By Roger Simpson (1947-2015)
People who raise and eat hot peppers are a subculture of their own. Even within pepper heads, there are those who pride themselves on only eating the hottest peppers. This article will attempt to explain to ordinary folks the differences between varieties of these old and useful plants. As with most of our food plants, the origin of peppers or chilies is the new world. Scientists believe that wild hot peppers were first located in South America in what is now Brazil and Bolivia. Birds spread them to the rest of Central America and Mexico where they were domesticated. Birds have no heat receptors in their mouth or digestive tract. This is important because, as humans know, hot peppers burn at both ends.
Spanish settlers first brought hot peppers into what is now New Mexico in the late 1500’s. This is important, because it is here that varieties of hot peppers were developed to be eaten as a vegetable rather than a spice.The “mild” gene in peppers is recessive, and bell peppers came from the hot ones. After Spanish settlement, the cultivation of peppers exploded in New Mexico. The New Mexican varieties of hot peppers are characterized by a larger size and milder heat. One variety that adapted particularly well to New Mexico was a long green chili that turned red in the fall. It is called “Anaheim” because of its transfer to the more settled California around 1900. If you order a Chilies Rellenos here in a Mexican restaurant, the chances are that it will be made with an Anaheim. But if you eat a chilies rellenos in Mexico it will be made with a Poblano pepper. Poblanos are one of the most popular peppers grown in Mexico. When the pepper is green, it is called a poblano, when it is dried, it is called an Ancho. Anchos are commonly used in sauces called moles.
Before we move into hot peppers that are spicy as opposed to being mild, it is time we discuss Scovilles. The Scoville scale measures the hotness of a chili pepper. A bell pepper has a Scoville rating of zero. Conversely, the hottest chilies, such as habaneros, have a rating of 200,000 or more. Both the Anaheim and poblano are between 500 and 2,500 Scovilles, depending on the variety.
The next type of pepper is the jalapeno. This is the most readily recognized hot pepper in America today, and when someone says hot pepper most people think of a jalapeno. The popularity of jalapenos starts from a combination of their unique taste, their heat, and their use as a snack food. Many jalapenos are used straight out of the garden in salsas. Jalapenos are processed as “nacho slices,” and “nacho rings” that are served over nachos, one of the most popular snack foods in arenas and ball parks. Jalapenos have a Scoville rating of 2,500 to 8,000.
Cayenne is another popular hot pepper. Before the introduction of the jalapeno, it was the hot pepper traditionally grown in Tennessee. I consider it the best all around hot pepper. Cayenne pepper plants are good producers. While hot, the cayenne is not This is the Slim Jim variety of Cayenne Pepper. I consider cayenne peppers to be the best all around, they are hot but not deadly, and they dry easily. Poblanos are another mildly hot pepper. They are a favorite in Mexico for making Chilies Rellenos and, when dried, for making mole.Jalapenos are the most recognizable hot pepper in America today. Consider them hot.so hot that an error in judgment ruins the food being prepared with it. In addition, because it is thin walled, it is easy to dry. Depending on the variety, a cayenne pepper will rate 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units. Having said that, to me, the cayenne and the jalapeno are about equal in hotness.
A hot pepper that is a lot of fun is the Tabasco. Tabasco peppers are famous for their use in making Tabasco Sauce. The plant grows quite large while the peppers themselves are small. An interesting thing is the actual pepper grows up rather than down. The peppers start being a shade of yellowish green, from there they turn orange, and finally a bright red. This makes anything you make from them quite interesting visually. The Tabasco is rated at 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units. Once again, to me, they are noticeably hotter than the jalapeno or the cayenne. While small, you had better like it hot if you try to eat even a half of one.
The final pepper I would like to discuss is the Habanero. I will start by noting that the habanero is rated at 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville units, which makes it the hottest pepper commercially available in the USA. The habanero deserves its reputation, so anyone but the most seasoned pepper head should use caution when eating them or using them to season food. A piece of this pepper the size of your small fingernail will light you up. However, some people love the flavor and the heat. They make great contain-er plants, as do many varieties of hot peppers.
Peppers are easy to grow and can be planted in good garden soil in the full or almost full sun. The plants should be put out after the chance of frost or cold weather is over. Thin walled peppers such as the cayenne are easy to dry, while thick walled varieties such as the jalapenos or habanero are hard. To dry these you have to take the seeds out. I have dried peppers by stringing them using a needle and thread or I have placed them on dinner plates in the sun with another plate on top, face down. You can also dry them in the oven on low heat. You can start the plants on the inside from seeds, but it is a little tricky. To germinate the seeds require several weeks of 80-degree temperature. Anyone interested in hot peppers should go online to tomatogrowers.com, they have five pages of peppers with photos and brief descriptions of each.