POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) -- Most American gardeners growing peppers favor the sweet or bell varieties, leaving only a daring few people to flirt with fire. For risk-takers, however, there are many hot varieties out there to challenge their burn-endurance.
What's the thrill in pepper pain? Some psychologists think it's a macho thing, but safer -- something like riding a roller coaster. But aficionados also enjoy a pleasurable sensation as the pain fades.
Heat, to be sure, got peppers their name in one of plant history's noted cases of mistaken identity.
As everyone knows, Columbus believed he had landed in the East Indies when he reached America. So he thought the hot chilies native Americans were growing were a form of the black pepper spice found in India. The plants are not related, but the misnomer stuck to the vegetable contributed by the New World.
Botanically, we distinguish them by Capsicum frutescens for the American pepper and Piper nigrum for the India or true pepper used in the shaker.
A gardener wanting heat might do well to start with a milder variety of chili. Anaheim is a mild one that I have raised for years in my garden, attracted by the zesty taste and by the bright reddish colors it achieves as it ages.
Looking for sharper palate shock, you can move forward in degrees of heat until you reach the hellish habanero, regarded as the hottest garden-grown pepper. In-between kinds include Hungarian, sandias, cayennes and jalapenos.
Accurate judging of the degree of heat in peppers is not child's play. Since taste is relative, ultimately depending on the individual taster, experts devised elaborate tests to try to pin down just how hot a given pepper might be.
One school embraced rigorously supervised tests subjecting tasters to increasingly diluted shot-glasses of pepper extract. The pepper needing the most water to neutralize the heat was judged the hottest. The rating is called the Scoville scale after scientist W.L. Scoville who had the idea in 1912. Under that scale, the infernal habanero has a rating of 150,000 compared to a mere 1,500 to 4,500 for the pretty hot jalapeno.
But other experts viewed the Scoville scale as still too dependent on the human palate and turned to computers to measure the intensity of the chemical compound "capsaicin" that makes peppers hot. Under a process called high pressure liquid chromatogrophy, the capsaicin parts can be determined per million.
Cut into a pepper and you'll find the capsaicin residing in the whitish ridges inside, the part where the seeds cling. This is also known as the placental tissue and experiments have shown that the ratio of capsaicin in the tissue is 100 compared to six in the rest of the fruit and four in the seeds. It is present in all peppers, but in much greater quantities in chilies.
As many of us have found out, removing this tissue from a hot pepper entails risk. Wear rubber gloves, use a sharp knife and don't rub your eyes. Bear in mind that capsaicin is the stuff used in anti-mugger sprays.
Long popular among Mexicans and Indians in our Southwest, hot peppers have found increasing favor mainstream. Chili con carne is marketed in various degrees of heat.
Growing peppers is quite easy, but if you're interested in the hot varieties you usually have to start from seeds.
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