Pepper
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Any type of Pepper is a member of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), which also includes Eggplant, Potatoes, Tomatoes, and tobacco.  All Peppers are part of the genus Capsicum and are commonly called “Capsicums,” “Chilies” (also spelled “Chiles,” “Chilis” or “Chillis”), “Chile Peppers” or simply “Peppers.”

Capsicum Peppers are one of a group of edible plants that we call Culinary Vegetables because we use them like Vegetables but they are actually Fruit. Members include: Broccoli, Cauliflower, Peas, Beans, Cucumbers, Avocados, Olives and Tomatoes). A large number of Peppers are Culinary Vegetables but used as Aromatics, Spices and/or Condiments

A large number of Capsicums are also known for their health benefits and have been used medicinally by various cultures since Mayan times and, yes, Capsicum Peppers are New World natives. 

They originated in the tropical regions of Central and South America and were first domesticated there around 5000 BC.  From there, they spread north to the Caribbean, where they discovered by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers.  In the late 1400s and throughout the 1500s Columbus and others helped spread Chile Peppers from the West to Europe, Africa, India and the Far East.  Today there are many hundreds (or even thousands) of types of Capsicums cultivated worldwide. The History of Capsicum Peppers is a very interesting tale of cultural advantage, economic success and military power.

From Columbus’ first introduction of Chile Peppers to the Iberian Peninsula, they spread throughout the rest of the world.  They moved from Spain and Portugal to Italy, Germany, the Balkans and Central Europe.  Spanish and Portuguese colonists planted Pepper seeds in their colonies, which resulted in the appearance of a wide variety of new types of Peppers appearing.  Spanish and Portuguese traders carried the pods throughout their travels.  Within 100 years the New World Peppers were entrenched in Indian, African and the Asian cooking.  Today it’s hard to imagine any of these cuisines without the bite of Capsicum Peppers.  They have become such a part of these cultures’ food that where many people believe (wrongly) that the plants are native to Africa and India.

The way that all of the Chili Peppers are named can get a little confusing. Smart Kitchen’s Resource Page “Naming Chili Peppers” can help explain the confusion.

Capsicum Peppers are divided into two main categories: Sweet Peppers and Hot Peppers (Spicy), also commonly known as Chili Peppers. For both types, the plants are generally small shrubs though some are tall and tree-like.  They both produce pods (botanically, they are actually Berries) which can be oval, rounded, oblong, conical, elongated or bell-like.  The pods range in size from tiny (1/4 inch) and slim to 17 or 18 inches long and 3 to 4 inches wide. The pods come in every variation of green, yellow, purple, red, yellow, orange, brown and white. The major difference is in how much heat is contained in their pods. Sweet Peppers are tame. Hot Peppers can be anywhere from naughty hot to wildly hot to crazy hot.

Despite having similar names, Capsicum Peppers are not related to Black Pepper (Piper nigrum), which belongs to the Piperaceae family and originated in India.  Capsicums are also not related to Asian Sichuan Pepper (aka Chinese Coriander).  In addition, despite the fact that the general word in Spanish for Capsicums is “Pimiento,” Capsicums are not related to Allspice, aka “Pimento” or “Pimenta” or “Jamaican Pepper.”  There are more details and information about Chile Peppers’ plethora of monikers on Smart Kitchen’s Resource Page called “Naming Chile Peppers.”

The most distinctive aspect of many Peppers is their heat or spiciness (or lack thereof in the case of Sweet Peppers), which is actually caused by the plants’ defense.  To help protect them from mammals, who would chew and destroy their seeds, insects and fungi, many Peppers contain a distinctive alkaloid called Capsaicin and some related compounds known as “capsaicinoids.”  Capsaicin and capsaicinoids give Peppers their bite and cause the sensation of heat or burning when eaten (some Peppers can burn your skin on contact!).  Interestingly, birds are immune to capsaicin’s heat.  They swallow the Peppers’ seeds whole and disperse them.  In fact, scientists believe birds disseminated Peppers throughout the Americas long before man even became aware of their existence.  Because of this close connection with our feathered friends, a number of Peppers are called Bird Peppers or Bird’s Eye Peppers.

