Hot peppers thrive in Kentucky’s summer

Story and Photos by Andrea Dee

Some Like it Hot
Some like it hot and some like it hotter! The odorless, oily compound called capsaicin in peppers is what gives them their “heat.” Capsaicin causes sensory neurons to make your body think it is experiencing excessive heat, similar to a physical burn. The Scoville scale, developed by chemist Wilbur Scoville, measures a pepper’s degree of heat relative to how much sugar-water is needed to dilute the capsaicin to the point your body no longer reacts.
Jalapeños are much milder compared to cayenne types and the even hotter habanero. Most of the capsaicin oil is found around the seeds, so be careful when seeding hot peppers and wear kitchen gloves. The seeds are naturally protected by this oil to defend against animals that might destroy seeds when eating peppers. Capsaicin increases when plants are stressed after flowering. So for milder flavor, irrigate plants regularly; alternatively wait until leaves shrivel before watering to increase the heat. 

Starting from Seed 
In Kentucky, pepper seeds should be started indoors eight to 10 weeks before planting. Most pepper seeds sprout approximately one week after being planted in a light soil mix and misted regularly with water. Their preferred germination temperature is 70-80 F. Once seedlings have sprouted, move them to individual pots. Planting peppers outdoors is not recommended until night temperatures average around 55 to 60 F, which usually occurs in late May.

Poblano peppers ripening in the summer garden.

Cultivation and Care
Peppers thrive in most Kentucky soils with moderate water. They are light feeders and usually do not require much if any additional fertilizer in the home garden. Peppers do prefer full sun, requiring a minimum of six hours of sunlight to yield vigorously. Plant disease-resistant varieties to avoid anthracnose, mosaic, and bacterial spot problems. Pests are not usually a problem on peppers other than the occasional caterpillar infestation, which can easily be combatted with organic pesticides with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) as the main ingredient. 

Heated Harvest
Hot peppers can be picked at varying levels or ripeness. Under-ripe peppers are green; the flavor enhances as they turn color. Avoid tugging on pepper fruits when harvesting since this may break branches off or uproot plants. Instead use a snips to separate fruits from their stem.

Always wear kitchen gloves when seeding hot peppers. Capsaicin can cause physical burn.

To preserve peppers for the winter, pick peppers when ripe and then chop small and freeze for use later. Some peppers can also be dried and crushed for use later, like red chili peppers. First, string peppers with a sewing needle and fishing line, and then let cure in a warm dry environment. Peppers usually take three to four weeks to dry completely. Crushing with a food processor or similar tool requires open-air and eye protection, as capsaicin is still pungent in dried peppers. Always wear kitchen gloves and wash hands when handling hot peppers to avoid irritation.




Use this list to determine which hot pepper suits your recipe best according to description and level of heat

Poblano: Smokey flavored pepper commonly used in mole sauces, chile rellenos, and egg dishes.
Favorite cultivar: ‘Ancho Gigantea’ favored for its large size. Use in recipes calling for green chiles or let ripen to red and dry for crushed red pepper flake.
Scoville units: 1,000-2,000

Jalapeno: Often eaten raw or pickled, added to chili, or filled with cheeses and baked.
Favorite cultivars: ‘Tam’ jalapeño is favored for its mild flavor, pleasing those who like jalapeño flavor but want to forgo the heat. ‘Mammoth’ jalapeño is another fun, but hotter, choice. Also great for stuffing due to their large size.
Scoville units: 3,000-7,000

Cayenne: Popularly powdered for use in curry, spicy soups, and meat dishes.
Favorite cultivar: ‘Red Rocket’ is early to fruit and thin walled, therefore quick to dry.
Scoville units: 10,000-30,000

Tabasco: Staple pepper in hot sauce recipes.
Favorite cultivar: ‘Tabasco’, made famous in Louisiana as the main ingredient in Tabasco hot sauce.
Scoville units: 30,000-50,000

Habanero: Main ingredient in the hottest pepper sauces and used in commercial pepper spays.
Favorite cultivar: ‘Zavory’ is a trickster red habanero with mild flavor measuring just 100 Scoville units, if you’re looking to fib friends with your hot pepper perseverance. 
Scoville units: 100,000-350,000




One of my favorite brunch meals is a simple skillet of chopped onions, potatoes, and a medley of sweet and hot peppers from the garden.

A formal recipe isn’t really necessary, that is the beauty of a hash (derived from the French word hacher meaning “to chop”). Just sauté the potatoes and veggies you have fresh in the garden and top with cheese, sauces, and other Tex-Mex ingredients you may have on hand. Here are some suggested ingredients but the possibilities are endless, and the final product is serendipitously delicious.

Starch: Diced Potatoes or hash browns 
Veggies: Onions, zucchini, squash, sweet peppers, hot peppers
Cheese: Feta, queso fresco, cheddar
Sauces: Salsa, hot pepper sauce, crema or sour cream, chile con queso 
Toppers: Cilantro, parsley, avocado, over-easy egg, cooked bacon, or other breakfast meat

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