Common Questions and Answers :
- What are chilli peppers ?
- Will my chilli plants last over winter ?
- How are chilli plants rated for heat ?
- What other uses do chillies have ?
- How did you get into chillies?
- Why are chillies addictive?
- How do i dry chillies?
- How do you smoke chillies?
- What are your favourite chillies?
- Do i need to "pinch out" my plants?
- My chilli plants were in plastic pots - why?
- What is nettle feed? Why do you use it?
What are chilli peppers ?
Peppers have been cultivated for thousands of years by peoples in central and South America from times back to around 7000BC. There are now around 2500-3000 known varieties ranging from a bell pepper with no heat right up the the amazing Trinidad Scorpion, currently the hottest variety in the world.
Chilli, pepper, chili, chile.... are all spellings for plants and pots of the Capsicum (from the greek “kapto” meaning to bite) genus. Chilli peppers are closely related to tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes!
Spellings vary, although its usually chili in America and chilli in Europe. We tend to use chilli as its the easiest to remember and is common in the UK.
There are five domesticated species which are as follows : Annuum, Baccatum, Chinense, Frutescens and Pubescens. There are also 20+ wild species. As for varieties there are literally thousands as cross pollination is rife!
Capsicum Annuum – Annuum means “annual” which is a little incorrrect as chillies are perennials. This is the most common species and includes the standard Bell Pepper, Cayenne, Cherry Bomb, De Arbol, Jalapeno, Numex (New Mexican), Paprika, Serrano, Squash and Wax pod types.
Most of the chillies grown in the UK are Annuums.
Capsicum Baccatum – Baccatum means “berry like” and includes varieties known as Aji's. Many of the baccatum varieties are tree like, tall plants with yellow spots on the flowers (corollas).
Capsicum Chinense - Chinense means “chinese” - However this species originated in South American. It includes the very hot varieties such as Scotch Bonnets and Habaneros. Very satisifying to grow but fairly temperamental as they are slow to germinate and take ages to fruit.
Habanero Orange plants (a variety from the chinense species)
Capsicum Frutescens – Frutescens means “bushy”. These plants are compact and only grow to a few feet high so great for containers. Plants are extremely prolific and include varieties such as Tabasco, Bangalore Torpedo, Japones, African Birdseye, Apache etc
Capsicum Pubescens – Pubescens means “hairy”. These species is the rarest as it has no wild form and the domesticated species cannot cross pollinate with other species.. They are vine like and sprawling plants with apple shaped pods. Common varieties include “Rocoto's” from Peru. Can be difficult to grow in our climate and not very prolific.
Will my chilli plants last over the winter?
Yes. Chilli pepper plants are perennials and will last many a year if the right conditions are given. Plants which have been over-wintered will give you a great head start in the new year as mature plants already have the basic structure and will produce early flowers and crops.
For best results, at the end of the season :
Remove all mature and dead chilli pods
Cut the plant right back removing any dead stems and brown leaves. You can cut it back right to a stump about 4-5 inches high.
Provide a stable environment where the temperature drops no lower than 10 degrees Celsius. A hard frost will kill chilli plants as they would normally grow in an environment such as Mexico or India. They cannot take a harsh frost – the water molecules in the root system expand and basically kill the plant. So leaving in a greenhouse outside over the winter is not good enough!
Water occasionally. The soil needs to be moist to the touch but not wet or bone dry!
In the spring the plant will come back to life. Don't assume its dead!!
However... the success of over wintering largely depends on variety. Of the five species (Annum, Chinense, Frutescens and Pubescens), we would recommend Pubescen varieties such as Rocotos. It all depends on the conditions - we are on our third year Dorset Nagas, Apaches and Numex Twilights.
If you can successfully over-winter a very hot variety such as a Habanero or Scotch Bonnet, then year 2 plants will be much more prolific than year one plants.
How are chilli peppers measured for heat?
Chilli peppers contain a chemical compound called Capsaicin.
