I f there were a beauty contest for vegetables (or fruits posing as vegetables), the snappy, spicy pepper would be a strong contender for the crown. With its glossy, smooth skin in hues of green, red, yellow, orange or brown, this versatile veggie isn’t just pretty produce, it packs a healthful punch, perks up any dish with which it pairs, and adds personality and ornamental flair to garden and patio.
To a botanist, peppers are technically fruits, as are tomatoes. Fruits are the part of flowering plants that contain seeds. Scientifically speaking, vegetables are all the other parts of the plant, including the leaves (lettuce and spinach), roots (carrots and radishes), stems (celery) and even flower buds (broccoli and cauliflower). The culinary system of classification is considerably more ambiguous—fruits are generally sweet and vegetables are more savory.
There are thousands of varieties of pepper from sweet and savory to fiery hot. Most peppers are members of the capsicum family, which derives its name from the chemical capsaicin, an element within peppers that makes them spicy. The amount of capsaicin determines the firepower of the pepper.
The level of heat is officially rated according to the Scoville Scale. Created by Wilbur Scoville in the early twentieth century, the scale measures the amount of capsaicin in a given species of pepper. The Scoville Heat Units (or SHUs) of a pepper represent the number of times the capsaicin within the pepper would have to be diluted before it would be undetectable.
For example, you would have to dilute the capsaicin found in the average jalapeño 2,500 times before it would have no spiciness at all. Bell peppers are the only common pepper to not produce capsaicin. The hottest pepper on record is the Naga Viper, scoring nearly 1.4 million SHUs. Many grocery store produce shelves feature labels for their pepper varieties which note SHU ratings.
No matter the variety, peppers contain vitamins and other chemical compounds that are good for the body. Although naturally low in calories, just one cup of peppers provides 100 percent of the total daily requirement of vitamins A and C. Peppers also contain powerful immunity-boosting antioxidants helpful in the prevention of cancer, heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. Colorful red and orange peppers contain carotenoids helpful to eye health and the prevention of cataracts and macular degeneration. The fiber in peppers helps lower cholesterol and promotes digestion.
Originating in Central and South America and dating back thousands of years, peppers thrive in warm-weather conditions. Although peppers can be grown from seeds in any temperate environment protected from frost, most gardeners prefer to buy young plants and set them into the garden, prepared with well-drained organic soil, after the danger of frost has passed. Pepper plants love sand, as many varieties originated in areas with sandy soils. Nurseries even offer ornamental varieties for colorful patio decoration. Be sure to buy plants according to their intended use, whether culinary or ornamental. Some growers may use chemicals for decorative plants which are dangerous if used for culinary purposes.
Peppers are not seasonal fruits, which mean they are widely available at farmers’ markets and grocery stores throughout the year. Cooks can flexibly use peppers to jazz up almost any food combination—soups, sauces, fresh salsas, salads, stir-frys or main dishes.
With a seemingly endless variety of peppers available to the average consumer, making a call on which pepper to use can sometimes be a daunting task, leaving many budding chefs feeling like there are only two safe options: jalapeños for spicy, bell peppers for not spicy. While this is a safe method, why not get a little adventurous? Whether valued for their beauty or nutritional brawn, there is a tasty, crunchy, spicy pepper for almost every purpose.
common peppers and
how they compare:
bell – Shaped as the name would suggest, bell peppers are smooth, shiny and generally about the size of a man’s fist. Easily the most popular of peppers, they range in color from green to red, orange, yellow, brown and even black, with no measurable heat on the Scoville scale. Green bell peppers are the most pungent, while the other colors are more mellow and sweet. They can be served raw, sautéed, grilled, stuffed, or nearly any way cooks can imagine.
banana – Resembling mini bananas, hence the name, they are most often yellow, though they can mature to a reddish hue. Banana peppers score a 0 to 500 on the heat scale. The Hungarian Wax Pepper is sold as a hotter variety of banana pepper. Sometimes stuffed, or sliced and pickled, banana peppers are a crunchy addition to pizza and sandwiches.
peperoncini – Often confused with banana peppers, and used interchangeably, peperoncini are small, yellow to light green peppers, which turn red when mature, with 0 to 500 SCUs. Considered mild, they are often used in Greek and Italian cuisine in salads, pickled, stuffed, or served with antipasto platters.
poblano – Stout dark green peppers, roughly triangular, with thick outer walls and a spicy, sometimes smoky flavor, poblanos are often stuffed to make the popular Mexican dish chiles rellenos. They are especially tasty when grilled and are also commonly available dried (then known as Ancho Chiles). They score about 2,000 SHUs.
anaheim Chile – These peppers resemble poblanos but are a lighter green, longer in length and slightly hotter (2,500 SHUs). They turn red as they mature. Anaheims can be used in the same ways as poblanos, but with warmer results.
jalapeño – Probably the most popular hot pepper, jalapeños are small but spicy, especially when used with their seeds. They score about 5,000 heat units. Most often green, jalapeños are versatile—added to salsa, sliced for sandwiches, stuffed as an appetizer, grilled or chopped as an ingredient.
fresno – Comparable to jalapeños in size and heat (5,000 SHUs), Fresno peppers appear green on the vine but mature to orange and deep red when fully ripe. They are most commonly used in salsa or pico de gallo.
cayenne – One of the truly fiery peppers, Cayennes are skinny, wrinkled and red, and often referred to as devil fingers (60,000 SHUs). Cayenne peppers figure prominently in Cajun recipes, but are most commonly dried and ground into powder or flakes to add into sauces.
habanero – Probably the most well-known of the scorching hot varieties (100,000 to 350,000 SHUs), habaneros are small bell-shaped peppers which are green when unripe, but color through pinks and oranges to a bright red as they ripen. Palatable only to those with a very high heat tolerance for food, they are often used to provide the spicy element to salsas, chili and hot sauces.
now, pick a pepper
Armed with the basics, and a slate of bold options, make a list. Seek a recipe. Shop the grocery store or farmers’ market—pick a pepper. Better yet, peruse the seed catalogues. Visit a nursery and select a score of plants to brighten up the garden and spice up the kitchen.