People who live in Latin America, India, Africa or Asia, rarely eat a meal that doesn’t include Chile Peppers. In fact, some folks travel with their own supply of homemade, signature hot sauce! Chile’s fruity flavors, rainbow colors and spicy heat turns up the volume and ardent love of many foods. Every cuisine has its preferred variety and special impassioned way with them. Growing some of these unusual, and often hard-to-find Chiles, can open up a whole new world of unbridled culinary adventure. Chile Peppers are easy to grow and harvest, and so easy to use fresh or frozen, dried or canned, for dishes that warm body and soul all year long.
Hot Chile Peppers
Chile Peppers have been cultivated as a food crop for more than 6,000 years, yet were virtually unknown outside of Central and South America. It was Christopher Columbus who brought Chiles to Spain in the late 1400s: within 100 years, they were incorporated into cuisines all over the world. The old adage “you can’t tell a book by its cover’ definitely applies to Chile Peppers. Some of the hottest Peppers on earth are cute little red guys no bigger than your thumb. But, man alive, can they inflict bodily damage and emotional scars. Thankfully, someone invented a way to rate the heat of a Chile Pepper so you can assess the risk, or for avowed Chileheads~the thrill, before you venture a bite.
The Scoville Scale measures the amount of capsaicin in a Pepper, which is the chemical compound that makes our skin tingle delightfully, break out in a worrisome rash, or burn with a sense of panic. The test uses sugar to neutralize the heat; the more sugar that’s added, the higher the Scoville units and the hotter the pepper.
Some Like It Not So Hot
The hottest parts of a Chile Pepper are the seeds and the white membranes inside the fruit. To reduce the heat, just remove some or all of these parts. Roasting is another good way to calm the heat, as it converts some of the natural sugars into palatable sweet goodness. Place Peppers on a hot gas or charcoal grill, rotating them with tongs until all sides are charred, blistered and really black. Pile them into a paper bag on a sturdy tray so they steam each others’ skins off. Once they are cool enough to handle, put on some rubber gloves to protect your hands. Peel off the skins, remove the stems and slice into long pieces, scraping away the seeds. Use immediately or slip your prepared Chiles into zip-top plastic bags to savor as needed for sandwiches, sauces, stews and casseroles.
Have you ever put a bit too much Chile heat in a recipe? Don’t despair. You can disperse the capsaicin oil with another fat in the form of cheese, sour cream or butter, or use Scoville’s technique: add a little sugar to neutralize some of the heat. Start with a teaspoon and add more, tasting in between to make sure you’re not over-sweetening the dish. In fact, if you love the rich complex flavor of Chile Peppers but can’t take the heat, use some of your harvest to make your own sweet Asian Chile sauce~good on everything from spring rolls to turkey sandwiches, it’s an easy combination of chopped seeded Chiles, sugar, a little white vinegar and cornstarch, heated until thickened.
A World of Chile Peppers
We offer Chile Peppers for every kind of hot-head, whether you like yours zippy or curl-your-toes scorching. You’ll find Scoville ratings for each variety, starting with super-mild Pepperoncini Peppers, which also go by the name of Tuscan Peppers or Golden Greek Peppers. Pale, greenish-yellow, they have thin walls and a good crunch~perfect for antipasto, salads and pizza. One of our recent introductions, Cajun Bell Peppers, has just barely crossed into Hot Chile territory. It is sweet, crunchy and just a little spicy, so it's perfect to add raw into salads or crudité platters, to grill or to stir-fry. (It's great in patio containers.) Big Jim is a large, green, New Mexico-type Hot Chile that can be roasted and stuffed with cheese for authentic chile relleños. It's great with eggs, too. In the same heat range is Poblano\Ancho that has a rich, smokiness when dried, and is a mainstay in all kinds of Mexican dishes.
In your own garden, you may have noticed that the heat intensity of any single variety can fluctuate with the weather, individual plant, or time of harvest. De Padron, an heirloom known as “Spanish Roulette,” can take this to a surprising extreme. Most of these Tapas bar-favored, delicious green Chiles are mild, registering at 500 Scoville units, but the odd one could stun you with FIVE times the heat. We always grow De Padron in our warehouse's kitchen garden and happily enjoy it grilled with a little olive oil, salt and pepper on special lunch days in the back when Nick brings out his grill.