When you eat a chilli this chemical binds with the pain receptors in your mouth and throat which are responsible for sensing heat! The brain responds by making you sweat and your eyes stream! The heat of chilli peppers is measuring using the “Scoville scale” which was developed in 1912 by an American chemist called Wilbur L Scoville.
It basically measures the number of times a chilli extract must be diluted in water to effectively lose its heat. Bell peppers rank at 0, Jalapeno's around 6000, Cayennes at around 30000 right up to Habaneros and Scotch Bonnets around 300000. The hottest chilli pepper is the Carolina Reaper which measures over 1.7 million on the scale.
Carolina Reaper pod
On the different species Annuums measure up to 100000 Scoville units, Baccatum – up to 35000 units, Chinense – Up to 1000000!, Frutescens – up to 150000 and Pubescens – up to 50000 units. Pure Capsaicin measures about 15000000 units and is used in police pepper sprays! It has no flavour, no colour, odour and is extremely powerful.
In India, the Capsaicin from hot peppers are used to keep elephants away from humans! Capsaicin does not effect birds though, only mammals.
The Capsaicin in a chilli is found not in the seeds but in the membrane or placental tissue that holds the seeds in place.
When preparing chillies (cutting/dicing etc), we would advise wearing gloves and preferably some form of eye protection. Cutting chillies with barehands will result in a feeling which can be best compared to sunburn on your fingers. Who be tide anyone who tries to touch sensitive areas such as the eye! (ouch).
If you have a mouthful of chilli fire – forget water/lager.. you need something containing fats such as milk, yoghurt etc. If you are vegan try Soya Milk, coconut milk or Cashew nuts. Capsaicin does not dissolve in water!
If you get chilli-hand then try scrubbing your hands with sea-salt and then wash them with milk or vegetable oil. You can also try using a comfrey / chickweed / Witch hazel lotion or cream which also dissapates the burn. Aloe Vera lotion/gel is by far the best thing we have ever tried but even then, it's not an instant fix!
What other uses do chillies have?
Apart from their culinary uses, chilli plants are also grown for their ornamental uses for example the beautiful Numex Twilight which has up-growing pods in a variety of colours and is brilliant for livening up a dull border or container.
Numex Twilight plant
Red chilis contain high amounts of vitamin C and carotene. Yellow and especially green chilis (which are essentially unripe fruit) contain a considerably lower amount of both substances. In addition, peppers are a good source of most B vitamins, and vitamin B6 in particular. They are very high in potassium and high in magnesium and iron.
Pods are also dried and ground up and used in homeopathy to make a muscle rub for athletes as well as used for treating arthritus and headaches etc
Pods should not be eaten whole and not by people suffering from IBS or similar conditions.
Chilli pods are supposable also used to ward of evil spirits. Dont hold us to that last one though - (otherwise our chilli farm must be one of the safest places in the country!!)
How did you get into chillies?
Once upon ago we used to run a plant nursery. Unfortunately due to restrictions from the National Park authority on not being able to have visitors we were limited to markets and mail order. We found that herbs grew too fast and shrubs and perennials could be purchased from any garden centre.
We thought what can we do? We have 8 acres but most of it is moorland and not suitable for growing crops, so a commercial setup selling rhubarb or another fruit crop wouldn't generate enough income to be viable.
Phil has always been a chilli head. He grew chillies on his balcony at university, so this seemed the natural thing to try. In our first year we grew 30 varieties, then 50 and so on. We now grow over 100 varieties - although we have our favourites. One's which grow well in our climate.
Our growing tunnels
Aswell as chillies, we also grow a variety of fruits and vegetables so where possible we can use these ingredients in our sauces and chutneys, meaning very low food miles.
We are always working on new recipes and new uses for chillies and our range has expanded every year.
We are alot poorer than we used to be but on the other hand, alot happier!
We use our Blackcurrants in our blackcurrant chilli sauce and chilli jam
Why are chillies addictive?
