Jalapeños were the gateway.
After that came habaneros, serranos, cayennes, poblanos, red Anaheims, and Hungarian purples. Betsy Burlingame loves them all for “their intense flavor,” which ranges from herbaceous and vegetal to sweet and spicy.
Peppers, she says, “just add spice to your life.”
Burlingame (’72 Psych., ’94 Bus.), a WSU Extension Clallam County Master Gardener for nearly a decade, spices up her life with peppers she grows herself. She puts them in eggs and on sandwiches—and has pickled her own peppers “for years now.” She also makes her own blackberry-habanero marmalade—a particular favorite—as well as salsa and hot sauce, saving the leftover pulp and freezing it in small scoops—“I call them hot flavor bombs”—to add to soups, stews, and chili. And she uses her homemade dried chile powder for flavoring poblano cream sauce, tamales, tacos, and enchiladas.
Her advice: “Pick your favorite and grow that. You’ve got to start somewhere. Why not start with your favorite, what you buy most at the store? I started with jalapeños, then I branched out. Now, I grow six or eight varieties every year.”
Peak pepper season in the Pacific Northwest runs July through October. But Sequim, where Burlingame has lived for nearly two dozen years, is “so far north that we don’t really start getting going until September. The temperature does not stay above 50 degrees at night here until July or August, and that’s one of the key factors. If you can control the temperature and keep things warm at night you can have better success.”
Peppers grow best where it’s warm. They like six to eight hours of sunlight per day and prefer well-drained, fertile soil that stays between 65 to 70 degrees. “They don’t like to grow when their feet are cold,” says Burlingame, who grows most of her pepper plants in her greenhouse.
“Our summers are short,” she explains. And she really enjoys jalapeño poppers. She also likes to infuse tequila with jalapeños. “The longer you leave them in there, the hotter it will be,” she notes. “It doesn’t take very long—just a couple of hours—and it makes great margaritas. It just adds a nice zing to your drink.”
Of course, some like it hot. And others like it even hotter.
The Scoville scale—named for Wilbur L. Scoville’s 1912 test—measures the concentration of capsaicin, the chemical compound that produces piquancy sensations in people. The more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper. The Carolina Reaper, for example, averages just over 1.5 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU). By comparison, habaneros—considered fiery by most palates—range from 100,000 to 350,000, while jalapeños generally rank from 2,500 to 8,000. Red cayenne peppers typically register around 30,000 SHUs, while poblanos fall in the 1,000 to 2,000 range.
Bell peppers, which don’t produce capsaicin, are perhaps most approachable—landing at the bottom of the scale with a score of zero. These sweet peppers are among the most well-known and commonly used members of the nightshade genus Capsicum.
Peppers come in a rainbow of colors—from green and yellow to orange, red, and even harder-to-find purple and chocolate-brown. Raw bell peppers of any color are crisp, refreshing, and a bit grassy in flavor. Red, the most ripened, is sweetest. Chop them up for a pop of color and crunch in salads, salsas, and guacamole. Because of their boxy shape, they’re perfect for stuffing and roasting. They’re also great for grilling. (Think kebabs.)
Elongated poblanos—spicier than bells, but still mild—are also great for stuffing. Consider beans and rice, shredded meat, sweet corn, diced tomatoes and onions, and plenty of melty cheese. Dried poblanos, known as ancho peppers, pair with chocolate to make a rich molé sauce.
Piquant varieties—such as jalapeños and cayennes—pair especially well with creamy, soft, mild cheese, says John Haugen (’93 Civ. Eng.), manager of WSU Creamery. Its Hot Pepper flavor was already popular 30 years ago when he started working there as a student. The cheese features diced jalapeños in Viking cheese, which Haugen describes as “similar to Monterey jack.” But, he says, “People were still asking for something hotter.” And their requests led to Crimson Fire! (Yes, the exclamation point is part of the name.)
“I was here when we started developing it,” Haugen says, recalling, “There was a contest for naming it.” Since then, the award-winning cheese has become one of the creamery’s top sellers—along with classic Cougar Gold. Crimson Fire! features both jalapeño and cayenne peppers and remains the creamery’s only reduced-fat cheese, offering a third less fat than regular Viking cheese.
If it’s still not hot enough, there’s an aged Ghost Pepper cheese made with either Cougar Gold or Smoky Cheddar—depending on availability—and only for sale on a limited basis in person at Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe at WSU Pullman. WSU Creamery also makes a seasonal Red Pepper Garlic cheese featuring cayenne pepper in Viking cheese.
Most heat seekers—including fans of WSU Creamery’s spicy cheeses—largely have fifteenth- and sixteenth-century traders and explorers to thank. They introduced peppers to the Old World and helped spread them around the globe. By Christopher Columbus’s 1492 journey, black pepper was literally worth its weight in gold. The rise of the Ottoman Empire and fall of Constantinople to the Turks had disrupted trade routes and sent its price skyrocketing. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella asked Columbus to bring back both black pepper and gold—along with a westward route to the East Indies. Instead, he bumped into Caribbean islands where chile peppers were a long-established dietary staple. Evidence shows they were cultivated and traded as early as some 6,000 years ago in areas of the Americas—predating the invention of pottery in some places.
Peppers are native to Central and South America, and their use can be traced from ancient Mexico and Peru to the Bahamas—where Columbus landed and tried what the natives called aji. He was taken aback by the spicy bite and introduced aji as an alternative to black pepper when he returned to Spain in 1493. After that, explorers and traders—first Spanish and Portuguese, then Dutch and British—helped spread peppers around the globe from Europe to India, West Africa, East Asia, and beyond. The slave trade expanded the use of pepper in North America, where the woody-stemmed plants grew easily in warmer areas. Thomas Jefferson cultivated cayenne, bell, bullnose, and Texas bird peppers in his famed garden at Monticello in Virginia.
Low in calories and rich in vitamin C, peppers are also good sources of vitamins A and B-6 as well as potassium. They’re widely available and relatively cheap—one of the things that made them become so popular so fast hundreds of years ago.
In general, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it will be. But climate also affects a pepper’s pungency. Long hot days prompt peppers to produce more capsaicin, which triggers the body’s pain response system.
“If you take a bite of a habanero pepper you feel like your mouth is on fire,” says Muriel Nesbitt, a retired University of California San Diego biology professor who lives in Port Angeles and has been a WSU Extension Clallam County Master Gardener just over a decade. “The capsaicin interacts with a neuroreceptor that is also used to detect harmful levels of heat. It sends a message to the brain that says we’re being burned. It’s a false perception.
“Most mammals aren’t willing to eat peppers,” Nesbitt says. “Humans seem to be the exception. We somehow find the pain pleasurable—or, some of us do. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to Scoville Heat Units.”
If, like Nesbitt, you can’t take the heat, don’t reach for water or beer. “The secret is oil,” she says. “Capsaicin is an oily substance. It’s not water-soluble, but will dissolve in oils and fats. If you have cream cheese or bacon grease that will help dilute it a bit.” (Think jalapeño poppers.) A glass of milk or spoon of yogurt or ice cream will also help.
Look for peppers that are bright, shiny, firm, and free from cuts and soft spots. They shouldn’t have moldy stems or wrinkled skin, either. For less heat, Burlingame and Nesbitt recommend removing the seeds and white pith where most of the capsaicin is stored.
Nesbitt enjoys jalapeños and grows some red and purple peppers, but that’s where she draws the line. “If you ever try a Carolina Reaper,” she says, “call me up and tell me how it was.”
(This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Washington State Magazine.)