If you love spicy flavors and Italian food, you’ve probably already heard of Calabrian chili peppers.
They are a variety of red chiles from Southern Italy, and they’re the most important ingredient in many traditional recipes.
The reason is that they have a nice balance of spiciness, aromas, and nutritional values – which makes them good for spicing pasta and other dishes, but also a perfect choice for making chili paste and sauces. They are also used to flavor oil and vinegar (more on that later).
Here at Mortadella Head, everybody loves Calabrian chili peppers. I’ve been growing them at home for a while, and I’m very fond of my little plants.
But hey, there are so many types of peppers, and it’s hard to know them all. So, if you’ve never heard of Calabrian chili peppers, today I’m gonna tell you everything about this Italian variety and give you some food advice. Let’s start!
What are Calabrian chili peppers?
Let’s start with the basics.
Calabrian chili peppers are a variety of a species known as Capsicum Annuum. This makes them the Italian cousins of other famous varieties such as jalapeños, Cayenne, and serrano peppers.
Their official Italian name is Peperoncino Calabrese.
They owe it to the Calabria region (Italy’s toe), where they’ve been cultivated since the 16th century.
They were probably imported there by Spanish and Arab visitors/merchants after Christopher Columbus brought them to Spain. There, they found good soil and a climate suitable for growth and became an essential ingredient of local traditional dishes.
Calabrian chiles are so loved, that they have their own yearly festival. The “Chili Pepper Festival” is held every year in September and hosts courses about Calabrian peppers and tastings, as well as contests and live performances.
There are many types of Calabrian chili pepper – each with it’s own name.
It’s a common mistake to consider those name as mere synonyms, but they actually represent different types of chiles, which have different qualities and levels of spiciness.
The most notable are:
- diavolicchio – their name means “small devil”. I think it’s a perfect way to describe them. They are a little smaller than other Calabrian chili peppers, and they are the spiciest type.
- peperoncini a mazzetto – “bunch peppers”. The reason for this name is that, unlike most Capsicum Annuum varieties, these Calabrian peppers grow in bunches.
- peperoncino tondo calabrese – this type of pepper has a round shape and is very similar to Cherry Bomb peppers. It is traditionally used to make stuffed chili peppers. We’ll see more about that later.
- naso di cane – a mild type of Calabrian chili peppers that produces big red fruits shaped like a dog’s nose.
What do they look like?
Most types of Calabrian chili peppers are 1 to 2 inches long. Some specific fruits, like naso di cane peppers, can get as long as 2,75 inches.
With the exception of tondo calabrese peppers (which look like cherry tomatoes), they have a slight, conical shape, which can be curved.
When they bloom, they are green or yellow-ish, but with time they develop a rich red color (much like Acrata/Goat’s Weed peppers). Traditional growers usually let them age on the vine until they show a slightly wrinkled exterior, which means that they’re fully ripe.
They grow in clusters on small plants that produce beautiful white flowers. This makes them a very nice home decoration.
I usually keep my plant outside in the summer – it gives my front door a whole new look. And when I bring it back inside in the fall, it makes my office so much brighter.
If you’re looking for an original domestic plant, you should try that. Just make sure your plant gets enough sunlight!
How spicy are they?
Most types of Calabrian chili peppers have a moderate spiciness (about 20,000 – 30,000 Scoville Heat Units on the Scoville scale).
This means that they are around 10 times hotter than jalapeño peppers (2,500 – 8,000 SHU) and a little less hot than a fresh Cayenne pepper (30,000 – 50,000 SHU).
They won’t give you an immediate or intense burn. They will rather fill your mouth with a nice, warming heat after the first bites.
However, there are milder and hotter types.
For instance, naso di cane and tondo calabrese peppers usually range around 3000 – 10.000 SHU. Diavolicchio peppers, on the other hand, are usually above 50.000 SHU.
Much depends on the type of soil and the amount of light and water used.
Some claim that a good diavolicchio can reach up to 150.000 SHU, if it is cultivated well. Is it true? I guess the only way to check that is to try as many chili peppers as you can 😉
Speaking of that…
What do Calabrian chili peppers taste like?
Calabrian chiles have a fruity taste, with some smoky flavors. This makes them a perfect ingredient for chili sauces, or for pasta dressings and ragouts.
Their moderate spiciness will accentuate all the other aromas in your food. Let’s see all the ways you can enjoy them.
What to eat with Calabrian chili peppers?
Calabrian chili peppers have many applications, whether cooked, raw, or dried.
Traditionally, they are used to season first courses and cured meats like nduja (a local type of spreadable meat that I highly recommend) and soppressata di Calabria.
They are also used to make Calabrian chili oil, which is one of the things I love most in the world. I use it on pasta and meat whenever I have some, and I think that a bruschetta with chili oil and crispy pepper flakes makes a perfect afternoon snack.
Another great traditional seasoning made with them is Calabrian chili paste, a spicy cream made of chiles, salt, and oil, which can be used on sandwiches or grilled vegetables.
