Tuesday, 17 July, 2001
Peppers. Debra planted quite a few different kinds of peppers in the garden this spring, and most have done well. Only the Ancho peppers didn't survive, and the sweet banana peppers didn't bear much fruit. We're drowning in habaeros, though, and the jalapeos, Thai chilies, gypsy bells, and cayenne peppers are doing very well along with the tomatoes. The picture to the left is a small sample of what we pulled out of the garden today. Although I've always liked peppers in particular and spicy food in general, I'm hardly a Chilie head. I can handle a good jalapeno raw, but nothing much hotter than that. We'll use hotter peppers for cooking, but not to eat raw.
Habaneros are especially dangerous because they're so much hotter than jalapenos--the most common of the hot peppers. Pepper hotness is expressed in terms of Scoville Units--the dilution ratio at which people can detect the heat. Cherry peppers (the "coolest" next to bell peppers which have almost no heat), for example, are detectable in a solution of 1 part pepper to 100 parts water, giving it a Scoville Units value of 100. Jalapenos come in at about 2,500 to 5,000. Habaneros, at the top of the scale, weigh in at 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville Units. They're 20 to 50 times hotter than a jalapeno. Ouch! That's unfortunate, too, because habanero peppers are very tasty. If you're interested in how your favorite pepper ranks, a good place to start is the Pepper Heat Scale.
There are more accurate and less subjective ways to measure the heat of peppers. In this test, peppers are dried and ground, and then the capsaicinoids (the chemicals responsible for the heat) are extracted and injected into a High-Performance Liquid Chromatograph for analysis. See the Chemistry and Scoville Units page for more details. I do not recommend that you attempt the procedure described at the end of this page.
Chili peppers (not related to black pepper) are a New World crop that has spread across the world in the 500 years since Columbus first brought them back to Europe. I found this surprising considering how popular peppers are in Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese dishes. The Chilie-Heads page linked above is a good place to start if you're interested in learning more about the science or history of the genus Capsicum. A more academic and less approachable article is Peppers: History and Exploitation of a Serendipitous New Crop Discovery.