Growing your own hot peppers at home
By A.J. Heinsz-Bailey
If you have never sat at the kitchen table with your eyes watering, mouth on fire, and nose dripping asking for one more ‘Carolina Reaper’ you might be missing a culinary delight. Since you live in the South, you probably like it hot and ‘Tabasco’ is a familiar Louisiana kitchen staple.
The terminology of hot peppers is interesting. Chile and chili are both acceptable spelling for hot peppers. Capsaicinoids are the chemical compounds that cause the burning sensation. These compounds are stored in the veins, on the walls, and around the seeds of the pepper. The Scoville scale is a measurement of the pungency of chile peppers. Developed by Wilbur Scoville, Scoville heat units measure the capsaicin concentration in spicy foods. The higher the number, the spicier the food: bell peppers have a 0 rating and ‘Carolina Reaper’ is rated at 1,500,000 Scovilles. Both the plant’s genetics and the growing environment determine the heat of a hot pepper. Experts agree that long, hot, dry summers produce the hottest peppers. As of August 2013, Guinness World Records stated that ‘Smoking’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper’ is officially the world’s hottest chile pepper with 1,569,383-2,200,000 Scoville units.
Mild, medium, hot, or fiery, peppers are an easy crop to grow. There are thousands of varieties of chile peppers grown across the world. Cuisines of Mexico, India, Thailand, and Africa use chile peppers as a flavor enhancer. Six hot pepper groups and their flaming personalities in increasing incendiary ranking have been chosen for this article.
‘Poblano’ has a rating of 1,000-2,000 Scovilles and is an extremely popular chile pepper. It is 4-6 inches long, very dark green, ripening to dark red or brown. Picked ripe and then dried, it is referred to as an ancho pepper. The 3-foot tall bushes produce peppers with a slight fruity flavor. These are the peppers traditional used for making chiles rellenos. Days to maturity after transplanting: 75-80.
‘Jalapeño’ is a well-known, high-yielding pepper with medium heat, unless it is ‘Fooled You’, which has no heat. ‘Jalapeno’ is a medium-sized chile that is picked when it is green. A mature ‘Jalapeño’ fruit is 3-5 inches long and hangs down with a round, firm, smooth flesh. It can have a range of pungency, with Scoville heat units of a few thousand to as high as 10,000. It’s delicious on nachos or in salsas. Harvested when they are green or red if allowed ripening on the bush. A chipotle is a smoked ‘Jalapeno’. Varieties to try: ‘El Rey’, ‘Grande’, ‘Jalapeno M’, ‘Malta’, ‘Torment’, ‘Mucho Nacho’, and ‘Delicious’. Days to maturity: 70-80.
‘Serrano’ is the pepper of choice for making salsa and picot de gallon and is rated 5,000-23,000 Scovilles. It resembles a smaller version of the jalapeno, similar in color and 1-2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. Dark green to reddish color, the 3-foot-tall plants are very productive. Days to maturity: 75-90.
‘Cayenne’ is a thin chile pepper, green to red, 2-5 inches long. It comes in red, orange, green, yellow, and purple varieties. The plant reaches up to 4 feet tall and may require support; 30,000-50,000 Scovilles. The “cayenne pepper” you use is the dried, ground version of this pepper. Days to maturity: 70-90.
‘Tabasco’ is the chile pepper used in Tabasco sauce. The fruit is tapered and less than 2 inches long, pointing upward on 3-foot-tall plants. 30,000-50,000 Scovilles. The colors range from creamy yellow to orange to red. This is a great flashy pepper to grow in a pot. Days to maturity: 85-95.
‘Habanero’ is often called the Scotch bonnet because of its shape. This one is the granddaddy of all the hot peppers in terms of heat level. Grown mainly on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, its coloring is yellow-orange, orange or bright red, depending upon variety. The plant reaches heights of 4 feet. Tam-shaped peppers have an average size of 1-2½ inches long and 1-2 inches diameter. Orange types have a 100,000-350,000 Scoville rating. Mainly used in the making of hot sauces. ‘Red Savina’ was once considered the world’s hottest chile pepper at 500,000-580,000 Scovilles. Days to maturity: 85-110.