And if you like stuffed chili peppers, take some tondo calabrese, cut them on the top, remove their seeds, and fill them with tuna or anchovies. It’s a typical Calabrian summer dish.
Then, of course, you can also use Calabrian peppers to season any pasta dish.
They are indeed the most important ingredient in a very famous Italian meal: pasta all’arrabbiata. You can use them as a powder, or stir-fry them in oil and tomato sauce.
Many people also use them to make chili jams and spicy cakes.
Finally, when raw, Calabrian chili peppers taste very good with chocolate and hummus. There is really no limit to how you can use chili peppers, and the people from Southern Italy know that really well.
Want to know another yummy way to use diavolicchio chiles? Next time you make some coffee, spray on it some whipped cream mixed with chili powder and enjoy.
This was nearly everything you need to know about Calabrian chili peppers and their use in Italian cuisine.
But maybe you have some other questions related to their storage and health benefits. So let’s cover these two aspects as well.
Are they good for health?
As I wrote before, Calabrian chili peppers have a moderate spiciness (about 30,000 SHU on the Scoville scale) and a fruity, smoky flavor, but these are not the only features for which they should be praised.
Their nutritional values make them a very healthy spice. Calabrian chili peppers are, indeed, rich in vitamins A, B-6, and C. They also have high quantities of potassium, iron, magnesium, and capsaicin – a chemical compound good for circulation and digestion. And finally, they are renowned for having antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
However, they’re not a magic formula and can have some downside effects too.
Eating too many chili peppers (not only the Calabrian ones) can cause a burning sensation and stomach pain. Moreover, some researches suggest that excessive consumption of capsaicin may increase the chances of developing cancer.
So, it’s always better not to exaggerate and to taste this treat with moderation.
How to store Calabrian chili peppers?
If you’ve just bought or picked some Calabrian chiles and don’t want to eat them all at once, here’s how to preserve them.
If you’re planning on eating them all within 3 weeks to a month, you can store them in the refrigerator. This will allow you to make them last longer than if you left them at room temperature.
However, it’s always good to open them and check that they are not rotting before using them. If the seeds are turning black, or if you notice any dark spots, I recommend not eating them.
I personally prefer to pick them straight from the plant (or buy them) in the amount I need and eat them fresh, but there are other ways.
(For instance, someone in the comments pointed out that you can simply freeze them as you pick them – a much simpler solution that will mantain their freshness for longer.) 😀
Another great way to store Calabrian chili peppers for a long time, is to dry them at a low temperature and then keep them them (whole, crushed, or turned into powder) in a closed container away from humidity. With this method, you can get some fantastic homemade chili seasonings.
Anyway, if you do decide to try it out, I recommend that you use a dehydrator, as it can take days to dry a diavolicchio well. This way you’ll be sure that you’re doing everything correctly and avoid unwanted mold growth. Here’s a more complete article on how to properly dry chili peppers.
Finally, many people store Calabrian chili peppers in oil or vinegar. However, if you decide to do it at home, you should educate yourself about the botulinum risk in oil preserves/canning and learn all the ways to prevent it. If you wish, I’ll be happy to point you to reliable sources in the comments.
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What is good substitute for Calabrian peppers?
If you can’t find Calabrian chili peppers, here are some alternatives that can serve as a good substitute:
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes: These are widely available and can provide a similar heat level. They don’t have the same smoky, fruity flavor, but they will work in a pinch to add spiciness to dishes.
Fresno Chili Peppers: Fresno peppers are similar to Calabrian chili peppers in terms of heat. They are a bit more tangy and less smoky, but can work well as a substitute, especially in fresh applications.
Serrano Peppers: Serranos are hotter than Calabrian chili peppers but can be used if you’re looking for a significant kick. Their flavor is more green and less fruity.
Peperoncino: These Italian chili peppers are quite similar in terms of heat and flavor profile. They can be used in whole, flake, or oil form, much like Calabrian peppers.
Aleppo Pepper: While milder, the Aleppo pepper offers a sweet and slightly smoky flavor that can mimic the depth of the Calabrian pepper’s taste.
Remember, when substituting peppers, consider both the heat level and the flavor profile to make sure it fits with your specific recipe.
Our recipes with Calabrian chili peppers
And to end on a high note, here are some of our recipes in which you can use Calabrian chili peppers!
- Spicy Aioli: Calabrian Chili Pepper Mayo;
- Sauteed dandelion greens;
- The Authentic Amatriciana Pasta Recipe;
- The Screaming Sicilian;
- Pasta with ‘Nduja & Ricotta Cheese;
- Easy Roasted Broccoli Rabe Recipe;
- Penne All’Arrabbiata;
- Easy Pepperoni Pizza Lasagna;
- Spicy Rigatoni Alla Vodka.
If you want some more, just ask me in the comments and I’ll be happy to share them on this blog.
I hope you found this post useful, and that I made you wish to taste some of the foods I mentioned.
And if you have some chili advice for me, please let me know. I’ll be happy to try it out! 😉