Growing peppers, hot and hotter


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Contributor May 9, 2012

Peppers are hot these days, both in the kitchen and the garden. Cooks stir up fiery Thai and Indian curries, or spicy Jamaican stews, and seed companies stand ready to light the match for those who grow their own heat.

Burpee offers 13 hot peppers (compared with 20 sweet), each marked with one, two or three little red flames, to signal “mildly hot,” “red hot” or “12 alarm.” John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds has 17 hot (14 sweet), listed in ascending rank on the Scoville scale, from barely warm Pepperoncinis (100 to 500 Scoville heat units) all the way to the incendiary Caribbean Red Habanero, with up to 400,000. That’s well below police-grade pepper spray, at 5 million, but hot enough to get some respect.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

Pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville’s famous rating system, developed in 1912, started with a cocktail of powdered pepper extract dissolved in alcohol and mixed with sugar water. For each pepper, testers sipped a series of dilutions until they could no longer detect any burn. You’d think that they’d do it the other way around, adding pepper until it becomes noticeable, much like a hearing test in which you press a buzzer as soon as you hear a sound. That’s what Craig Dremman of the Redwood City Seed Co. did when he created his Craig Dremman’s Hotness Scale. His and Sue Dremman’s hot pepper offerings are a treasury of diversity.

Today, Scoville’s test is not much in use, even though his heat units still are. Pepper heat — which is fueled by compounds called capsaicins — is generally measured in a lab using high-performance liquid chromatography. The results are then translated into Scoville units, using a formula.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds (which lists an even split of 19 hot and 19 sweet) rates its hots with little red pepper symbols. For example, Red Hot Lantern, a habanero, earned five peppers for its “mouth-blistering heat.” I asked Johnny’s founder Rob Johnston to explain the rating system. His response: “Steve Bellavia, our trials manager, takes a bite. Janicka Eckert, our breeder, does, too. They consult.” Bellavia is a passionate pepper-lover whose palate is one to trust. So is your own, because taste is highly subjective.

Handle pepper fruits with caution, trying subsequently not to touch sensitive areas such as your eyes. I asked Paul W. Boseland, the illustrious pepper specialist at New Mexico State University, whether it’s true that all the heat is in the seeds and ribs, not the outer flesh. He said, “Only the placenta or ribs express the capsaicinoids; the seeds do not have heat. However, when cutting the chile pepper pod, the capsaicinoids can ‘splash’ on the seeds and fruit walls, making them hot.”

In case of injury, don’t try to wash the heat compounds away, because they are soluble not in water but in fat. Cream, alcohol, sugar and something cold will, together, ease the scorched tongue. Sounds like a job for a White Russian on the rocks, made with vodka, Kahlua and cream. Goes great with salsa.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”

Tip of the week

Tomato and pepper plants that have been hardened off can be planted out. Wait two weeks before sowing cucumber and squash seeds. The soil is still too cold for rapid germination and growth.

— Adrian Higgins

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