and rubs particularly for chicken and fish.
  • Use in flour and breadcrumb mixtures for fried foods.
  • Use as a substitute for black pepper and keep on the dining room table.
  • Add to dips such as guacamole or hummus.
  • Sprinkle into omelette mixtures, especially cheese omelette.
  • Add to homemade burger mixtures.
  • Sprinkle cayenne over a tomato and onion salad.
  • Add to bean and pulse dishes.
  • Add a pinch of cayenne to hot chocolate.
  • Add to homemade curries, stews and casseroles.
  • Add cayenne pepper when cooking seafood and fish, in particular all types of shellfish plus salmon and trout.
  • Add to egg mayonnaise for a salad or sandwiches.
  • Add to macaroni or cauliflower cheese.
  • Use to make cheese straws and cheese scones.
  • Add to spicy biscuit mixtures.
  • Add to chilli con carne or other dishes that use chilli.

Cayenne Pepper Recipes

A selection of recipes that include cayenne pepper as one of the main ingredients or flavourings including cheese scones, spicy chicken drumsticks and jambalaya.

Spicy Chicken Drumsticks

These chicken drumsticks are coated in a hot and spicy-flavoured butter and then cooked under the grill or barbeque. For a healthier option, remove the skin before coating with the butter.

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Ingredients
  • 12 chicken drumsticks
  • For the spicy butter
  • 6 oz (170 g) of butter
  • 3 tbsp of mango chutney
  • 2 tbsp of lime juice
  • 4 tsp of cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp of ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp of freshly grated ginger
  • 2 crushed cloves of garlic
Method
  1. Preheat the grill to a medium - hot heat.
  2. Mix together all the ingredients to make the spicy butter in a mixing bowl until they are all blended together. Set aside whilst you prepare the chicken.
  3. Remove the skin from the chicken drumsticks (optional).
  4. Take a sharp knife and make several cuts down each chicken leg, cutting through the meat to the bone.
  5. Place the chicken drumsticks under the grill or onto the barbeque and cook for about 10 - 15 minutes or until they are almost cooked through.
  6. Remove the chicken from the grill and coat liberally with the spicy butter mixture on each side.
  7. Return to the grill and continue to cook for another 5 - 6 minutes, until the drumsticks are crispy and browned. Turn several times during cooking and baste with the butter mixture.
  8. When the drumsticks are done, remove them from the heat and serve hot with a fresh salad. Alternatively, allow to cool and serve cold.

Jambalaya

Jambalaya is a rice dish similar to the Spanish "paella" but of African or Cajun origin. Whereas paella may contain a lot of seafood, jambalaya is primarily made from meat, vegetables and rice.

Ingredients
  • 4 chicken breasts, cut into small pieces
  • 1 lb (455 g) of sliced spicy sausage
  • 16 fl oz (455 ml) of chicken stock
  • 10 oz (285 g) of uncooked rice
  • 8 fl oz (225 ml) tinned chopped tomatoes
  • 6 oz (170 g) of cubed smoked ham
  • 2 chopped green peppers
  • 2 chopped sticks of celery
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 4 finely chopped spring onions
  • 3 crushed garlic cloves
  • 2 tbsp of vegetable oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp of cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp of dried thyme
  • salt and pepper
Method
  1. Heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan.
  2. Add the chicken and fry gently until lightly brown in colour.
  3. Add the spicy sausage and cook for 2 minutes.
  4. Add the diced ham and fry for a further 5 minutes.
  5. Add the chopped onion and mix well. Fry for 3 minutes.
  6. Add the celery, green peppers, garlic, chopped tomatoes, chicken stock, cayenne pepper, thyme and bay leaf. Stir well and mix the ingredients thoroughly.
  7. Bring to the boil, stirring frequently.
  8. Stir in the rice and season with salt and pepper.
  9. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pan. Cook gently for 10 minutes.
  10. Remove the pan from the heat but do not remove the lid. Leave the pan to stand for 20 minutes, which will allow the rice to continue to cook.
  11. Discard the bay leaf and sprinkle with the chopped spring onions.
  12. Serve hot.

Cheese Scones

These savoury cheese scones are delicious served warm with butter. The cayenne pepper gives the scones a warm and spicy flavour.

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Ingredients
  • 8 oz (225 g) of plain flour
  • 4 oz (115 g) of grated Cheddar cheese
  • 2 oz (55 g) of butter
  • ¼ pint (140 ml) of milk
  • 2 tsp of baking powder
  • 1½ tsp of cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp of salt
Method
  1. Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C).
  2. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl.
  3. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  4. Stir in the grated cheese.
  5. Pour in the milk and mix the ingredients together until a soft dough has formed.
  6. Roll the dough out with a rolling pin onto a lightly floured surface to about ¾ of an inch thick.
  7. Cut out rounds from the dough with a pastry cutter and place them onto a greased baking tray.
  8. Bake in the preheated oven for 12 - 15 minutes or until well-risen and light brown in colour.
  9. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.
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