Hot peppers (Capsicum annuum) have gained popularity in recent years, partly because of the increased interest in Mexican, Caribbean, Thai, Vietnamese, and other exotic cuisines. Luckily, even folks with only a trace of green in their thumbs can successfully grow hot peppers.
Preparing the perfect bed
When planting hot peppers, choose a site that receives 6 to 8 hours of full sun each day—similar to the light requirement for tomatoes. Hot peppers produce higher yields when grown in well-drained soil that contains plenty of organic matter.
You don’t have to confine hot peppers to your vegetable garden. Tuck these attractive plants in herb or flower gardens or pot them up on the patio or deck. They flower profusely, often bearing blossoms and colorful fruits simultaneously. In the flower border, the bright hues of compact hot pepper varieties blend well with dwarf marigolds, zinnias, and verbenas.
Don’t plant or transplant seedlings until temperatures are reliably above 60°F. Hot peppers never recover from a cold shock. The plants grow best with daytime temperatures of 70°F to 80°F and night temperatures above 60°F, so wait until well after the last expected frost in your region before planting.
Depending on the size of the varieties you plant, you should space plants 12 to 18 inches apart. For each plant, dig a hole about 6 inches deep and layer the bottom with about 2 inches of organic matter and a sprinkling of 5-10-10 fertilizer. Set the seedling lower in the ground than it was in its pot, then backfill and carefully press down the soil. Immediately water to remove any air pockets in the soil and help settle the roots.
Watering and fertilizing
Once the plants are established in your garden, they need little attention. However, they do need a moderate supply of water from the moment they sprout until the end of the season. They won’t tolerate saturated soil; the soil must drain well, yet hold enough moisture to keep the plants producing fruit. Use mulch to prevent excessive evaporation from the soil during the dry summer months.
Don’t overfertilize. This tends to make the plants develop lush foliage at the expense of fruit. Peppers are light feeders. If you work 5-10-10 fertilizer into the soil before planting, that’s probably sufficient. You can also side-dress the plants with a light sprinkling of 5-10-10 when they start blossoming to give them a boost.
Harvesting and storing
You can harvest hot peppers at any stage of growth, but their flavor and vitamin content don’t fully develop until they’re mature; hot peppers become hotter as they mature. Peppers are mature when they turn from green to yellow, red, or orange and snap off easily from the plant. (Some peppers are light yellow, lilac, or purple when immature and are harvested before they ripen and turn red. Hot peppers such as jalapeños are often harvested full size but still green; many small hot peppers harvested for drying are harvested when red.)
Capsaicin, the chemical that provides the “heat” in a hot pepper, is in a volatile oil that can actually burn your fingers, sometimes for days afterward. Wear garden gloves when you harvest or handle them. Peppers have shallow roots, so you may wish to cut the fruit from the plant rather than tear it. Use hot peppers the same day you pick them, if possible. Don’t place peppers in the refrigerator—they are warm-weather fruits and do not store well in cold temperatures.
If you have more hot peppers than you can immediately use, they can be dried or pickled. Drying works best with thin-walled hot peppers, particularly the smaller varieties that can be dried right on the plant. Dry peppers slowly to retain their color and flavor. Keep in mind that dried hot peppers are up to 10 times hotter than fresh ones.
Hot peppers also preserve well in alcohol, particularly brandy, rum, and sherry. Simply wash and core the peppers, place them in canning jars to within an inch of the top, fill the jars with alcohol to cover the peppers, and screw on the lids. You don’t even have to refrigerate them‹the alcohol perfectly preserves the peppers, and you can use them later to spice up dishes.
Preparing and eating
Be especially careful when handling blistering hot peppers like Habañero and Thai Dragon. Use latex or rubber gloves and make sure you don’t touch any part of your body, particularly your eyes or mouth, when handling these peppers. (Some people even use goggles or a scuba mask to keep the burning oil out of their eyes.) If you’re eating hot peppers and you feel like your mouth has just caught fire, don’t reach for ice water—it will only spread the fiery oil throughout your mouth. Instead, have some milk or yogurt, which counteract capsaicin. Bread will also absorb the oil and cool you down a bit.
What makes hot peppers valuable is their versatility in a wide range of cuisines. Check out some cookbooks and don’t be afraid to experiment.