By Master Gardener Marianne McNiel
Harvest time is upon us! Farmers and gardeners, including myself, are extremely busy this time of year. In my garden, the peppers are especially prolific. My peppers were a bit late to ripen. This might have been caused by the cooler weather. My husband and daughter are happy about the abundant peppers because they absolutely love hot chili peppers! I think they are a bit crazy and have some strange genetic defect of their taste buds. This year, we grew ‘Biker Billy’ jalapeño (Capsicum annuum), a hot chili pepper from Portugal and two types of habañero (Capsicum chinense ‘Habañero’): standard and ‘Caribbean Red’. My family made two batches of hot sauce that I was afraid to try (and I grew up eating spicy food in Texas)!
Capsicum or peppers is a genus of flowering plants in the nightshade family Solanaceae. Although hot chili peppers have been eaten and used for medicinal purposes by native people in South and Central America for thousands of years, the chili pepper was first discovered by Europeans, including Columbus, in the Caribbean. These early explorers learned the flavor of this fruit was unique and spicy! The hot chili peppers that are used in Indian and Thai cuisine are also thought to originate from Central and South America. Today, many varieties of chili peppers are available at your local farms, farm stands and markets!
It seems that hot chili peppers have become increasingly popular in our area during the last few years. This has been partly due to the efforts of Meadow View Farms and the Bowers Pepper Festival in Berks County. If you haven’t attended this delightful event, and you are a spicy food lover like my husband and daughter, what are you waiting for? The festival was in its 11th year and there were almost 100 vendors from states as far away as Illinois. Of course, there is live music and a jalapeño eating contest! It is very well attended so we arrived early to beat the crowds. We bought jalapeño relish, hot mustard and pickled hot green tomatoes. We also toured Meadow View Farms where nearly 100 varieties of peppers are grown for you to pick, including some unusual varieties like the ‘Chocolate’ or black habañero that takes a long time to mature, and the Trinidad moruga scorpion (Capsicum chinense), one of the hottest peppers in the world. This scorpion pepper is so named because of its hot flavor and its little curled “tail” at the end that looks like a scorpion tail.
The “hot” taste of chili peppers is caused by chemical compounds known as capsaicinoids. Many folks have become so fascinated by hot chili peppers that it is now fashionable to argue about what pepper is actually the hottest. This led to the development of the Scoville Organoleptic Test. This test was invented by an American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. In the test, human subjects taste a series of prepared samples to determine the heat level. The samples are diluted in the laboratory until the heat can no longer be detected by the tasters. A single unit of dilution is called a Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). This is a somewhat subjective test since it depends on the tasters and their constant exposure to hot flavor. Now, a more exact chemical analysis known as high-performance liquid chromatography can be performed, but this test is quite expensive. Years ago, it was thought that the habañero was the hottest pepper around. Later, the ghost or bhut jolokia pepper (hybrid of mostly C. chinense with some C. frutescens genes) was ruled the hottest. The Trinadad scorpion (Capsicum chinense) was declared the hottest in 2007, but now the ‘Carolina Reaper’ (hybrid Capsicum chinense) is thought to be the hottest (according to the Guinness Book of World Records). I really don’t care which pepper is the hottest because a pickled jalapeño is about the hottest that I can stand to eat.
Chili peppers are also grown for their ornamental value and you can find them at local nurseries this time of year. They come in a variety of beautiful colors from yellow, orange, red to purple. If you buy fresh chili peppers from the market or at a farm stand you should wear gloves when handling them. The seeds are especially a problem for some people when handling. For the hottest types, I would avoid using the seeds in any sauces or dishes for normal consumption! Peppers can be frozen, canned, marinated, pickled or dried. I have attached a link to a Penn State Extension article concerning the steps for safe preservation of peppers. If you are in the mood for some hot peppers, you still may be able to get some at Meadow View Farms in Bowers. You may want to call first to determine availability. So go pick a peck of peppers for pickling!
Origin of Domesticated Chili Peppers
Bowers Pepper Festival:
Measuring Chili Pepper Heat:
Pepper Production and Preservation: