Webster’s Dictionary defines cayenne pepper as “a pungent condiment consisting of the ground dried fruits or seeds of hot peppers.” The use of this spice by the native peoples of the tropical Americas goes back thousands of years, although its introduction in Europe came much later.
Native Americans south of the Mexican border used cayenne as far back as 700 BC. Aztec royalty considered a treat of red chilies and chocolate delectable. And Columbus introduced the herb to Europe and compared its taste to that of the “black pepper.” In fact, Columbus is said to be the first person to have categorized cayenne as a pepper.
Today, there are over 150 different types of hot chilies cultivated around the world. The Aztec Herbal includes what is believed to be the first documentation of cayenne. The plant, described in detail, was used by the Aztec people as a remedy for toothaches and scabies.
Forty-five years later, in 1597, John Gerard mentions the plant in Gerard’s Herbal. A botanist, Gerard cited cayenne by the name “Indian Pepper,” also known as “ginnie.” It is said that Gerard was so respected by the people of his time, that his writings were used as late as 1912 in botany lectures at the University College in London.
Herbalist Nicholas Culpepper also mentions the spice in his own herbal, published in 1642, referring to cayenne as “this violent fruit,” and declaring it an aid to “help digestion, provoke urine, relieve toothache, preserve the teeth from rottenness, comfort a cold stomach, expel the stone from the kidney, and take away dimness of sight.”
Cayenne, although not the hottest of peppers (30,000-50,000 Scoville units), it is the type that is most commonly used medicinally. From super down to medium-hot, the fruit is full of color – Columbus originally brought the plant to Spain for its decorative value – and spices up most any recipe nicely, in addition to supplying the body with necessary and beneficial nutrients.
Like most varieties, cayenne peppers are quite easily cultivated. At maturity they stand up to three feet in height, and span approximately two feet in width. The plant bears an abundance of fruit, and therefore the average household would be more than aptly furnished with enough peppers for both themselves and their neighbors.
Need a place to store all of those chilies and chili flakes, once you’ve dried them? Check out Foodal’s review of the best spice racks.
Cooking With Cayenne
Cayenne’s uses in the kitchen are endless (unless you prefer a milder spice). A welcome addition to meat sauces, goulash, fish, shellfish, soup (check out Lynne’s Chicken Posol), vegetable dishes, and fiery Cajun and Creole cooking, the spice should be used with an easy hand, and extra care.
Naturally spicy, cayenne should be simmered for hours and allowed to blend with your recipe’s other ingredients before serving. The hottest parts of the pepper are located in the fruit’s seeds and interior, so if you’re looking for a more mild flavor, remove both before using.
If it’s a fiery dish you’re hungering for, by all means, use the whole pepper. If you’re not sure, keep a slice of bread nearby to reduce the sting. Contrary to popular belief, a cold drink will not relieve your burning mouth. Try butter, milk, or celery instead.
If you realize the dish is too hot before serving, the spiciness can easily be lowered by adding potatoes, noodles, or coconut – along with these other cooling foods that help balance excessive spiciness.
These might just make the soup a bit more like stew, or make the chili con carne a chili-mac, but in the end it’s all about making the meal enjoyable – do what you have to!
Therapeutic Properties of Cayenne Pepper
On the medicinal side, cayenne has been experimented with for centuries, and continues to be used for its valuable therapeutic properties.
A stimulant, it aids in digestion, helps normalize blood circulation, tones the nervous system, and helps to relieve pain and inflammation.
High doses of vitamin C and beta carotene quickly convert to vitamin A when they’re consumed, which is good for eye health.
Large amounts of capsaicin (an alkaloid) are also present, something that the Gale Encyclopedia of Cancer credits with reducing pain, suppressing cancer cells, and possibly even containing chemo-protective properties, documented in its use with cancer patients.
Cayenne’s essential oils stimulate the skin, but when using its oils, take care not to burn yourself. Click here to read more about using essential oils in cooking. Never use cayenne oil on sensitive skin or mucous membranes.
Therapeutically, fresh or dried chilies are preferable, and far less irritating to the skin than peppers that have been cooked. Its properties as a warming spice are particularly beneficial for those suffering from arthritic joint pain.
A plaster can be used, made with three tablespoons of white flour, one teaspoon of olive oil, and one teaspoon of the ground spice.
Add enough water to create a paste, then simply cover the skin with a thin piece of cloth, spread the mixture over the cloth, and add another cloth on top (just like making a sandwich). Once you’re plastered, sit back and enjoy the natural warmth, and the relief it provides your aching joints.
In essence, for those of you who like it “hot,” this spicy choice not only provides a happy palate, but a happy body as well.
As with any remedy, check with your doctor before using this herb for any type of therapeutic or medicinal purpose.
Looking to bone up on your knowledge of herbs and spices? Be sure to check out Foodal’s complete guide!
The Gale Encyclopedia of Cancer, Ellen Thackery- Editor, 2001