Gluttons for punishment, some people relish the challenge of swallowing the hottest chile peppers in the universe. Luckily, you don’t have to go to that extreme to enjoy chiles, which range from blistering hot to mildly spicy. Listen to learn more about these popular taste—and garden—sensations.
This segment of The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Musings podcast series was written by George and Becky Lohmiller and is read by Heidi Stonehill, an Almanac editor.
Who would eat something knowing that it could scorch their lips, torture their tongue, cause uncontrollable sweating and watery eyes, and require rubber gloves to prepare? They are the chile-lovers, or chile-heads, as they are known in the Southwest—people who trade chili recipes and attend chili cook-offs, which are the equivalent of New England’s pie-judging contests. (Here, we are using the word chile to refer to a hot pepper, and chili to describe the often-fiery dish made from ground meat, beans, and, of course, chiles.)
Unlike bell and other sweet peppers, chiles contain a pungent alkaloid called capsaicin, which is so powerful that it can blister the skin. Chiles range from the mildly spicy ‘Numex Big Jim’, with little capsaicin, to the three-alarm-fire taste of the orange habanero. In general, the smaller a chile is, the hotter it is. Some people believe that it’s only the red peppers that are really hot, but in fact, some green and yellow varieties can be even more potent than many red ones.
If you bite into a chile that brings tears to your eyes, don’t reach for water. Instead, try a spoonful of yogurt or sour cream, or drink a little milk. Milk products all contain casein, a compound that breaks down the bond between capsaicin and the pain receptors in your mouth.
Chiles are native to Central and South America and were not known in Europe until Columbus introduced them in 1493. Spanish explorers brought chiles north to Mexico and the Southwest. In their native habitat, chiles are long-lived perennials; but in our gardens, they must be treated as annuals. By carefully selecting the varieties, you can plant just the right chile for your taste buds. Chiles require a steady water supply—not too much, not too little—so that blossoms don’t drop before the fruit has set.
Besides being tasty, chiles are beautiful. Different varieties offer green, red, orange, yellow, and even purple fruits. Plant some of the more ornate ones along with annuals and perennials or in a shrub border. They are sure to be a hot topic of conversation.