Select a site that receives at least eight hours of sunlight and drains well. Start pepper plants indoors in flats or pots eight to 10 weeks before the average last frost date. Plan to set out homegrown or purchased transplants after the last spring frost or when nighttime temperatures consistently remain above 50 F. Use row covers if needed to protect young plants from cold nights. Peppers are very sensitive to cold. Germination can take up to three weeks if the soil temperatures are too low when direct seeding. Space transplants 30-36 inches apart. Use at least a 3-gallon container for potted plants. Their root systems need a lot of space to develop.
Fertilize at transplanting with a weak water-soluble fertilizer. Fertilize again in four weeks. Water chiles regularly throughout the growing season, but do not overwater, as excessive water can cause root disease, especially in heavy clay soils. Deep watering two tot three times a week will keep your plants healthy. Side-dress plants monthly with about 1 tablespoon of 13-13-13 fertilizer. Organic growers can use a combination of fish emulsion, green sand, kelp meal, and bone meal. Stake tall plants if needed. As summer heats up, temperatures over 90 F can cause buds and blossoms to drop. Mulch your peppers to keep them stress-free. Environmental factors such as temperature and water influence the heat level. A mild chile pepper cultivar will become hotter when exposed to any type of stress in the field. Conversely, a relatively hot cultivar provided optimal environmental conditions will become only moderately hot.
Nutritionally chiles are rich in vitamins A and C. One fresh medium-sized green chile pod has as much vitamin C as six oranges.
Pests are not a serious concern. Insects to be on the lookout for are leaf-eating worms, aphids, stinkbugs, and leaf-footed bugs. Diseases that might attack your plantings include early blight, tomato spotted wilt virus, (TSWV), anthracnose, and bacterial leaf spot. Check with your local county extension agent to see if these problems are a concern in your area.
Always wear eye goggles, double-vinyl gloves, and a long-sleeved shirt when harvesting and processing peppers. In case of a skin burn, remove the capsaicin by coating the area with vegetable oil. Wipe off the oil with a paper towel and then wash the area with soap and water. The hot varieties can be picked at any color stage, but are hottest if allowed to fully ripen. Chile peppers ripen through a wide range of colors – yellow, orange, purple, and even brown. Individual peppers vary widely in their ripening times. Some chile peppers turn bright red, which is more often an indication of ripeness rather than hotness. Begin harvesting when peppers reach a usable size. Leave some peppers on the plant to ripen fully. The peppers will change color and develop greater levels of vitamin C and develop the best flavors. Don’t let all peppers stay on the plant as this will cut off further blossoming and fruit set. Never leave rotten or overripe fruit on the plant as they will spoil the other fruit. Harvest green chiles when the peppers are firm and a glossy green.
After eating hot peppers, you can cool the burn by drinking a glass of milk. The milk protein casein works almost like soap by dissolving the capsaicin and reducing the burning sensation in your mouth. At the first sign of frost, harvest any fruit that looks even somewhat ripe, then remove the plant or cover it with row cover during cool periods. Store fresh peppers in a plastic bag, loosely tied or knotted: make sure peppers are dry before storing. They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Freeze peppers by washing and stemming them first, and then package them, leaving no headspace. Finally seal and freeze in plastic freezer bags. Peppers can also be dried and dehydrated for storage.
Besides their culinary value, peppers are used in teas and lozenges for the treatment of sore throats. Capsaicinoids (the chemical that makes chile peppers hot) is used in muscle patches for sore and aching muscles. The color extracted from VERY red chile pepper pods is called oleoresin. It is used in everything from lipsticks to processed meats.
Nutritionally chiles are rich in vitamins A and C. One fresh medium-sized green chile pod has as much vitamin C as six oranges; 1 teaspoon of dried red chile powder has the daily requirements of vitamin A. Red chile peppers are rich in carotenoids, which are beneficial for eye health.
If this fiery addiction is appealing to you there are support groups available for more information. New Mexico State University (cpi.nmsu.edu) has a chile pepper institute. Not everyone will develop a burning desire for hot chiles. If you decide not to be an aficionado you can still grow your own pepper spray. Insects beware!