Turn up the heat with in-season Aussie chillies

Guest editor and MasterChef Australia judge Melissa Leong asks the burning questions about chilli to Coles grower Lance Fitzgerald, who offers top advice on the red-hot favourite.

Lance Fitzgerald

Lance Fitzgerald advises to taste the chilli and consider how it fits into the flavours you’re going to be cooking with.

When it comes to building the foundations of flavour in a dish, you can’t go past chillies to turn up the volume. Whether you’re making ragu, salads, curries or even a dessert, adding chillies guarantees to bring a flavour kick to any dish.

There are few who know more about how to grow (and eat) chillies than chilli farmer Lance Fitzgerald. His aptly named Blazing Saddles chilli company began as a retirement hobby, growing a few pots of chillies with his two sons Liam and Callum. Twelve years later, Lance’s hobby has turned into a full-blown business and the next huge chapter of his life. 

Currently growing about 250,000 chilli plants across eight main varieties from their hot house farm in Mariginiup, just north of Perth, Western Australia, Lance, his family, and farm partner Hung Pham now supply Coles with everything from birdseye chillies to Carolina Reapers year-round.

From advice on how to handle the heat and how to use them in cooking to the best way to store these tiny little firecrackers of flavour, Lance gives us the lowdown on chillies.

How to choose a chilli

Like all good produce, it’s about flavour first. Rather than going for sheer eye-watering heat, Lance advises to taste the chilli and consider how it fits into the flavours you’re going to be cooking with. His favourite? “Birdseye – it has a beautiful flavour. Habanero is also a winner. It’s got a different flavour and is slightly hotter,” he says.

In case you can’t tell, Lance is a fan of chillies that have a bit of sting. “I could eat hot chillies three to four times a day,” he says. “Even if I go to a restaurant, I take chillies with me in my pocket!”

When choosing chillies, Lance’s advice is to look at the stalk. If the stalk is dry, or has fallen off completely, the chilli is best used in preserving rather than adding to your cooking. “The first thing I look for is how fresh the chillies are, that it’s got a nice healthy green stalk. The fruit has to be full and plump, and not dehydrated in the middle,” he advises.

Keep your chillies chilled

As for storing chillies at their freshest, simply keep them in the fridge and away from air. An airtight container is perfect, or if the chillies come in a punnet, you can leave them as is. And if you’ve got some chillies left over, freeze what you don’t use. To do it, place chillies in an airtight container and store in the freezer for up to 3 months. Forget thawing the chillies first – you can chop or slice from frozen and add straight to your cooking. They’re fantastic in recipes that need a little heat, such as soups and curries.

Adding chillies to your cooking

When integrating big flavour in food, from dressings to curries and stir-fries, chillies add a fruity kick and signature heat to a dish. Cooking with chilli might seem daunting to most, but Lance encourages people to just get stuck in – within reason, of course. “The three things I put in a pan before I even think about what I’m going to cook are chilli, garlic and shallots,” says Lance, adding that garlic and chilli are particularly good mates.

Learn to handle the heat

If you’re keen on building your chilli tolerance, Lance has some words of wisdom. “Don’t be a hero, because you will never win!” he laughs. And not all chillies are created equal – so just because you can handle the heat of cayenne, it doesn’t mean you can tolerate habanero. So go slow (for chilli heat rankings, see right) and, if in doubt, a little chilled yoghurt on standby never hurt anyone.