Growing Hot Peppers
Hot peppers are the firecrackers of the vegetable kingdom. Some are Roman candle hot; others like sparklers, adding just a touch of piquancy.
They come in all sizes, shapes and sizzles, from tiny fruits with five-alarm heat to big mildly hot peppers. Their hotness comes from the capsaicin, which is concentrated in the seeds and in the flesh between the lining and the inner wall of the pepper.
Color generally progresses from green to red as the fruit ripens. A few go through a yellow stage. Some turn brownish-black when ripe, and one even has a lavender stage. Peppers are a very good source of vitamin C, and also contain significant amounts of vitamin A.
The Scoville Hotness Scale
In 1912, the chemist Wilbur Scoville developed a method to measure the heat level of chile peppers. The test is named after him, the "Scoville Organoleptic Test".
Here's how he developed his "hotness scale".
In the original test, Wilbur blended pure ground chiles with sugar-water and a panel of "testers" then sipped the solution, in increasingly diluted concentrations, until they reached the point that the liquid no longer burned their mouths.
A number was then assigned to each chile pepper based on how much it needed to be diluted before they could no longer taste (feel) the heat.
As you can see, ratings go from "negligible heat" for the common sweet bell pepper all the way up to "LOOK OUT!!" for habaneros.
The pungency (or heat factor) of chile peppers is measured in multiples of 100 units and ranges from sweet bell peppers at zero the mighty Naga Jolokia (ghost pepper) at over 1,000,000 Scoville units!
That one is right off the scale!
Pure capsaicin rates between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 Scoville units. Today liquid chromatography is used to determine capsaicin levels, but the unit of measure is still named Scoville.
Due to variations in growing conditions, soil and weather, peppers tend to vary between the lower and upper levels listed, but can go beyond them.
Hot peppers are easy to grow.
Usually you can find the most popular varieties as starter plants. However, if you want a larger selection or more unusual types, then you'll need to start them from seed. Seeds should be started indoors two to three months before the last spring frost.
Pepper seeds can germinate in fairly dry soil, so don't over water the seedbed. Do keep them warm—a heating pad beneath the growing medium can speed up the germination.
When the seedlings appear, replant them in larger flats about two inches apart, or into separate the individual plants into small pots. Water them with warm water, as cold water can retard their growth. Keep them in a warm sunny place.
Harden off the seedlings a couple of weeks before planting them in your garden, by putting them outdoors for a few hours a day. They should be planted outdoors at the same time as you'd plant your tomatoes.
Peppers don't need really fertile soil, and if they are over-fertilized they'll produce lots of green leafy growth but fewer fruits. They prefer warm days, and cooler nights, similar to the Andes climate where they originated.
Some Pepper VarietiesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Cooking With Your Peppers
In addition to using peppers fresh in your cooking, you can pickle, freeze or dry them.
The thin small ones, like long red cayennes or serrano are easy to dry. Just thread them on a string and hang them up.
Fleshier cultivars like ancho or Hungarian wax are best split and dried on a screen in a hot sunny place.
Hot peppers can be used when they're still green, but they are highest in vitamins (and capsaicin) when they mature on the bush. When you pick them, coating your hands with oil will reduce burning or the absorption of the hot oils into your skin.
When you are cooking with these hot peppers, it's best to slip on a pair of rubber gloves before you start cutting. Otherwise, the oils may be absorbed into your skin, and thus transferred to other parts of the body.
And remember—don't rub your eyes!
Trust me on this. I've inadvertently touched my lips and eye while cutting hot peppers, and the burning was extremely painful. If you do that, flush your skin with cold water.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Nicolette Goff