Sweet pepper and chili pepper: your taste buds tell you instantly they are two different things. One has a mild taste and is eaten as a vegetable, the other is has a burning taste and is used as a condiment and in hot sauces. One is big and the other is small. They’re two different plants, right?
Well, no, not from a botanical point of view. Both share the same Latin name: Capsicum annuum. There may or not be a bit of added blood from two other species, C. frutescens and C. chinense, especially in the case of chili pepper… but many botanists believe both are just variants of C. annuum. And even if most sweet peppers in the Western world have large cubic fruits (bell peppers) and most chili peppers, small conical ones, in fact either can have fruits large or small, rounded, elongated, conical, cubic or completely irregular. Both too can come in a wide range of colors.
The real difference between chili and sweet peppers is therefore found entirely in the taste: chili peppers contain capsaicin, a pungent component that burns not only the tongue, but even the fingers (you have to wear latex gloves when harvesting very hot peppers). Their burning taste is so overwhelming few people notice their underlying flavors. Sweet peppers, on the other hand, contains no capsaicin or very, very little of it, so richer, sweeter flavors come to the forefront. To measure the effect of capsaicin, Scoville units are used. Sweet peppers usually contain 0 SHU (Scoville heat units), banana peppers a bit more (100 to 500 SHU) while Habanero peppers, said to taste “explosive”, from 200 000 to 300 000 SHU… and pure capsaicin contains an incredible 16 million SHU!
Currently, ‘Carolina Reaper’ holds the world record for the hottest chili pepper: up to 2.2 million SHU. Eating just one fruit of ‘Carolina Reaper’ has sent some consumers to the hospital!
Here is a video of two Americans who dare try eating a ‘Carolina Reaper’ pepper. If they drink industrial quantities of milk, that’s because dairy products reduce the intensity of capsaicin. There are many videos showing such feats on the Internet, so if you’re the slightest bit sadistic: enjoy!
Growing Your Own Peppers
Peppers are tropical plants and therefore only in very mild climates could you consider sowing them directly outdoors. Elsewhere the growing season simply isn’t long enough or warm enough. Most of us will have to start ours indoors, normally between mid-March and early April. You can sow peppers in plastic pots or cell packs, but since the roots are a bit fragile, peat pots are preferable.
In the garden, peppers need a need a spot in full sun. Only plant them out after the soil has thoroughly warmed up: above 60˚F (16˚C). In regions where summers are cool, peppers have to be grow inside of some sort of greenhouse structure: a sheet of clear plastic stapled over a wooden frame will do.
It is not for nothing that countries with hot climates (India, notably) have the reputation for producing the hottest peppers: although the intensity of a pepper is mostly controlled by genetics, the environment also plays a role. Therefore peppers grown at extreme daytime temperatures of up to 90˚F (35˚C), that often suffer from lack of water and that are planted in rather poor soil will give the very hottest peppers. These are the peppers to test for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records!
Well-watered peppers grown in cooler climates and enjoying a nitrogen-rich fertilizer may seem a tad bland to the taste buds of the hot pepper aficionado, but even in cooler climates, you can boost the intensity of hot peppers growing them in a sheltered spot and in containers – preferably dark colored containers – to maximize the heat they receive. Also, avoid nitrogen-rich fertilizers and let the soil dry out slightly between waterings.
That said, genetics still win out over all and a truly hot pepper, like ‘Carolina Reaper’, will still bring fire to your throat, tears to your eyes and probably an ambulance to your door, no matter where it is grown.
Most seed companies offer at least a modest selection of sweet and chili peppers, but you’ll probably have to buy world record class pepper seed, like ‘Carolina Reaper’, from a specialist. Here are two: Pepper North (Canada) and Pepper Joe (United States).