In one very significant case, the Peppers’ defense system completely backfired.  It is true that many mammals are repelled by capsaicin.  Elephants, for example, will go to great lengths to avoid any Peppers containing the heat-producing alkaloid (in Africa, Hot Peppers are planted around crops as a defense against raiding pachyderms).  But ironically, instead of disliking the Peppers’ heat, another mammal, Homo sapiens, fell head over heels in love with the sensation!  Maybe we’re perverse, or self-destructive, or thrill-seekers (or probably all of the above), but we humans seem to enjoy having our taste buds slightly, or in some cases seriously singed, as well as appreciating Capsicums’ pungent taste.

The result of our love affair with Peppers is they are now grown all over the globe and used in nearly every cuisine.  In fact, there are more Chile Peppers grown each year than any other spice/aromatic plant, and the taste of Chile Peppers may be the most popular flavor on the planet.  In America, Salsas have been more popular than Ketchup since the 1980s, partly due to the number of Mexican restaurants in the States and the strong influence Mexican food has had on American food.  Worldwide, 20 times more Chili Peppers are produced and consumed each year than black pepper, no small feat considering the widespread popularity of Piper nigrum.

As noted above, Sweet Peppers are distinguished from Hot (Spicy) Peppers by their lack of capsaicin.  Sweet Peppers either produce no capsaicin at all or such small amounts of it that the Peppers don’t taste hot or spicy, or only very mildly so.  Scientifically, the lack of capsaicin is the result of a recessive gene in the Peppers that eliminates the capsaicin in the plant.

The heat in Hot/Spicy Capsicum Peppers is rated on the Scoville Scale, created in 1912 by an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville.  The ratings are determined by how much Alcoholis needed to neutralize the Capsaicin contained in a particular Pepper.  The heat range varies from nearly 1,000,000 units (wear gloves and even goggles when working with it!) to 0.  The range is an estimate, since even Peppers growing on the same plant can contain different amounts of heat.  Most important, size is not necessarily an indication of the amount of capsaicin you’ll find inside.  As a general rule, small, slender Peppers are usually the hottest.  But be aware, there are exceptions, like the rounded Scotch Bonnets or Habaneros, which both rank very high on the Scoville Scale.

Season

Peppers’ peak season is from July through November in temperate climates.  Many types of Peppers are harvested and eaten while still green.  Ripened Peppers (all other colors) develop their best flavor toward the end of the growing season.

Availability

Though they are not grown year round in many places, distribution has made many Peppers available year round.  Local products are available in late Summer and deep into the Fall and even in early Winter depending on climate.

Cultivation

Peppers are actually perennials but are usually treated as annuals to ensure high quality produce.  They need many months of warm weather to grow.  Seeds should be started indoors and the hardiest young plants transplanted when soil temperatures reach 70° F (21° C) or even higher for best results (germination will not occur below 55° F (12° C).  Once in the ground outdoors, Peppers like moderately fertilized soil, about 8 hours of sun a day and good drainage.  They grow particularly well in raised bed gardens.

If you live in a temperate climate, you may wish to warm the soil before transplanting the seedlings to encourage germination.  This can be done by covering the planting area with black plastic.  Plant the seedlings by simply making a hole in the plastic and leave the plastic as “mulch.”  It will keep soil warm and discourage weeds.  If you live in a very warm climate, young plants may need protection from too much sunlight which can actually “cook” the baby plants.  A “floating” cover suspended over the plants will keep off them safe from intense rays.  During the hottest months of July and August, surround the plants with hay or grass clippings to discourage water loss.

Peppers are harvested in late Summer and in the Fall, sometimes as late as November if there is no severe frost.  Begin harvesting Peppers that are eaten green such as Jalapeño Peppers or Serrano Peppers when they reach their maximum green size.  This will help them produce fruit all season.  If Peppers are allowed to ripen on the vine, the plant will flower and stop producing.

