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  • Writer's pictureElise

Virtual Cook Book Club: December's Spice Is Red Pepper Flakes!

Updated: Apr 15, 2023

We've made our cook book club virtual! We may not be able to meet in person and cook for one another, but that doesn't mean we can't create together. Each month we will highlight a different spice or seasoning. Kits will include this spice, a recipe that highlights it, a little history on the spice or recipe, and some best practices. I'll post the recipes and information here as well, so let's get cooking!


A Little Illumination on Red Pepper Flakes

Adapted & abridged from Bon Appetit, Epicurious & Pepper Scale

While we tend to think of it as innately Italian, red pepper flakes are actually essential to a lot of cuisines. They are often to be found in African, the Middle East, Asian (all over the continent), Mexican, Jamaican, and numerous others. In fact, one of today’s recipes is fairly standard Thai sauce. If it doesn’t have kick, you haven’t done it right, although variations on exactly what goes into it are extensive.

Cooking with Red Pepper Flakes

Adapted & abridged from The Spice House, Web Grower, The Tasting Table & Epicurious

What gives red pepper flakes it’s kick is a chemical called capsaicin. Capsaicin is a chemical found exclusively in plants of the Capsicum genus in differing concentrations. That is why some peppers are hotter than others. They are often referred to as falling somewhere on the Scoville Heat Scale. The larger the number, the hotter the burn. Also, as capsaicin is more concentrated in the seeds and pepper flakes do include those, that is where you get even more heat.

To give you some idea of how this stacks up, here are some Scoville scores to compare:

Bell Pepper 0 Pepperocini 100-500 Ghost Pepper 800,000-1,001,300 Pepper Spray 2,000,000-5,300,000 Pure capsaicin 15,000,000-16,000,000

In comparison, red pepper flakes range from 15,000-45,000. The peppers used to make the flakes were originally 1,500-4,500 so nothing hotter than a Jalapeno or cayenne was used in its creation. It just so happens that dehydrating peppers causes them to get spicier by a factor of 10.

Here are a couple of tips for cooking with them:

  1. Adding red pepper flakes at the beginning of cooking will give the dish some heat

  2. Adding red pepper flakes at the end will give it a subtly spicy, fruity edge.

  3. Sifting the flakes over your dish instead of shaking them on will create a more even distribution of flavor, especially for those more delicate dishes like fish or pasta where too much can cover up the other flavors.

  4. This last tip should be a no brainer, but like everything in the kitchen, the fresher the better. Capsaicin does break down over time resulting in less intense flavor. So if that jar of red pepper flakes has been sitting in the back of your spice cabinet for a few years, it might be time to replace it with something newer.

The Main Event - First Course:

Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce

As adapted and shortened for the Brown Deer Library Cook Book Club courtesy of Genevieve at

Prep: 10 minutes * Cook: 10 minutes * Total: 20 minutes Servings: 16 (2 Tbs each) * Yield: 2 cups

This peanut sauce is very flavorful, with lemon, ginger, and quite a bit of heat. It's good with satays, stir-fries, rice bowls, or good as a dip. Don't be afraid to add more or less of the spices, just add to taste! Store in the fridge up to one week.


2 tsp vegetable oil

1 large clove garlic, finely minced

1 Tbs minced fresh ginger root (about an inch or so)

3/4 cup hot water

1/4 cup peanut butter, or more to taste (more equals better in this recipe)

1/2 lemon, juiced

2 Tbs Thai-style sweet chili sauce

2 Tbs hoisin sauce

1 Tbs soy sauce

1 pinch red pepper flakes, or more to taste


  1. Heat vegetable oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook and stir garlic and ginger in hot oil until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add hot water, peanut butter, and lemon juice to the saucepan; stir until smooth. Stir chili sauce, hoisin sauce, and soy sauce into the peanut butter mixture.

  2. Reduce heat to low and cook sauce at a simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes; stir.

The Main Event - Second Course:

Sautéed Kale with Garlic & Olive Oil

As adapted and shortened for the Brown Deer Library Cook Book Club courtesy of Emily Farris in Food & Wine Magazine

Active Time: N/A * Total Time: 15 minutes * Yield: Serves 6

This easy sautéed kale with garlic and olive oil gets a slight kick from red chili flakes. It's a fantastic side dish and becomes a real meal when tossed with al dente pasta.


  • 3 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil

  • 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

  • 1/4 tsp red chili flakes

  • 2 bunches of kale, rinsed and dried, ribs and stems removed, leaves thinly sliced crosswise

  • Kosher salt

  • Fresh ground black pepper


  1. In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the garlic and chili flakes and sauté for two minutes, until the garlic just begins to brown.

  2. Add the kale in batches and toss to coat with oil. When all of the kale is added to the pan, cover and sauté for 5 minutes.

  3. Remove the lid, season with salt and pepper, and continue cooking for 3 minutes, or until the moisture has mostly evaporated. Serve immediately.

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