Growing and Using Peppers

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If you want to add zip and heat to your favorite entrée add a chile pepper. Peppers come in a variety of shapes, colors, range in taste from sweet and mild to hot. They are used in a wide variety of dishes from eating raw to seasoning and main dishes. 

Peppers have the same basic growing requirements as tomatoes. Plants prefer full sun, well-drained soil, water and fertilizer. Peppers can be started from seed 8 to 10 weeks before planting outdoors or plants may be purchased. Keep in mind that hotter varieties of peppers take longer to mature than milder varieties. Most varieties will mature in 65 to 75 days from transplanting. Hotter varieties like 'Habanero' require 90 to 100 days to mature. Peppers are planted outdoors after danger of frost is past in warm garden soil. In many recipes hot peppers are referred to as chile peppers.

Bell Peppers are often picked when green and immature. If they are allowed to ripen to a red, yellow, orange, brown or purple color, they will be sweeter. Hot peppers are often harvested at maturity, usually when red.

When purchasing peppers, choose high-quality peppers that are fresh-looking, firm and thick-fleshed, and free of disease and insect damage. Avoid bruised or soft peppers.

The degree of hotness in a dish can be varied by the type, quantity and portion of the peppers used. The main source of pungency in peppers is capsaicin, which is basically odorless and tasteless but produces a burning sensation. Capsaicins reside in the inside wall of the fruit- the white “ribs” and the white lining, and is concentrated at the stem end of the pepper. The seeds may also contain heat. The amount of heat can be reduced by removing the seeds and ribs. 

The degree of heat of a pepper is measured in ‘Scoville Heat Units’, using a systematic dilution test method developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The scale ranges from 0 for the mild, sweet bell pepper, to 300,000 for the fiery hot Habanero pepper. Water stress on pepper plants can increase pungency, and cooler temperatures can lower the heat of peppers.

Pepper Type              Scoville Heat Units               

Mild Bell                       0                                             

Anaheim                      500 to 1,000                           

Poblano                       2,500 to 3,000                        

Jalapeno                      2,500 to 5,000                        

Serrano                        5,000 to 15,000

Cayenne                      30,000 to 50,000

Thai                             50,000 to 100,000

Habenero                    100,000 to 300,000

If you eat too much off a hot pepper or can’t bear the heat, do not drink water. Capsaicins are oils, they do not mix well with water which will spread the heat around your mouth.  It is recommended to drink milk or eat pasta, bread or potatoes. These oil absorbing foods will help dissolve the burning sensation. 

Wash peppers before peeling or chopping. Avoid direct contact with hot peppers, because the volatile oils in them can cause skin irritation or burns. Wear rubber gloves while handling them, and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before touching your face.

In general, all peppers are a good source of vitamin A and C. A mature pepper has a higher concentration of vitamins. Peppers, both sweet and hot, are delicious raw, grilled or added to cooked preparations. One type of pepper may be substituted for another type of pepper in salsa recipes. When canning, do not vary the total amount of peppers called for in a recipe. 

For more information on peppers- growing, harvesting, common problems and recipes- visit the University of Illinois Extension, Watch Your Garden Grow website .