The time is ripe to pick up a peck of peppers.
As a nation, we eat more peppers than ever, on average about 16 pounds a year. Of that, about 10 pounds will be bell peppers.
What to do with all those peppers? Skin, stuff, stir-fry, freeze, roast and, yes, pickle them. A building block of many cuisines, peppers come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors. Degrees of heat range from zero to off the charts.
How hot can they get? Pepper heat, or pungency, is measured in Scoville units, named for chemist Wilbur Scoville. In 1912, Scoville came up with a highly subjective testing method, diluting liquefied pepper juice or pure ground chili with sugar water. He created a formula based on the drops needed to cool the heat to where it no longer burned a taster’s mouth. Instead of tasters, liquid chromatography now measures the Scoville units.
Peppers get their heat from the compound capsaicin (cap-SAY-ah-sin). Pure capsaicin rates between 15 million and 16 million Scoville units. The world’s hottest pepper is believed to be a hybrid Bangladeshi pepper, the Dorset naga, developed in England. It measures 1.6 million units.
Pepper heat register
Habanero: Originally from Yucatan, these little pointy peppers became famous in Havana, Cuba; hence the name.
Heat range: 150,000-575,000 units Scotch bonnet: Native to the West Indies, this pepper’s name comes from its Tam o’Shanter shape.
Heat range: 150,000-325,000 Cayenne: Usually used dried, this very skinny 5-inch pepper looks like a red witch’s finger.
Heat range: 30,000-50,000 Serrano: Their name comes from serranias, which means “foothills”; they originated in the foothills north of Pueblo, Mexico.
Heat range: 8,000-22,000 Jalapeño: Looking like green and red Christmas tree lights, they’re named for the Mexican city of Jalapa in the state of Veracruz.
Heat range: 2,500-8,000 Anaheim: Actually a New Mexican chile in origin, this 7-inch favorite got its name from Emelio Ortega’s California ranch.
Heat range: 500-2,500 Poblano: A fresh favorite for stuffing from Pueblo, Mexico (where it gets its name); when dried, it’s called ancho or mulato.
Heat range: 1,000-2,000 Pepperoncini: Also called Tuscan, these very mild peppers are often pickled.
Heat range: 100-500 Banana pepper: Also known as yellow wax, these sweeties are homegrown favorites.
Heat range: 0 Bell pepper: Immature green bells are America’s favorite.
Heat range: 0
Peel a pepper
Peppers peel easily if they are charred first. If using a broiler indoors, make sure the kitchen is well ventilated, because pepper fumes can be caustic.
Rinse peppers and poke with a fork so steam can escape. Place on hot grill or 6 inches under broiler. Char the outer skin until blackened and blistered, turning the peppers often with tongs. Put the charred peppers in a paper bag and fold down the top to seal. Let them sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Then, peel the peppers by scraping off the charred skins with a paring knife or running under water.
• Wear latex or plastic gloves when handling peppers. Capsaicin can burn skin and eyes. To remove capsaicin from hands, rub a little cooking oil on your fingers to break up the pepper residue, then wash hands with liquid detergent.
• When stuffing fresh peppers with a mixture that includes raw meat (such as sausage or ground beef ), bake until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, usually about 45 minutes to an hour.
• Peter Piper set the standard with his pickled peppers, but how many did he pick? A peck measures 9.31 quarts, so the number of peppers varies by size and variety. According to Rough- Equivalents.com, a peck equals 139 fresh mini-sweet peppers, 456 pickled pepperoncinis or 493 pickled jalapenos.
Pepper prep Cooked vegetable stuffings such as ratatouille don’t need as much oven time, so parboil the peppers first. Drop cored peppers into boiling water with 2 teaspoons sugar and 1 tablespoon white vinegar. Reduce heat. Let peppers simmer for 5 minutes, then drain and stuff.
Fresh peppers are quick and easy to make in the refrigerator. Use white vinegar or white wine vinegar to avoid discoloring the peppers. Poke a hole in each pepper to keep it from floating.
Combine two cups vinegar, two cups sugar, one teaspoon non-iodized salt, one teaspoon dill seed and 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed in a saucepan and simmer over low heat for five minutes. Put eight to 10 roasted and peeled Anaheim chiles (whole or sliced) in a quart jar. Add three cloves of garlic, cut into slivers. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least three days before using. The peppers will keep in the refrigerator for six months or more.
For the Anaheim chiles, substitute one pound whole and unpeeled jalapeno, serrano, banana, cherry, habanero or pepperoncini. Store four weeks before serving.
Source: The Complete Chile Pepper Book by Dave DeWitt and Paul Bosland (Timber Press, 2009) (c) 2010, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).