To put it simply, when you eat a chilli, your brain releases endorphins into your bloodstream (to combat the pain receptors). When it realises that you haven't lost an arm or leg, the pain subsides leaving the endorphins. This is known as the chilli high.
Unfortunately as you get used to chillies, you need more and more heat to get the "kick". This is largely the reason why chillies are addictive. It works in the same way as chocolate - another stimulant. This is probably why chilli chocolate works so effectively.
How do i dry chillies ?
How chillies dry, largely depends on the variety. You can easily dry chillies indoors over a woodburner. We use net bags (such as onion bags) and dry Cayenne / Apache's easily within a couple of weeks.
If you have a Rayburn or Aga, you can dry chillies on the bottom compartment which maintains a steady low heat.
It is possible to dry chillies in a conventional oven.
However it is easy to burn them. If you have alot of chilli pods to dry, we would advise getting a dryenator. This device made up of enclosed racks allows you to easily dry pods using warm air circulation.
On thicker skinned varieties, we would advise to freeze them instead. In warmer countries they hang chillies in strings called ristra's but this is not really suitable in the UK as it is too wet. The chillies are likely to dry erratically and this leads to rot.
How do you smoke chillies?
We are new to smoking chillies and have found it to be a learning experience.
Originally we tried to hot smoke our chillies but found this was not suitable as too many pods were burnt. So it was back to the drawing board. Cold smoking fresh pods is better as it seems to suck in more flavour than hot smoking.
We purchased a cold smoker unit called a ProQ which is a small square metal base which looks like a maze. You fill it with wood smoking dust (such as Apple wood or Hickory) and then light a tealight and place it under the unit. The wooddust catches fire and smoke is produced.
We moved onto a upturned metal dustbin with racks inside for the chillies. This worked ok BUT too much smoke was lost into the polytunnel. We smoke our chillies inside a polytunnel as it is an open area but outside. It also means that no wind can affect the smoker.
We then moved onto trying to find a fridge instead which we successfully found on Freecycle. The fridge was steam cleaned. It is an undercounter unit designed for use in a trade kitchen such as a chip shop. It has no freezer compartment and therefore just has four trays.
We drilled holes in the top of the fridge, sides and door. Fresh chillies are sliced and put on the shelves. The ProQ is then put on a baking tray and lit. Because it is a fridge and has metal sides, floor and inner roof, there is no chance of fire. The door seal keeps the smoke inside the unit and the drilled holes allow some smoke to escape but also allows for air circulation.
We tend to triple smoke the pods which takes about 10 hours. We then use the freshly smoked pods straight in our Chipotle sauce.
There are lots of other smokers available. Some of the best are Bradley Smokers in Totnes, Devon. These smokers allow you to regulate the heat/amount of smoke. Unfortunately due to the fact we are offgrid, we simply do not have the power for a conventional smoker unit.
The ProQ cold smoker is available from MACSBBQ: ( www.macsbbq.co.uk )
We have found a very helpful website for wood dust to be www.smokedust.co.uk
What are your favourite chillies?
We are primarily growers, so our favourite chillies are ones which grow well in our climate.
On the sweet peppers, we have found best results with Sweet Cherry and Sweet Banana. Both of these peppers seem to be tolerant to attacks from pests. They are also very prolific. Another favourite is Yellow Wax which is similar to Hungarian Hot wax, but with no heat.
Hungarian Hot Wax
On the mild varieties, our favourites are Numex Centennial which is a
compact colourful variety. It can be a little erratic to germinate but once it does, it is a very pretty plant which is fine for both culinary and ornamental uses. We also like Bolivian Rainbow – another colourful and very unusual variety.
Other prolific mild types are the humble Jalapeno, Bulgarian Carrot, Fresno and Cherry Bomb. All of which grow really well in the UK climate (in polytunnel/greenhouses – don't put them outside. It is just too wet)
On the medium and hot varieties, our favourites are the Cayenne types such as Ring of Fire, Cayenne Red. These are extremely prolific and grow really well, producing thick bushes with masses of pods. Ring of Fire chillies are used in many of our sauces. They are also easy to dry and brilliant for smoking.
