Szechuan Peppercorns Are The Star Ingredient For Aromatic Chili

Chili con carne in a big pot
Chili con carne in a big pot - Rudisill/Getty Images

Chili is a comforting dish that brightens up the wettest days, warms up the coldest nights, and brings nostalgic joy to many dinner tables. The history of chili is shrouded in mystery, with recipes that vary and tastes that often diverge depending on the region. Although your chili recipe may seem to be perfect, exploring new flavor combinations with different ingredients can be exciting. Why not add Szechuan peppercorns to your chili for a subtle hint of floral and citrus?

Szechuan peppercorns, also known as Sichuan or Szechwan pepper, is a delightful seasoning whose flavors defy expectations set by its name. Szechuan pepper is really a berry, so instead of conveying the familiar spicy kick of black peppercorns, Szechuan peppercorns present a warm, floral, and earthy profile. They also provide a numbing effect when introduced into food, which can reduce the spiciness of a dish, creating a slight cooling effect. They are excellent if you want a way to balance the more fiery elements in your chili recipe.

When mixed with the other spices in your chili, Szechuan peppercorns bring a unique lemony flavor that unleashes a rich, slightly bitter, and gloriously aromatic taste. Before you add Szechuan peppercorns to your chili, knowing which to buy and how to prepare them is essential.

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Making The Most Of Szechuan Pepper

Szechuan peppercorns in a wooden spoon
Szechuan peppercorns in a wooden spoon - TYSB/Shutterstock

Like all ingredients, high-quality varieties will offer excellent taste and flavor. With Szechuan peppercorns, high quality is indicated by their color, appearance, and shape. Peppercorns with a bright red or pinkish hue and a plump roundness are usually regarded as high-quality and will impart the most complex and optimal flavor profiles. It is also a good idea to check if the peppercorn pods are open, as this indicates that the seeds (a piece of the berry you usually want to discard) have been removed.

Preparation is vital to unlocking the real potential of Szechuan peppercorns in your chili recipe. A recommended way to release the flavor is to gently roast the peppercorns in a dry frying pan or skillet. You can toast them on medium heat until the pink hue darkens. Then, allow the peppercorns to cool before grinding into a coarse or fine powder. This reduces the sharp and bitter notes in the Szechuan peppers and allows the more subtle nuances of citrus to appear.

It's also recommended that if you are new to cooking with or eating Szechuan peppercorns, start by adding a small amount to your chili and build up. The numbing effect can be overpowering for those unfamiliar with the seasoning, and naturally, you want to taste your food. If you've roasted too many peppercorns, it's best to keep them whole in an airtight jar or container, as ground spices lose their freshness more quickly.

The Secret Behind These Peppercorns

Szechuan pepper tree with red peppercorns
Szechuan pepper tree with red peppercorns - alybaba/Shutterstock

The anatomy of Szechuan peppercorns is a testament to its uniqueness. As mentioned, Szechuan peppercorns aren't peppers, but rather the berry from the prickly ash tree, scientifically named the Zanthoxylum botanical genus, which has roots in the citrus family. Because of its floral aroma, the tiny berries are also referred to as "flower pepper." Their unique taste comes from the pericarps, or husk surrounding the seed, rather than the seed.

Szechuan peppercorns produce what's called a numbing effect. This is brought on by a naturally occurring molecule called hydroxy-alpha sanshool, found in the berry's pericarp. This molecule affects taste receptors in the lips and mouth with a sensation described as tingling or vibrating. In Chinese cuisine, this sensory experience is referred to as "má," which is often seen in conjunction with "là," a burning sensation often felt from eating chili. Málà is a common Sichuan flavor combination that simultaneously heats and cools as the numbing taste from the Szechuan peppercorns subdues the fiery taste of the chili. You can easily recreate this flavor profile inside your chili by using the two ingredients to balance each other.

If you're looking for an intriguing way to develop the flavors in your chili, Szechuan peppercorns are a unique ingredient that promises to unlock a realm of fusion combinations.

Read the original article on Daily Meal.