Peppers (Capiscum sp.) are often enlisted to add a welcome culinary kick to the table, but they’re also surprisingly nutritious; they have more vitamin C than citrus as well as good amounts of vitamins A, E and B1. A member of the rather ominously named Nightshade family (Solanaceae) along with eggplants and tomatoes, peppers are wonderfully varied in shape, color, use, and flavor, ranging from mildly sweet to scorching hot.
The spiciness we associate with chili peppers is actually a product of heat: the hotter the growing conditions, the hotter the chili. The hottest pepper in the world is the Tepin pepper, whose round, red, ¼ inch fruit, as tiny as a fingernail, earns a Scoville rating of 600,000 units!
Fun fact: Your taste buds register sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, but when chili lovers speak of the “burn,” they’re being precise. The body’s pain receptors perceive the literal burn caused wherever capsaicin (the chemical that makes peppers hot) touches the body. You “taste” hot peppers via the pain receptors in your mouth rather than the taste buds. Many chili lovers, or “hot heads,” attest to experiencing euphoria similar to a “runner’s high” when they eat the hottest chilies. Researchers have noted that pain receptors stimulated by capsaicin cause the brain to secrete endorphins, the same natural morphine-like chemical that is responsible for the runner’s experience.
All peppers do best with warm growing conditions. Take care to not overfertilize plants, as too much nitrogen in the soil produces tall, dark green plants with little fruit. In temperate zones, start peppers indoors about 50 to 70 days before your frost-free date, sowing seed 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep. Soil temperatures of 75 to 95°F are ideal for germination; young seedlings can handle 70°F day temperatures and as low as 60°F at night. Water plants with warm water to avoid a possibly fatal cold shock. Wait to place transplants into the garden until they are at least 5 to 6 inches tall, 6 to 8 weeks old, and the last frost date is a week or two in the past. Thin seedlings or space plants 1 to 2 feet apart in rows 2 to 3 feet apart. Night temperatures below 60°F and day temperatures above 90°F will inhibit fruit set. 75 to 90 days to maturity for sweet peppers; 65 to 75 days to maturity for hot peppers.
Pick peppers to keep plants producing at full capacity; hot peppers gain in heat with maturity. When frost is imminent, pull up the whole plant, bring indoors, and hang upside down to continue to ripen the fruit. Note: Wear gloves when harvesting or processing hot peppers. Whenever working with cut chilies, keep your hands away from your face, especially your eyes. Keep all chilies—whole, cut, or ground—out of reach of small children!