Midway up the Scoville scale, still under 3,000 Scoville units, come Pasilla Bajio and Mulato Isleño. These Chiles are typically dried, which enhances their amazing flavor and makes it easy to use them year round. Just a little hotter are Cherezo Cherry Peppers, a favorite for pickling and stuffing. When ripe, they are bright red with thick walls and a fruity flavor. Our La Bomba Jalapeño Pepper is a real crowd-pleaser with perfect, medium 5,000-Scoville heat, big flavor and smooth, thick juicy flesh. It's the perfect choice for Jalapeño poppers.
A great new variety, Black Hungarian, is a spectacular ornamental edible, registering in at 10,000 to 20,000 Scoville heat units. This zesty heirloom yields scads of Jalapeño-shaped, super shiny black fruit that ripen to red amidst purple-veined green foliage. The Bulgarian, also known as the Hungarian Hot Wax Chile Pepper, is deceptively hot with a living-on-the-edge range of 5,000 to 15,000 Scoville units as they mature from green to bright banana-yellow, to high-alert red. Hotter still are Jalisco Jalapeño and Serrano, both from Mexico and fantastic in salsas, raw or roasted. One step up will take you to Aji Limo from Peru and the famous little Tabasco Chiles from Mexico, each hitting 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units. We also offer the rare, African-American heirloom, The Fish Hot Chile Pepper. It’s a gorgeous ornamental variety for the kitchen garden and a special ingredient in regional seafood specialties.
Nearing the top of the incendiary scale is Super Cayenne II, which is commonly dried and crushed into flakes or powder for topping pizzas and pastas, or mixing into special curries. Bird Chile Peppers are little ¼” round pods that are popular with birds, who are immune to their powerful heat~up to 100,000 Scoville units. Sizzling in at 75,000 to 150,000 Scoville units is the Thai Dragon Hot Chile Pepper that helps give Asian cuisine its complex, distinctive heat.
Habaneros top the charts and are frankly dangerous. We offer Orange Habanero, whose beautiful color and cute shape belies a pepper that’s 1,000 times hotter than a Jalapeño. For those of you who garden and cook on the edge, there’s Caribbean Red Habanero, which causes serious pain at 350,000 to 400,000 Scoville units. Be scared, be very scared.
Finally at at the top of the Hot Chile Pepper heat scale is the Super Hot Bhut Jolokia Pepper also known as the Ghost Pepper (one can only imagine why). At 1,000,000 Scoville units, these unbearably intense, torturous fruits are the hottest in the universe and should be mightily respected.
Chiles Are Easy To Grow From Seed
As you might imagine from its Mexican roots, Chiles performs best in hot, sunny, relatively dry conditions. Because it takes a good 75 to 80 days to harvest, Chile Pepper seed is best started indoors under lights or in a greenhouse. Sow the seed in moist seed starting mix, about eight weeks before your spring Frost-Free Date. The warmth of a seed starting mat (up to 85 degrees F) will help speed germination. Once the seeds have sprouted (they can take up to two weeks, they’re a little pokey), give them 12 to 15 hours of bright light each day, very small drinks (do not over water) and good ventilation. After they have two sets of true leaves, transplant the strongest seedlings into 4-inch pots and feed them weekly with a diluted liquid fertilizer.
Before transplanting your little Chile Pepper seedlings into the garden, harden them off by putting them outdoors in a sheltered location for a few hours each day and bringing them in at night. Do this for a week to 10 days, gradually lengthening the time outdoors. This will help them to avoid transplant shock and to thrive. No matter how warm you think it may be, hold off transplanting until after your spring Frost-Free Date and night time temperatures are reliably above 55 degrees F. To find the Frost-Free Date for your garden, go HERE and use the nifty chart provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Select your State from the pull down menu to generate a PDF file with a list of local NOAA data collection sites.
Peppers~especially Chile Peppers~need all-day sun and warmth. Plant the seedlings in fertile, well-draining soil, to which you have added compost, well-rotted manure and/or slow-release organic fertilizer. Pepper plants like to grow relatively close together. Space the seedlings so that by mid-summer, the leaves of neighboring plants will be touching each other, about 18 inches apart.Water moderately after planting and apply a 2” layer of mulch to help conserve moisture later on. Harvest carefully with a sharp knife: they don’t pluck off as easily as Tomatoes and you don’t want to rough up the plant.
Too Many Chile Peppers?
In native cultures, the traditional way to preserve Chile Peppers was air-drying. But Peppers of all kinds are also a snap to freeze. No need to blanche. Just cut the fruits open, remove their seeds and membranes (wear gloves to protect your hands from the capsaicin oil), slice or chop them and put into zip-top bags. Use as needed, right out of the bag. They thaw in minutes.