A spicy lesson: growing the world’s hottest peppers - gardenstead Skip to content

A spicy lesson: growing the world’s hottest peppers

When the seed catalogues roll into my mailbox, it’s the hot pepper section that I’m most excited to peruse. 

Peppers varieties like cayenne and jalapeños, that are considered somewhat “mild” on the spectrum of hot peppers are what I gravitate toward growing. I like my crops to “work for me” or in other words, are versatile in the kitchen so I can use them in numerous ways. Fresh on pizza? Yep. Dried out and made into chili flakes? Definitely. 

But three summers ago… I had a very spicy learning experience. 

This story starts in July, well into the growing season in my zone 5 location with my garden already rooted and growing nicely. I usually grow everything in my garden from seed. It’s not a large garden (roughly about 12.5 ft x 20 ft) so I like to research and meticulously plan what to grow. There wasn’t really any room left for more planting but a deal too good to pass up came along.  

I had “innocently” popped into Richters Herbs, my favorite herb store and my favorite employee was working. They were having a huge seedling sale, $1 a seedling, and encouraged me to fill up an entire flat with vegetable and herb seedlings for ONLY $1 for the WHOLE flat. I am only human! There were so many and she knew they’d be going to a good home and would be composted otherwise. 

I blindly grabbed seedlings, mostly tomatoes and peppers, not reading their labels, but knowing I was taking many varieties that I’d never heard of. Trouble!

Enjoying my plant shopping spree high, driving home in the car, I read aloud to my husband the kinds I had blindly picked. “Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomato.” “Speckled Roman tomato.” “Golden Greek Pepperoncini pepper”  “Butt-Joe-Low-Key-A pepper.” My husband turned to look at me… “what kind!?” 

Even with mangling my initial pronunciation of their name … and he’s not a gardener…. he had heard of them. The pepper was called: Bhut Jolokia

Him: “Those are ghost peppers. I think they’re one of the world’s spiciest peppers.”

Me: “Oh! Well, I got two of them!” 

Him: “I think people even handle the plant with gloves on.”

Me: “Oh my!”

Every pepper is measured by something called the “scoville heat unit” (SHU). Jalapeños can range from about 30,000 to 50,000 scovilles and the Bhut Jolokia (or my phonetical: Butt-Joe-Low-Key-A) pepper plants that were sitting in my lap clock in at approximately 1,041,427 SHU

Fast forward: I find a place to plant them and start researching… thinking, how the heck am I supposed to use these? I came across an article about a man who ate a hamburger smothered in Bhut Jolokia sauce that was called: “Man who tried to eat world’s hottest pepper burned a HOLE in his throat – and now relies on a feeding tube.” How creditable the story is… who knows…. but still, a very scary thought. I think they were the world’s spiciest pepper in 2007.

I shared my thoughts on social media and a handful of people responded with personal stories about pepper burn, one friend having had a burn that lasted 12 hours. 

How I used them:

Lacto-Fermented Hot Sauce:

Nervously and with surgical gloves on, I processed a bunch of the peppered into a lacto-fermented hot sauce. After processing, I scrubbed down the counters, cupboards and floors with my dog in mind. I was legit scared! The AIR was spicy while making this! Fermenting helps to take away some of the spice so what I ended up with was a sauce that one mere tablespoon elevated my winter soups to the next level.

Homemade Chili Flakes:

I roasted whole pepper – low and slow in the oven and then grinded them up in the food processor. Compared to the fermented sauce, this was a less invasive process. You don’t need to chop up the pepper, releasing the oils (that’s where the spice actually lives!) to the air. Just wash ‘em and roast ‘em.

We also did have a little bit of fun with them…

“Pepper Roulette":

We dropped a teeny tiny piece onto homemade pizza – cooked it and cut it and ate carefully with an eye on each other to see which lucky person got the slice with the ghost pepper. It was me. A mouth on fire and my eyes watering but it could have been worse!

The moral of this story is to be thoughtful when picking out which peppers you want to grow. The heat packed into their little bodies can be huge and no joke. Unless you’re ready for the heat, pick pepper varieties that don’t scare you and grow ones that you will actually use in the kitchen.

Here are a few varieties of peppers that I recommend, that won’t burn a hole in your throat!

  • Cayenne

  • Lemon Spice Jalapeño

  • Nadapeno 

  • Sugar Rush Peach

  • Shishito 

  • Banana

  • Hungrian Hot Wax

  • Habanada

yellow petaled flower by elias sorey unsplash

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