The habanero pepper is named after the Cuban city of La Habana, known in the U.S. as Havana, because it used to feature in heavy trading there. It is related to the Scotch bonnet pepper; they have somewhat different pod types but are varieties of the same species and have similar heat levels.
The habanero pepper grows mainly on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, where it is now thought to have originated, though it also grows in other hot climates including in Belize, in Costa Rica, in parts of the United States, and in Panama where it is known as the aji chombo.
Once the Spanish had discovered it, they spread it far and wide around the world, so much so that taxonomists in the 18th century thought it originated in China and therefore named it “Capsicum chinense” or the “Chinese pepper.” If anything, this pepper’s popularity is even more on the rise today.
Before maturity the habanero is green, but as it ages its coloring ranges from yellow-orange to orange to bright red, depending upon when its harvesting occurs, and it can even appear pink or dark brown. Its size ranges from 1 to 2-1/2 inches in length and from 1 to 2 inches in diameter, and its shape, like that of the Scotch bonnet, can be compared to that of a Scottish Tam o’ Shanter hat. Both types of pepper also typically have flesh that is thin and waxy.
The habanero pepper, with its terrific heat, its hint-of-citrus flavor and its flowery aroma has once again become a well-loved ingredient in many preparations including hot sauces and other spicy foods. In Mexico, the habanero pepper is sometimes soaked in tequila or mezcal bottles for days or even weeks in order to make drinks even fierier.
Did we talk about how hot the habanero peppers can be? The habanero pepper is one of the hottest chili peppers around in terms of popularity and of Scoville units. While many habaneros range from a still-eye-watering 200,000 to 300,000 Scovilles, some habanero peppers have ranged from a scorching 450,000 to a blistering 600,000 Scovilles, thus knocking the socks off of the popular jalapeño pepper that usually ranks from 2,500 to 8,000 Scovilles. To test the heat of your pepper, you can try taking a sliver and tasting it, and even chewing it up if you feel the initial taste is safe enough. Always remember, however, to handle the habanero with care; some experts even say that wearing gloves alone is not enough but that the gloves and cutting board should be cleaned with bleach and/or detergent after cutting the peppers to avoid spreading their capsaicin. To decrease the heat of the habanero before adding it to your dishes, you can remove the seeds and even the placental tissue.
There are a number of varieties of habanero peppers, ranging in ripe colors from orange, red, yellow, chocolate brown, and even white, though some growers argue that anything but the Orange Habanero is not a true habanero. The most popular Orange Habanero typically measure between 100,000 SHU and 350,000 SHU, with most falling in the range of 200,000-300,000 SHU. In comparison, the jalapeno pepper ranks in with 2,500 - 8,000 units. Would you like to learn more about the Scoville Scale? Check it out at Chili Pepper Madness.
The habanero pepper can be preserved simply by washing and drying the pods and then freezing them in a plastic bag. Alternatively, after pureeing them with vinegar, the peppers can be preserved in a refrigerator for several weeks. They can even be dried in the pods after you slice them in a vertical fashion to remove the seeds, and then run them through a food dehydrator. Following drying, they are fine to store in jars or, again, in plastic bags in the freezer. Dried or smoked peppers should properly be rehydrated for approximately half an hour before you use them, or you can grind dehydrated peppers into powder as well - though remember to wear a dust mask, of course! The habanero pepper goes well with many dishes including added raw to soups and salads, and it appears in lots of salsas and hot sauces with a little going a long way.