Ring of Fire pods
If you want a stunning medium variety which is good to heat, you could consider Fairy Lights. This is a brilliant ornamental with multicoloured pods.
We also love the Apache chilli. Really easy to grow, produces massive numbers of pods and very hardy. A perfect window sill plant.
Apache in pot
Also in the hot varieties, Aji Lemon is a cracker. It produces bright yellow pods which taste citrusy. It is also quite unusual but grows well in an unheated polytunnel.
Three other hot varieties we love include Superchilli (a great all rounder), Jamaican Yellow (which tastes of pineapple but will blow your mind) and Jamaican Red (which looks like a large Scotch Bonnet and is very fiery). The latter two we have grown for the first time in 2011. Both of which will be grown in more numbers next season as they have done really well.
On the superhots, one of our favourite is the Dorset Naga. Developed in Dorset from a Bangladesh strain of chilli. It is unofficially the hottest chilli ever recorded. It grows really well and extremely prolific. The pods grow mostly at the bottoms of the plants so it is worthwhile to restrain the foliage above, so that the pods can get some light.
We also love the Habanero Fatalli. (A superhot yellow variety from Africa), Habanero Paper Lantern (magnificent lantern shaped pods and extremely prolific) and the Habanero Orange.
Fresh Habanero Fatali chillies
If we had to narrow it down to just one chilli per category, this would be really tough but here goes :
Sweet Pepper – Red Cherry
Mild Chilli – Bulgarian Carrot
Medium – Fairy Lights (ornamental), Ring of Fire (culinary), Aji Lemon (culinary)
Fairy Lights chillies
Very Hot – Jamaica Red
Extreme – Habanero Paper Lantern
Overall........Phil's favourite chilli is the Paper Lantern. Kay's favourite... Fairy Lights. Both are medium / hot varieties. Extremely prolific, easy to grow.... say no more!!
(Habanero Paper Lantern)
Do i need to pinch out my chilli plants?
The idea behind pinching out the growing tips of plants is to encourage plant growth and increase yield.
However we find that it largely depends on the species.
Capsicum Annuums, into which the majority of varieties are included , will benefit from having the tips pinched out. This is only a general rule. If it is a compact or dwarf variety, it is not necessary.
Baccutums which are fairly tall plants anyway, will increase in bushyness if the tips are pinched out.
Pubescens tend to sprawl, you can pinch out to restrict this.
Chinense and frutescens are bushy in habit anyway and do not require pinching.
In general, we do not pinch out our plants with the rare exception of those plants which grow too tall and we wish to encourage lateral growth.
What is nettle feed? Why do you use it?
You can buy a specialist chilli feed which is very good. However we use something which is completely free and in abundance in most gardens and fields.
To make :
1) Put on some gloves
2) Find your nettles - opt for younger, more tender stems if possbile.
3) Cut the nettles about 12 inches from the tip
4) Bash them up a bit - if you cut the nettles with a strimmer this is good or break them up with your hands trying not to get stung. (hence the gloves)
5) Put them in a muslin bag or string bag (any bag with holes in should be ok)
6) Fill a dustbin of water
7) Find a large stone
8) Put the full bag into the bucket and put the stone on the top to stop it floating and put the lid on top
9) Leave for 2-3 weeks.
After a few weeks, you'll have the most wonderful liquid feed full of nitrogen and other nutrients which your chillies and other plants will love. You can tell when its ready as it will start to get a bit smelly!
Drain the mush off the top and remove the bag. You will need to dilute it with water to a ratio of around 1:10 before feeding it to your plants.
Fantastic natural feed. Also by feeding nettle feed to your chillies, you will also attract Ladybirds, which are brilliant for controlling aphids and greenfly.