History of Peppers
Spicy peppers have long been a staple in cuisines from all over the world ever since the Columbus and the Portuguese explorers carried them away from the New World. While Europeans mostly grew them decoratively, in other areas of the world, the flavor made them instantly popular and peppers were immediately carried everywhere that there were trade routes.
Peppers originated in Central America and have been used by humans for over 6000 years (some archeological finds in Mexico suggest use back as far as 9000 years). The spiciness not only adds piquancy to food, but also deters mold growth and spoilage - very important in the hot, humid area of the world where the peppers were first domesticated! Early Europeans reported that the Mayans and Aztecs ate pepper in almost every dish. It was thought to give strength to the body and cure disease. Burning peppers were used for fumigation, peppers were used during rituals, and as a preventative for witchcraft.
Mesoamerican trade routes rapidly carried peppers throughout that part of the world, and peppers joined corn, beans, and squash as one of the four basic foods of the Americas.
Heat of Peppers
The chemical that causes the spicy flavor and feeling of heat is called capsaicin. In wild plants, it helps discourage predation on the fruits by unwanted animals and insects, but not from the birds which helped carry the seeds far and wide.
In domesticated plants, humans seek to find the pepper that gives the perfect balance and heat and flavor for their tastes. Pepper aficionados have worked to develop a wide range of tastes and degrees of hotness, from the fairly tame jalapeno to varieties like Habanero that can actually cause injury if consumers are not careful. A way of measuring the heat of pepper was developed by Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacist, in 1912.
A bell pepper has a Scoville measurement of 0; a jalapeno, between 3500 and 10000; a Habanero, between 100000 and 300000. And selective breeding has developed well beyond that - the previous world record holder, the Carolina Reaper, has a Scoville of 1.57 million. A new variety - Dragons Breath - has a Scoville of 2.48 million, and is not edible; the oils are so potent they can actually act as an anesthetic. It was developed accidentally while researching plants.
However, most peppers do not go to these extremes. Selective breeding and pepper development has led to an incredibly wide range of peppers available for gardeners and cooks. Seed Needs carries a wide variety of hot pepper seeds so that you can explore and maybe even develop your own peppers.
Uses of Peppers
Hot peppers of different varieties are used in national cuisines around the world. From Hungarian paprikash, Chinese Sichuan cooking, Italian Arrabiata sauce, Indian spicy curries, to traditional Central American cooking, there are very few cuisines that don't use hot peppers. You will never run out of new recipes to try and new foods to explore when cooking with hot peppers! However, when handling hot peppers wear gloves. The capsaicin can actually burn you. Even washing doesn't get rid of the oils, as far to many cooks have discovered when they rubbed their eyes later that night. Water does not remove it; if you start to experience burning, wash with milk or yogurt.
Hot peppers have uses in health. They are good for cardiac health. They help you adjust to warm temperatures by inducing sweating. They may boost your metabolism. They may boost your immune system, and may even extend your life; one study found that people who ate a spicy diet were 14% less likely to die. Capsaicin is used as a topical analgesic; many of the patches and creams that are sold to rub into sore muscles or arthritic joints have capsaicin as an active ingredient.
Hot peppers are nutritious. The fruit is rich in Vitamins A, B6, and C and contains beta-carotenes.
Growing Hot Peppers
If you are in a temperate area, start the seeds inside 8-10 weeks before planting season - that means you will be starting them in January or February. Hot peppers take longer to germinate that bell peppers and can be pickier about conditions. Keep them warm - about 80F - during germination. Many growers put hot pepper seeds between moist paper towels in a ziploc bag kept in a warm place (like on top of the fridge) and once they've sprouted, they put them into pots. Once the leaves show move the peppers to a sunny window until it is time to transplant them outside.
3 weeks after the last expected frost, transplant your peppers out to your garden. For a week or so ahead of time, harden them up for adjustment outside. Do this by blowing a fan on them for a few hours a day, or by gently brushing your hand across them so that the stems strengthen by movement. Do not plant out until nighttime temperatures are at least 55-60F.
Peppers need to be in a sunny spot with at least 6-8 hours of light a day, and well drained soil and a lot of organic material. Plant them 16-18 inches apart. They need consistent moisture, but must not be over-watered. Use mulch to help keep away too much evaporation.
Hot pepper plants vary in size depending on variety; they can be anywhere from 1 to 3 feet tall. The fruits vary from a little over an inch up to 6 or 7 inches in length, and may be rounded or long and narrow.
Hot peppers are usually resistant to pests, since most pests don't like capsaicin. However, they can sometimes be beset by aphids, tomato hornworm, cutworms, or beetles, especially if there are other plants in your garden that have these pests.
When harvesting, you need to balance frequent harvesting, which will encourage continual growth, or letting the fruit grow to maturity, which will allow the flavors fully develop but will discourage growth of new fruit. Consider planting at least two plants of each type, and letting one ripen completely while regularly picking the other one. When picking, don't just pull at the fruit. That can damage the plant; cut it off with a sharp knife or scissors.
Try to use peppers within a couple of days. Avoid refrigerating them; peppers don't do well in the cold. To store peppers, you can freeze them, can them, pickle them, or dry them.