Production

Chile Peppers are the most popular commercial spice/aromatic plants in the world.  In the United States, Bell Peppers far outstrip the other varieties grown, but that statistic is changing as the public’s taste broadens.  Worldwide, China, India, Mexico, Indonesia, Spain, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey, the US, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, South Korea and the Netherlands all produce large crops of Peppers.

Florida grows the most Bell Peppers sold in the US.  Other states with large crops include California, Texas, New Jersey and North Carolina. To help reduce transit times, expand disease resistance and improve shelf life, more and more Peppers are grown in greenhouses across the US.

Varieties

As noted above, there are thousands of types of Peppers.  There are approximately 32 species of Capsicums, though that number changes occasionally depending on new discoveries and classifications.  Of those 32 species, 5 have been domesticated.  The domesticated species are the ones we will concern ourselves with here.

Nearly all the most familiar Western chilies are part of the main domesticated Capsicum species called Capsicum annuum, but a few (mostly very Spicy/Hot Peppers) are from the 4 other domesticated species: Capsicum baccatum, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum frutenscens and Capsicum pubenscens.  We’ll go into more detail about each of these species in their own resource pages.

Purchasing

Fresh Peppers

No matter what type of fresh Pepper you are buying, the general rules of what to look for are the same.  Choose a Pepper that is firm, smooth skinned, shiny and heavy for its size.  Avoid any with wrinkles or watery-looking blemishes.  Wrinkles are a sign the Pepper is getting old and blemishes are a sign that it is beginning to spoil.  The thin, rough, tannish stripes that appear on some types of Chilies (for example Jalapeños) is called “corking” and does not hurt the fruit.  In some countries, corking is considered a sign that the Peppers are mature and flavorful, and those with corking are preferred over those without, making them more expensive.

Dried Peppers

When purchasing dried Chile Peppers, it helps to think of them as you would Raisins or Prunes.   They should be a little meaty or fleshy and have good coloring (usually deep red, brown or black). 

Green chiles turn black when dried and red ones turn a darker red brick color.  Most good quality dried Chilies will be wrinkled, soft and bend easily.  Because there are so many types of Peppers, there are a few exceptions.  Some types of small Chilies remain smooth and firm when dried, and smoked chilies like Chipotles are an uninteresting tan color.  Look for dried Chilies that give off a strong, pungent smell.  Any dried Chiles that are brittle, dusty and sound hollow when tapped are too old and will have little flavor.

If you have difficulty finding the dried version of a given chile, you can substitute the powdered equivalent—Ancho Powder, Chipotle Powder, etc. Check the ingredient label to ensure that the powder is pure dried chile and not cut with salt, spices, or other chiles. Use one tablespoon of powder per whole chile, adding more as necessary. For hotter chiles, such as chipotle, use one teaspoon per whole chile.

Storage

Fresh Peppers

Store fresh Peppers in a paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator.  They can also be stored briefly at room temperature or frozen for much longer.

Dried Peppers

Store dried Peppers at room temperature in an airtight container or Ziploc plastic bag to help protect them from moisture.  For longer storage, they can be frozen in freezer bags or airtight containers.

Culinary Uses

Peppers are one of the most widely used ingredients in cooking.  They are essential to the cooking character of many countries and continents such as Mexico, Latin, Central and South America, the Middle East, India, Africa, Japan, China, Southeast Asia, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy.  Sweet Peppers are especially popular in Europe and America, although Japan also serves them as Nibitashi, a vegetable dish that is fried or simmered and served cold.  Hot/Spicy Peppers are an essential element in many cuisines. 

Peppers can be used fresh or dried, Raw or cooked in a variety of ways, dried and reconstituted or dried and ground into a powder to use as a spice or aromatic.  Peppers are also canned, jarred, pickled and made into pastes, jams or jellies.  Bottled Pepper sauces can be found on the tables of every Mexican restaurant in America.

