The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Warm Up with Hot Peppers

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Recently I declared how I enjoyed hot peppers now more than ever. Upon that statement, my ego balloon filled with feelings of my daring lifestyle and adventuresome attitude. Just as my balloon was about to soar into uncharted territory, a co-worker commented that actually since I was getting older my taste buds were dying off and I could tolerate hotness better. I was crushed. With her reasoning, my exploits were more closely tied to bifocals than bravery.

Whether you are chronologically gifted, brave or enlightened, peppers are easy to grow, attractive in the garden and a tasty way to liven up your meals. Peppers offer tremendous variety in shape, taste and color.

Hotness or pungency of peppers is not gauged by the quantity of sweat or intensity of screams they produce, but in Scoville heat units. There are now more accurate ways to measure the amount of capsaicin, the main active ingredient in peppers, but Scoville units are still popularly used. The really hot part of a pepper is the white flesh inside. Hotness varies with varieties and growing conditions.

In Scoville units bell peppers are rated 0, Anaheim chili types are around 150 to 2500, cayenne and jalapeño are 10,000 to 18,000, tabasco at 40, 000 and habaneros at 300,000 Scovilles.

Here are just a few of the more common groups of peppers.

Bell peppers are probably the most well known pepper in the United States. The fruits are large, blocky and like most peppers start green then turn red as they ripen. Most bells are sweet and not hot. Green bell peppers are popular, but red peppers are sweeter. If you grow green peppers, just let some of them ripen to red and see what I mean. However overall production will be less with red peppers. Some other colors in bell peppers include lilac, orange, yellow and creamy white.

The fruits of the Anaheim chili group taper to a point. Most chilies are moderately hot except for the non-pungent paprika types. Paprika is the dried form of a non-pungent chili and not a particular pepper. Ancho chilies are a nice medium hot pepper stuffed for chiles rellenos. Anchos are called poblanos when fresh and anchos when dried.

Cayennes, a subgroup of Anaheims, are more slender and irregularly shaped with wrinkled thin walls and highly pungent. Cayennes are used in pepper sauces and as a powdered spice.

The highly pungent fruits of the jalapeño group are small, bullet shaped and smooth skinned often with a network of corky lines on the skin.

One of the hottest peppers available is the habanero. Habanero 'Red Savina' is reported to be the hottest at 100 to 300 times hotter than jalapeños. Habaneros are small gnarly looking things that pack a punch. They need a long hot season to produce a fiery crop.

Pepper plants are warmth lovers and will not tolerate extended periods of temperatures below 50°F. Don't even think about putting peppers in the garden until the soil and air has warmed in about mid to late May. Sweet peppers grow well at temperatures between 65 and 85°F, but hot peppers grow best at 75°F and above. High temperatures above 90°F may cause flower abortion in sweet peppers. However with hot peppers warm temperatures will increase fruit set.

For best results start seedlings indoors about April 1 or start with transplants from garden centers. Be careful when handling seeds and seedlings of hot peppers. Use rubber gloves or wash hands thoroughly.

In case your daring spirit out does your tolerance, relieve the fire by eating bananas, bread, pasta, yogurt or potatoes but do not drink water. Water just moves the fire around.

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