Peppers provide color for your salad, spice for your salsa, and the sweet types are great sliced as finger food. There are ornamental types, pickling varieties, and some we grow just because they're incredibly hot.
They're used dried and powdered in Mexican, Indian, and Hungarian cooking, and chili powder has been happily adopted by Americans north of the border. Used fresh, salsa is now the world's most popular condiment. The black pepper corns that you grind onto food are Piper nigrum, a totally unrelated tropical tree, and the colorful "pepper" corns that you buy at specialty stores are from Schinus molle and are used only for color.
The peppers we grow in our garden are botanically in the genus Capsicum. There are several species, with C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, and C. frutescens the most important. Peppers are related closely to tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes in the family Solanaceae. This is important to know because these plants should not be planted in the same spot in your garden year after year. These plants should be rotated to another area to avoid certain diseases (Verticillium Wilt, Fusarium Wilt, and Root-knot nematodes).
Peppers thrive in our climate and aren't fussy. Don't plant them too early! They don't like cold soil. They prefer soil that has been amended with compost to drain well and retain moisture; even watering; light, regular feeding or organic fertilizer incorporated at the time of planting, and at least 4 hours of direct sun. Plant peppers in May or June, and youll harvest from July through at least October.
Sweet peppers include the familiar Bell types as well as many others. All of these will ripen to red if you leave them on the plant long enough, but there are purple, yellow, orange, violet, and even white types: Chocolate Beauty, Purple Beauty, Ivory Hybrid, Lilac Hybrid . Thick-walled ones tend to be sweeter but ripen more slowly, while thin-walled varieties color more quickly.
Various chemicals, the most common of which is capsaicin, cause heat in these peppers. Nearly as common is dihydrocapsaicin, and other "capsaicinoids" make up the rest of the heat-causing compounds. Most of these chemicals are in the membrane and seeds, which can be removed. The Scoville Scale, invented in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville, is a measure of how hot peppers are. The scale is somewhat subjective because it is based on the perceptions of individual tasters. It uses a gradually diminishing dilution of the pepper, until a panel of tasters no longer notices the burning effect of the pepper. Because of the range of the individual testers, peppers are given a range in the test results. Pure capsaicin measures 16,000,000 Scoville units. Remember that the content of capsaicin and the other capsaicinoids varies by seed source, climate, and cultivation.
A more precise method for measuring the heat of chili peppers is a High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). The chili pods are dried and ground and the capsaicinoids are extracted, providing a measure of the total heat present as well as the individual chemicals present.
Chili peppers described as New Mexico, California, or Anaheim are generally long tapered peppers that vary greatly in their hotness depending on the variety and the conditions in which they are grown. They are usually at least moderately hot. Anaheim is a New Mexico type pepper originally planted in Anaheim by Emilio Ortega, the name now synonymous with canned chili peppers. These are the peppers usually used to make chiles rellenos.
We're getting into the competitive range here with these Scoville units:
Serrano: 5000 - 23,000
Chili Piquin, Cayenne: 30,000 - 50,000
Habanero, Scotch Bonnet: 80,000 - 350,000+. Jamaican Hot appears to be either the same pepper or a similar strain, and comes in red and yellow versions. Thai Hot pepper is nearly as hot, packing lots of pungency in little tiny fruits. Use all of these very sparingly!
Note: the best remedy for a pepper burn is to drink milk or eat other dairy products. The casein in dairy products strips the capsaicinoids from the receptor sites in your mouth. And always wear gloves when handling hot peppersHabanero peppers have been known to cause skin blisters!
Whats the hottest pepper ever recorded? A Habanero pepper at 577,000 scoville units!
But wait recently a group of scientists in India claimed to have a pepper that was hotter than the Habanero! American scientists are skeptical of the claim, questioning the methodology described in arriving at the heat level. "According to the Indian scientists the Naga Jolokia a Capsicum frutescens, is 50 percent hotter than the Red Savina Habanero whose Scoville rating is around 555,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The Naga Jolokia possesses 855,000 SHU."
This statement alarmed Frank Garcia of GNS Spices, the developer and grower of the Red Savina. "It would be highly unusual for a [C] frutescens to be that hot," Garcia said, noting that the Red Savina has been challenged before. "But anythings possible," he said. " So, bring it on and lets get some American laboratories to test samples of both the Indian chili and the Red Savina and see which is the hottest." Sense a little macho spirit here?
These folks take their peppers seriously! The rest of us take them as salsa, fresh, pickled, fried, stuffed ..For descriptions of peppers, tomatoes, and other summer vegetables available from Cache Creek Nursery, one of our suppliers, click here! Call ahead if you want to special order any of the varieties listed.
See also our other articles:
Everyone loves tomatoes
Vegetables in Davis
Tomatoes: a primer
Peppers and tomatoes
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