Fresh raw Sweet Peppers are used on Crudité platters and in Salads.  Some types of Sweet Peppers are generally pickled or canned and used in Hors d’Oeuvres such as Italian Antipasti.  Fresh Hot/Spicy Peppers are used raw in salsas and dips such as Guacamole.

Both Sweet and Hot/Spicy Peppers are cooked with Dry Heat Methods by Deep-Frying, Stir-Frying, Sautéing or Pan-Frying, Broiling, Roasting, Grilling and Fire Roasting (very helpful to blister the skins).  Smart Kitchen has an exercise on Fire Roasting Peppers which demonstrates that process. Roasted, fire roasted, broiled or grilled peppers are used to add smokiness flavor to various dishes.

Braising and Stewing (Gumbo is a stew) are two of the more popular Combination Methods used with both sweet and hot Peppers. Often the Simmered Peppers are then Puréed to make strongly flavored Sauces or Soups, Casseroles and Pasta Sauces. Large Peppers can also be Stuffed and Baked and served as an Entrée or Side Dish.

In the US Hot/Spicy Peppers are a staple of Tex-Mex Cuisine.  A variety of Capsicums can be used to make the thousands of versions of Chile(the dish) that exist today.  Many countries and cultures have their versions of Sauces made with Peppers, both Hot/Spicy and Sweet varieties: Harissa in Moroccan Cuisine, Salsas and Moles in Mexican Cuisine, Sambals in Indonesian Cuisine, Berbere in Ethiopian Cuisine, Romesco Sauce in Spanish Cuisine, Rouille in French Cuisine, Chaat Masalas in Indian Cuisine, Shichimi Togarashi in Japanese Cuisine, Louisiana Hot Sauce in the southern US, Hot/Spicy Pepper condiments found on every table in the Caribbean.  Not to mention the multiple dishes containing Peppers in various forms associated with different cuisines: Letcho and Chicken Paprikás from Hungary, Marinated Peppers on Antipasti platters, Sausage and Peppers and Fried Peppers and Tomatoes from Italy, Chilies Rellenos from Mexico, Shakshuka from Israel, Stuffed Peppers from Persia and Greece.  And in their native home countries like Mexico, South, Latin and Central America Peppers are used in every way imaginable.

Dried Sweet and Hot/Spicy Peppers as well as those that are both dried and smoked are used whole or ground into powders as aromatics and spices.  Ground Chili Peppers can also be used as a Thickening Agent.  Dried Peppers often have richer, more subtle flavors than their fresh counterparts.

When choosing Hot/Spicy Peppers, be aware that they will gain heat up to the point when they begin to ripen.  In other words, a pepper is hottest just as it begins to change to its “ripe” color.  The amount of capsaicin (heat) in an individual pepper varies not just by type but is also affected by growing conditions.  Also, individual peppers from the same plant will have varying amounts of heat.

Portion Size

Allow 1-2 oz of Sweet Peppers per person.

Allow 1-2 t of Hot/Spicy Peppers per person.

Substitutes

For 1 cup of fresh ripe Bell Peppers, use the same amount of any of the following:  Pimientos (fresh, canned or bottled), Cubanelle Peppers, Banana Peppers or Bull’s Horn Peppers.  Anaheim and Poblano Peppers could also be used but will be a bit spicier.

Use ½ cup dried Bell Peppers in place of 1 cup fresh Bell Peppers.

If dried Hot/Spicy Peppers are not available, ground powder versions can be substituted.  For medium heat Peppers, use @ 1 T per whole dried Chile Pepper; for hotter Peppers, start with 1 t per whole dried Chile Pepper.

Nutrition

Peppers have been used since early civilizations for their health benefits.  They are particularly high in vitamin C and also contain good amounts of carotenoids, B vitamins and vitamin E.  They can help control cholesterol, relieve arthritis, inflammation and headaches, increase circulation, and lessen nasal and chest congestion.  They are an excellent choice for dieters, as they increase metabolism so we burn more energy when we eat them.  They may also send signals to our brain that we’re full sooner than usual.

Gluten Free

Yes

Low Fat

Yes

Low Calorie

Yes